On Loneliness

I had a catastrophe in my dorm room today. No, nothing caught on fire, I didn’t find bedbugs (don’t worry Mom ), and no drunk Russian man broke in and stole that cursed 5,000 ruble bill that I can’t spend.* No, the catastrophe was, drumroll please…my internet went out. Two weeks ago, after a month of living in cafes where people stared at me like a zoo animal while I spoke English, I was finally able to get internet installed in my room. Of course, this was wonderful for lesson planning, but the main reason I was so elated was that internet +Skype=connection to family and friends. Now, I have been told by many well-meaning people throughout the years that while studying or working abroad, it is best to keep communication with those from your “other life” to a minimum. The general underpinning of this view is “be here now” philosophy, the assumption that spending too much time interacting with those back home will inhibit you from inhabiting your new space to the deepest and fullest. This may be true for some people, but throughout my many times studying in Russia, I have found that it is actually communication with those back home that enables me to experience life abroad to the fullest: while I am clumsily stumbling through the stages of adjustment to a foreign culture, encouraging words from those who know me best have a stabilizing effect. And as a person who battles depression and anxiety, these connections to home are truly lifelines.

At first I accepted my internet modem’s caprice gracefully. I cooked some pasta and made my own mushroom, garlic, and tomato sauce (I’ve been inspired to actually cook since I visited the wonderful Hanna in Naberezhniye Chelny), and opened my Bible to Philippians, which I had been encouraged to read after watching, yes, a sermon on loneliness on YouTube yesterday. After eating and praying a little, I began to languidly review Russian proverbs and a Marina Tsvetaeva poem for my lesson tomorrow, the familiar gnawing of knowing I was alone starting to get to me. I decided to try the internet again, but desperately clicking the icon over and over just made me more and more frustrated.

The now familiar frantic tears started to sting my eyes, and my next action showed how great my desperation was: I found the number for customer service and I actually called it. Now, those of you who know me well know that I absolutely hate making phone calls…in English. Unless it is a close friend or family member, I get very nervous, even writing down notes of what I want to say beforehand. So calling a customer service line in Russian was a true mark of desperation. It was actually in the midst of all this emotional grabbing for connection that I had a linguistic victory. I explained my situation to the woman on the other line, and she actually understood me. And what’s more, as she explained the steps of what I needed to do, I actually understood most of what she was saying! I got off the phone with the issue still unresolved, but my mood had been lightened by the whole experience.

The past few weeks, I have felt like my Russian has actually been getting worse, but from experience, I know that this is a natural dip in the process. Two summers ago when I participated in CLS, it was right about this far into the program that I felt that my linguistic performance was decreasing. It was encouraging to have an objective, real-life situation confirm that I haven’t reverted to po-toddler-ski. So with my mood a bit lifted, I finished my Russian homework, wrote a lesson plan, and decided to try the internet just one more time. And this time, it worked…and this, my friends, is how life works in a country called Russia.

It is true, losing the internet for half a day can hardly be considered a catastrophe, and if I’m honest with myself, I am probably far too dependent on it, but experiences like this highlight just how scared I am to be alone. Living in Russia has forced me to grapple daily with this fear, and although I have struggled with loneliness at other times in my life, it cuts sharper here in Russia, because as humans, we tend to define ourselves in relation to others. When there is a natural, deep connection between humans, whether through family or friendship or nationality, it is easier to feel comfortable in one’s own skin, your perception of the world reinforced by those around you, your hopes that you are a kind or giving or witty person reflected by those who affirm those qualities in you. But in a foreign country, communication which in your homeland is as easy as breathing becomes full of schisms and misunderstandings and awkward clashes of perception. You are the other, and you feel that if there was at least one other, you would be okay. This is why it was so refreshing to see Hanna(see my previous post), who, although I hadn’t known for a very long time, understood me on a level that I hadn’t felt understood for quite a while.

George Bernard Shaw said that “the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I believe that this illusion of communication often occurs not only in the cross-cultural realm, but within one’s own culture. Although it is manifested much more subtly in one’s native culture, I believe that there is always something lost in translation, and this inability to be understood is one of the reasons that humans struggle with loneliness. One of our greatest desires is to be understood to the core, yet this is virtually impossible, since we interpret others’ words and trials through the filter of our own frameworks.

