Exactly one year ago, I was in Israel starting my stretching, trying, informing, edifying and ultimately life-changing semester. I choose the word “life-changing” carefully. I was skeptical of the term then, but the working of the Holy Spirit in my heart over the last year is a testimony to the power of the land–or better put, a testimony to the Lord the land proclaims. I’m pulling a post off my old Israel blog (which has long been abandoned, but if you would like to read it, click here) and posting it on this one. I wrote this piece just a couple days before I came home. It was three in the morning and I was nostalgic (in a good way, though). But some thoughts are profound, especially reading them almost a year later. Reading through it, I was tempted to change things, but I decided that would be unwise. Don’t mess with the work of a young, less-experienced writer after the fact, especially if that writer is yourself. The post, titled Old Experiences In Light of New Ones, is below.
Plus, picture! “Solomon’s Pillars” in the Negev, even though they have nothing to do with Solomon. They just name things after David and Solomon just to make them sound legit (see: “Solomon’s Stables,” “David’s Tower,” Solomon’s Pizza,” etc.)
Well everyone, there isn’t much to say other than the semester is almost over and I’m still trying to keep myself from forgetting everything I’ve learned. Such a thing can only end in failure, especially for me. I guess it’s not completely over yet, but as I take my last final tomorrow and allow God to put the finishing touches on this semester, I can’t help but think about how fast everything went. I can’t help but remember how much I’ve learned about Jesus and how much Jesus has shown me about what he demands from the world, and from me.
I realize that some things can’t be described in a short piece of writing, and even fewer things can be described in a blog post written at three in the morning. Still, I think it’s important for me to meditate a little bit on the end. Not necessarily just the ending to this semester, but endings in general, any ending in the history of endings. Most people’s opinions about the end change dramatically the closer they get to it. Usually, when one experiences something stretching and often uncomfortable (like, say, studying in Israel for four months with fourty people they have never met before when they’re a homebody from the American Midwest and have never been to another country other than Canada and have this peculiar problem making friends in a short period of time), they generally look forward to the end as some kind of pressure relief, a chance to snuggle back into what feels good. They see proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and though it may be far off, it’s there, and they can see it, wish for it, hope for it, dream about it. They can imagine what it’s like to leave the dark, damp shaft and walk back into the comfortable and face-warming sunshine.
Please excuse my platutudes in this post; I know I’m rehashing (ha! another cliche) material that has been used ad nauseum (cliche) by other writers (passive voice) for years (cliche). But after studying a lot of random information about Jewish religion/culture/literature and battles and kings and dynasties of the history of Ancient Israel, and then written papers and essays about said topics, my creative well has not received rain in a couple weeks. My writing suffers after such a period. I wouldn’t be surprised if I totally lost my sense of humor soon (assuming I even had one to begin with). Nevertheless, the point remains. People outside the society that they have grown accustomed to long for when they can return to that society. If they realize they can’t return (or worse, don’t want to), they generally go insane and personify exactly what it means to be depraved (Lord of the Flies, if you missed the allusion). But, that is not the case with me. I knew I would eventually return to America, and I have looked forward to that event for a while.
But a strange thing happens next. Just as this person gets close to the light, they realize that it’s different than they remember. No that’s not it, they think. It’s the same light. The same people, the same places, the same home, the same everything. But something is still different. That’s when they realize that they are the thing that is different. Walking through the tunnel did something to them, changed them in some way. Whether it’s for the better or not is irrelevant, and it can’t be determined then anyway. But they are different. And they’ve found that this tunnel has become a new kind of comfort zone, they’ve gotten used to the damp darkness. They’ve become comfortable in the uncomfortable. And this happens to the point when going back to what is comfortable is a different, new, even uncomfortable experience. The tunnel ain’t so bad after all, or maybe that light outside isn’t quite as warm and welcoming as it seemed in my head. That’s when a two-fold problem arises.