I know that my struggle with loneliness is not unique here and that going home will not cure it; it is something I have struggled with even when surrounded by those who love me. I am starting to think that perhaps facing loneliness in such in intense way right now is actually a blessing in disguise. I have been forced to come face to face with my fear and to find that it has not destroyed me. I have run to God and found comfort in His word and encouragement to be strong and courageous, confident that He loves me and will be with me in all circumstances. I have begun to realize that so often, I expect too much from human connection, expecting conversation and empathy to fulfill a deep spiritual need that no person should be expected to fill. I have come face to face with one of my greatest fears, and as I continue to fight with the Lord at my side, the terror of being unknown by another human is starting to slowly lessen. Human connection is a beautiful thing, a facet of humanity that reflects the image of God, but I realize that I cannot turn human connection into an idol that pushes Him to the side. So no, I am not happy that I feel lonely, but I am beginning to be thankful for the loneliness, because I am confident that, as the Apostle Paul said in Romans 8, God uses these trials for good in my life, to bring growth and freedom and to make me more like Christ.

*Russian cashiers HATE breaking 5,000 ruble bills (or they actually don’t have the change). Most of the time they’ll just glare at you and tell you they won’t do it.

They Call it Culture Shock

It comes most noticeably at first in the assault of your senses: in the din of new sounds flooding your ears, in the thick scent of lead paint that varnishes university walls, in the bright colors of houses that contrast with the crumbling roads and mud-splattered Ladas. It comes secondly in trying to navigate the unwritten rules, those elusive laws you clumsily grasp for when you sit squished by babushkas in a marshrutka, hoping that this time you won’t give the driver a reason to yell at you.

But finally and most deeply, it comes in the subtle strains, in the interaction with a teacher where you both spoke the same language but could not find an общий язык. Despite the fact that the syllables coming out of your mouths code for meaning, by the time the message gets through the filters of culture and intonation and dialect it is sterilized, lifeless. And despite the fact that you stand face to face with each other and her voice is crisp and clear, the meaning is as garbled as words underwater.

In this proverbial game of telephone, you become acquainted with the isolation that comes from a lack of true connection. Every other time you have come to this place, you have had the ability of precise, implicit communication with those from your culture. You took for granted the взаимопонимание, the mutual understanding, because you didn’t realize how similar you actually were. You thought you were wildly different from each other, so different that you would have never become friends had you lived alongside one another in your own country.

And now that there you are the only one, you realize that you are more American than you thought. You had always thought that you didn’t fit into your own culture, with its bustle and extroversion and entrepreneurial spirit. You thought all this when you straddled the chasm between Russia and America, holding tight to the hands of the Americans who came with you to this land while trying to grasp just as tightly the hands of these mystery people who had fascinated you for half your life. And you thought that if you kept letting yourself be pulled in both directions you would split, so you let go of the American hands.

As soon as you let go, you found yourself being dragged over hills, scraping across rocky paths, now using your free hand to wave for help, frantically looking back at the place you left. You now realize that the hands you let go of were hands like yours, and as you are pulled across new terrain, you are lonely. You note the irony, for your eyes were always on the Russians even as the Americans were holding your hand, and now you look at the horizon of nine months and sigh.

But the Russians like to say that hope dies last, and you agree, so you grasp even tighter to these foreign hands, no longer using your free hand to wave for help but to hold on to new hands tighter, knowing that you will be cut and bruised by this rocky terrain but having faith that this road will bring you somewhere breathtaking.

You Are Not Your Picture

I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.

Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.

We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures.  Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.

On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”

My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.

As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.

Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.

But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.

A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.

A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.

A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.

As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.

Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.

A Lyrical Life

I’ve never been able to understand why my dad listens to oldies. To me, they all sound like the same guitar-driven rock with scratchy-voiced singers, and I would much prefer silence to the voices of Bob Dylan and Thin Lizzy. My friends have never been able to understand why I listen to Russian techno-pop. To them, it all sounds like the same foreign blabber set to an overly excited electronic beat. Oldies mean nothing to me, and Russian music means nothing to my friends, but to my dad and me, our favorite songs consist of so much more than melodies and refrains.

It was the first time I was away from my parents on my mission trip to Russia. I watched wide-eyed out the car window as twenty-one year old Natasha whipped through the foreign city with three other Americans and me in tow. This unsupervised adventure led by my newfound Russian friend was the first time I discovered the freedom of being on my own. As we sped past wild drivers, poorly-fashioned carnival rides and broken beer bottles on the side of the road, the booming of syncopated Russian pop shot adrenaline into my thirteen year-old veins. When I returned to America with only a CD and a photo album as relics of my time there, I found myself clinging to Russian music to return to the raw freedom of speeding through that foreign city with the windows rolled down.

I loved those poorly written songs because they were keys to the past that I had full control over; with the push of a button or click of a mouse, I could transport myself to my first adventures in Russia.

But I have found that although songs wield the power to transplant us to a dimension outside the present, we cannot always trust that this dimension accurately reflects the reality of the past.  So often, in my desire for my story to be organized in a singable box, I conflate my actual experiences with the lyrics on the radio.

I don’t think Taylor Swift is so successful because her lyrics are unique; I believe she is successful because her lyrics appeal to the desire for a neatly wrapped understanding of both the joy and chaos of relationships. Without fail, her songs show only one perspective of the relationship, and as we belt out “I knew you were trouble,” and “You’re just another picture to burn,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that in every relational breakdown, there are two sides to the story, two sides that are usually more complicated than three minutes can do justice to.  And as we get caught up in the grandiosity of the radio blaring a song that makes everything seem so clear-cut, we simplify our lives; we shave off the bumps and inconsistencies and paradoxes.

(Although I’m often tempted to believe that this song was written just for me…)

Sometimes, though, this simplification of reality has its benefits. There is a mysterious unity in the singing of the National Anthem; Americans of all political persuasions and beliefs are connected by something larger than themselves. After the National Anthem is sung, fans at a baseball game will inevitably split into the rival groups of Red Sox versus Yankees, but for that one minute before the game, not one person will dispute that the ground on which they are standing is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

My study abroad group sophomore year was full of  wonderful people, with whom many I am still close friends with. However, many of my groupmates found that their personalities mixed as well as matches and dynamite.  After a tense semester full of misunderstanding and hurt, most of us thought we would be glad to part ways when the trip came to an end.  On our way to the airport though, someone suggested that we sing “All-Star.” Home seemed closer than ever now, and it seemed fitting to celebrate with a good old American song that we all grew up with.  As we belted out, “Hey now, you’re an all-star,” a sense of mutual understanding took over our cramped little van and outshouted our differences, relieving the four-month long tension. And for just that moment, no one would deny that we were friends.

A well-loved song doesn’t only have the power to unify people, but to unify experiences, giving a sense of steadiness as life changes. On a bumpy Russian road as a slightly chubby twelve year-old, scared to death about the mission trip that lay ahead, I held a silver Walkman and listened to lyrics that would become one of those steady comforts. The gentle voice of Erin O’Donnell reassured me with the words, “And I know that someday soon, you’ll make sense of this despair, and your love, your love, will get me there.”

Since that night ten years ago, this song has been what I like to call a “Bethel.” In Genesis 28, Jacob lies down to sleep at an unknown place after fleeing his homeland, and he receives a vision from God. Upon awakening, Jacob falls down in worship and christens the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” saying “God was in this place and I did not know it.” He pours oil on the rock he had used as his pillow, anointing the place as a reminder of the faithfulness of Yahweh.  Likewise, that Erin O’Donnell song is a milestone that I come back to again and again when I need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness in my own life.