At various times in my brief and wondrous life, I’ve thought about writing a story about a high school kid who is mature enough to get what he wants but naive enough to not know exactly what that is. I always imagined him dating a girl for a while. She’s a nice girl, not alarmingly gorgeous or anything, but simple and classy and smart. She’s too good for him, to be honest, but like every generally thoughtless person who has something good, he takes her for granted. I always thought he eventually got bored with her and moved on to the enchanting, smoking hot, even a little promiscuous cheerleader girl (no offense to cheerleaders, this is just what was in my head). Now I know that he moved on to the second, prettier girl because he wanted to try something new, to go for something quite different. But after awhile, he realizes that she isn’t really any better than what he had before. In fact, she is a little worse. But he doesn’t want to go back to the first girl, but he doesn’t really know why. It could be that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself, but it could also be that he doesn’t want to embarrass her. Furthermore, his tastes in girls has changed significantly. But, at the least, he knows that he’s had enough of the edgy girl. So now he’s stuck with no girl, and he can’t figure out whether that’s because he likes both girls or because he doesn’t like either.
You can now see why I’ve never written such a story. But, like Chesterton’s English yactsman, I guess I can use it for the sake of illustration. Our friend in the high school dilemma is in the same position as the man at the end of the tunnel. They are both at the end of something different, and they want/don’t want to enter the thing that is old. They are both afraid that something will be lost from either, maybe something good from the first experience, maybe a lesson from the second. Either way, there is great ambivalence in both. They don’t know what to do.
One lesson I’ve learned in Israel is that things are never as good as they seem nor are they as bad as they seem. Being in Israel seemed like it would be the experience of a lifetime (which it was, but in a different way), and that I would squeeze every moment out of my time here and be perefectly content in the end. Of course that was fantasy. When I was here for a month, all I wanted was to be home with my family, where everything is comfortable and things are predictable and expected. I don’t have to be flexible, I don’t have to adjust. Everything is as I like, or want to like. But of course, I was missing out on what truly was a great experience here. By the grace of God, this attitude didn’t last long, and officially died in my Apathy post about a month ago (though it was in its final stages well before that). But nothing has been quite at the extreme I expected. The only thing that truly exceeded all extremes I could think of was my brief time with my parents, which is honestly already one of the most treasured experiences of my life. That was the one thing that actually was as good as it seemed. But the rest of the time is marked by a longing for the future and a dissatisfaction with the present. I actually realized this while watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda is rebuking Luke, and telling him how he has no patience. “Never his mind on where he was,” Yoda says to Obi-Wan’s spirit, “what he was doing. Hmpf.” This really convicted me, actually. We should definitely show Star Wars clips on a regular basis. There is inspiration in these words.
The two-fold problem I mentioned earlier is this wood between the worlds, where one doesn’t feel comfortble where he is because he wants to go home, but doesn’t feel completely comfortable at home because of how he has changed where he is. It’s the pimply-faced kid without a girlfriend. How does he go back to the society he is comfortable in when he no longer feels comfortable in the comfortable? Or, God forbid, that he goes back to his old, comfortable ways, before he moved into the tunnel. It’s a Catch-22 of the highest degree.
If you haven’t realized it by now, I am the man. Here I am, at the end of the tunnel. What do I do? How do I return home? Should I be myself? What does that mean? How have I changed? For the better? What if I’ve changed for the worse? Then what? Then what, smarty-pants?
Well. It’s now four in the morning. I’m writing this in an e-mail room and I’m getting angsty because I’m already getting worried about the “real world”, things like dorm situations next fall and things like that. This whole essay is like an Ernest Hemingway short story. The point is there is no point. Sorry to ruin it for those of you who read it all. There are no answers, at least none that we can see. This is like the greatest parables of Jesus, the ones that have no endings like the Prodigal Son. The ending is not told, but lived out instead. Real life is the ending. The same is for this post. When I return home, how I act is how this essay is answered. Perhaps I haven’t changed at all (that’s always hard for the person who think’s they’ve changed to gauge). Maybe I’m the same old Andrew Smith who will talk about sports and be sarcastic and make stupid puns and talk about reading and like to annoy people just to see their responses. Maybe none of that will change. It probably won’t. But hopefully something changed. Hopefully, I don’t come back the same Christian that I was when I left. Hopefully, I have a greater impact on those around me for Christ. Hopefully, I am more than a friend, but a brother. I know this is cliche. Ending posts with Christianese is not only safe, it’s almost required. That’s why I don’t like doing it. But my admission will hopefully underscore its necessity all the more. Some things are more important than good endings in essays or literary allusions. This is one of them. The primacy of the gospel and the kingdom of God. This is what is really important. Hopefully, that’s what’s changed the most: that I actually live that and don’t just write it. Then it won’t really matter whether I always feel comfortable (BTW, of course I’ll feel comfortable when I’m home), or whether I’ve really changed. It just won’t matter.