C.S. Lewis describes the longing for transcendence, for intimacy beyond what this world allows, with the German word sehnsucht. Certain songs evoke this sehnsucht, and while on one hand they point us to the Creator, they also strike us with our state of loneliness in a fallen world. A favorite Russian song of mine goes, “Ask me to come with you. I will go through the evil night. I will send myself after you, so that the road doesn’t prophesy the way I should go.” These words sound brittle, awkward in my native tongue, but in Russian, their poetic cadence draws me to worship God, the melancholy melody reminding me both of life’s transience and the gift Christ has given us in overcoming it. But again, this song-induced sehnsucht doesn’t always bring that joyful hope in God; sometimes it calls out, “If only someone else could understand exactly how I do when I hear this song, then I would be filled.” To everyone I know, “Ask Me to Come with You” sounds like a typical over-sentimental ballad, and this hurts. And for now, I am alone in my song, alone in a fallen world where barriers to intimacy are rarely broken.

It is in these visceral responses of loneliness and discontent that songs prove that we are made in the image of God. One author mused that the human soul is too vast to fit in the present. One of the things that sets us apart from animals is our ability to remember the past and to imagine the future. In this sense, songs are a constant reminder of our humanity, propelling us to the awe of the first time abroad as a teenager or prompting us to picture what life might be like after we leave this earth. Songs are not life, and we shouldn’t try to constrain our lives into a ten song soundtrack. But songs do reflect life and vivify life and point to the Giver of life, and sometimes they are just what we need to realize that our souls are vaster than we have dared to hope.

Letters to a Striving Daughter

Romans 7:23

But I see another law at work in me, waging war

against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner

 of the law of sin at work within me.

Dear daughter, it wasn’t long ago that I watched you in the kitchen, raspberry mop top framing your distressed face as you strained to sound out the word on the page. You stopped and started a few times, flustered at your shameful failure. “Dad, can you please tape over this!” you pleaded to your earthly father. At four years old, the seeds of sin were already taking root inside you; fear was sprouting in your heart, the fear that you were not, and would never be “good enough.” You, my darling, have been a perfectionist for almost your whole life. This is your signature sin. This is the prominent filthy rag of all your supposed righteousness. It is the vice that makes me weep with compassion when I see your contorted face and hopeless sobs, for your mind is diseased, blind to the truth when the weeds choke your thoughts to death.

Isaiah 30:15a

In repentance and rest is your salvation,

in quietness and trust is your strength.

    

You are miserable because your eyes are on yourself. I was with when you spoke the lies, “I am worthless. I have nothing to offer.” These words snaked into your vulnerable mind as you read the frank comments that the program assistant had typed onto your essays for the Fulbright competition.

“A lot of work needs to be done! Lacks enthusiasm. Too dry. Work on style.” You took each of those comments as a harsh attack when they were merely meant as a push in the right direction. You were so easily wounded because your eyes were not on me; your ambitions and self-concept and self-esteem and every self-ish word in the English language was usurping the throne in your heart. You had quite the puppet government going, when you said with your lips that I was your King but muted my commands and affections for those of a crass, snorting dictator. My darling, you are miserable because this is not the purpose for which I made you. It does not matter if you are inarticulate or unintelligent in comparison to other human beings; such adjectives are not the measure of a man or a woman. In fact, I don’t measure you like you believe I do. You try so hard to tiptoe around failure, fearing that if you fail by the standards of “perfection,” I will be ashamed of you, embarrassed to have a daughter with such lazy tendencies. You expect with each “mistake” that I will angrily disown you.

I do not measure you like this. I know that you are dust. I know that you cannot exist without me. I accept you not because of an A on the paper or good reviews at work or your unfailing promptness; I accept you because my son was tortured and died in your place, and for me to ignore his passion in order to focus on your failings would be to spit on his sacrifice. I don’t call you to be “the best” at what you do. I don’t call you to please others. No, I call you to rest and to repent of trying to be me.

Isaiah 55:2

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

 Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and you will delight in the richest of fare.

 

 I know that for the past four years, you have lived in a place where you feel like a recovering alcoholic working at a bar. I know that the evaluative nature of your culture’s concept of school feels like iron chains to someone with your tendencies. When you have to write a paper, depression paralyzes you, because you are convinced that you have to prove yourself again. To your professors. To your peers. To yourself. It is from those around you that you draw your strength; I ache, for you are trying to breathe through a straw when to look to me would allow you to gulp full, fresh breaths. Sometimes their words are enough to sustain you, but like a ration in wartime, it is never enough; the scratchy lump of bread only whets your appetite. If you receive an A on the paper and a contemplative nod from the professor, then you go to bed superficially happy. If, though, you received the dreaded B or blank stare, you question that anything you have ever done is worthwhile. And this, daughter, is the wrong question to ask. Nothing that you do will ever be worthwhile unless it is done in me and through me and for me.

Psalm 127:1a

Unless the Lord builds the house,

the builders labor in vain.

 

On a sleepless night a few months ago, a disturbing caricature formed in your mind. You imagined that you were attending a woman’s funeral, a P.h.D who had achieved immense success. One by one, her boss, colleagues, and son came up to speak about her. Her boss was first. He looked mournfully out into the sea of onlookers.

“She had such a beautiful resume.” He choked up, but continued. “I-I just will never forget the article she wrote on hierarchical binary opposition in Freudian linguistics.” He began to sob and quickly took his seat. Her coworker was next.

“She never missed a day of work in her life.” The coworker sniffled.  “She was prompt, gregarious, and exceeded all our expectations as a member of the organization.” She blew her nose into a white handkerchief and left the podium. Finally, the deceased woman’s son, a young man in his twenties, walked to the microphone.

“My mother was…” his voice trailed off and he bit his lip, a hint of fire in his dark eyes. “My mother was responsible.” His voice held a bitter bite. “My mother was an enthusiastic member of her firm and did everything in her power to contribute to the success of the company. She graduated with honors in her Ph.D. program, received a prestigious research grant to India, and she is venerated as one of the top researchers in America. That, my friends, was my mother.” The son violently shoved the microphone back in its place and stormed out the back door of the funeral home.

This twisted vignette disturbed you, disgusted you, chilled you, all because it revealed how utterly selfish and evil you could become if you give in to the anxious itch to control your destiny and be your own god.

Genesis 11: 4a, 6-7

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city,

with a tower that reaches to the heavens,

so that we may make a name for ourselves…

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same

 language they have begun to do this,

 then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down and confuse their language

 so they will not understand each other.”

 

When you begin to feel your eyes being darkened by the deadlines and responsibilities and self-interest, remember my revelation to you last summer, when I showed you the view from outside the prison of perfectionism. I put your nothingness in perspective in the same way I humbled the proud builders of the tower of Babel, those who strove to make their name known through proud words and relentless work ethic.

I freed you from the fate of idolaters through confusing your language. When you arrived in Russia last summer for your language program, I placed you in the advanced class, where I knew you would be the poorest speaker in your group of six. You stuttered your way through every conversation lesson, feeling like a kindergartener trying to converse with astrophysicists. To your surprise, though, this failure did not shatter your life. In fact, your “failure” freed you to speak boldly and to laugh at your mistakes and to admit that you were human. This was no real failure though; it was a victory, the shattering of your pride by the inability to even feign this slave-driving life-sucker that you call “perfection.” No, my daughter, this messy summer where you failed and leaned on me and laughed and admitted you were human, this was much closer to my standard of perfection than your small and stingy one.

Deuteronomy 33:12

Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him,

for he shields him all day long,

and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.

 

My child, this is ultimately the crux of the matter: you will not stop grabbing at control like a starving prisoner grabs for bread until you believe in my unconditional love. My definition of the word “beloved” is foreign to you, for you have always thought that to receive love, you had to earn it. You accept the love you think you deserve, which is why you tense up and refuse my embrace. You are right in one thing: you don’t deserve my love. Yet in spite of this, I love you. Without condition. You don’t yet see the beauty in this, because you want to be worthy of love. You hate the idea of someone loving you because he has to; you picture a disgruntled husband wishing he could escape the ties that bind but begrudgingly sticking with the wife because of a piece of paper he signed. I am not like that husband. I do not love you for your utilitarian value. So rest in my, my daughter, and do nothing for a while. Do not achieve. Do not strive. Do not write. You are not beloved because of these things. You are simply beloved.