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.

New Every Morning

Saturday, September 28

I stare at the blank white screen, not knowing where to begin. My thoughts are jumbled and constantly moving, as easy to grasp as a handful of water. I don’t know if I should start with the airport that was little more than a hangar: a cement floor surrounded by walls of peeling lead paint. Or if I should tell you about the people I met, from strange characters who could have come straight out of a Dostoevsky novel to the kind women who helped me find my way when I got lost in the city. Maybe I should try to describe the emotions brought on by fatigue and new people, by a foreign culture and a lack of access to constant communication with those I love. But perhaps the best place to start would be with the One whose strength gives me hope in the midst of chaos, whose hand has been abundantly evident in this period of the foggy unknown.

My thoughts are jumbled and I am overwhelmed, but in the midst of overwhelming weakness, He has been faithful and has enveloped me in His love.

My introduction to the university was a whirlwind, after which I felt like I knew even less about what I would be doing than before I arrived. The people I met ranged from silent and detached to exuberant and energetic, but no matter the personality type, each new person seemed overwhelming and scary. While trying to settle into my new home that afternoon, a teacher’s dorm not far from the school, the emotion-charged thought kept attacking me: “What on earth are you doing here! Why did you decide to do this?” The fact that I was going to be here for 9 months started to sink in, and all I could think about was how alone I felt. As I was taking cold medicine, the morbid thought went through my head that if I choked on the pills, no one would find me for at least three days.

I felt desperate for contact with a loved one, and for that I needed Wi-Fi, so I set out into the rainy city, knowing only a vague idea of where I was going. Of course, I got lost. Marshrutkas (minibuses) and I have always had a rocky relationship, so I certainly wasn’t surprised when I jumped on and got in a position on the crammed bus where I couldn’t see out the window. After about 3 stops, I exited the bus and had no idea where I was. I asked a teenage girl for directions to the café I was looking for, and she seemed helpful. Apparently though, I couldn’t follow directions, because I wandered around for another hour, eventually asking someone else. I eventually found Café Shishka (Café Pinecone-great name, right?) and felt like a starving man who had just found a Thanksgiving feast. I went in, ordered smetanik, a distant cousin of cheesecake, and to my relief, was able to get through to my mom on Skype.

After talking with her, I had the task of finding my way back to my dorm. I stopped at a store for a few groceries, and the young woman working there named Irina started a conversation with me. After finding out I was new to the city, she offered me her phone number in case I needed help. Through grateful tears, I accepted, and began the search for my dorm with a bit more hope in my heart. I did finally find it, and I slept 15 hours before venturing out again into the city. This time I avoided public transportation and decided to walk, and after about an hour, I was able to find a telephone store, get internet working on my phone, and find the internet café I had been to the day before. It was here that I was able to connect with a good friend who is also living abroad, and our conversation filled me with encouragement and perspective.

After I hung up the phone, I walked out of the café with the first genuine smile I have shown in the past two days, even giggling a little in joy at the vastness and love and care of God, at his constant holding of my hand in the midst of change, of his abundant gifts in the forms of Irina’s kindness and an internet café and the encouragement of a friend. I have no idea what this week will bring, but I am convinced that God is good and that God is working. I am weak, I am tired, and I am overwhelmed, but I have hope because I believe, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” To Him be the glory in this crazy adventure.

Lamentations 3:22-23

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Sunday, September 29

I walked out into the rain this morning, intent on finding the church I had looked up online. I left a good fifty minutes before the service to give myself time, but lo and behold, the church turned out to be less than a five minute walk from my dorm! I opened the heavy wooden gate with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness, but as soon as I walked in, I was welcomed by the pastor and was soon in a flurry of conversations with women from the church. I was glad I had dressed conservatively: no jewelry and a longish skirt, but I didn’t anticipate that all women were expected to wear head coverings. From my experience in Bryansk, Russia, only married women wore headscarves. I explained my plight and told them I hoped I didn’t offend them, and a stout and exuberant middle-aged woman named Ekaterina told me not to worry about it and gave me an extra scarf.

The pastor asked me to speak a few words to the church about who I was and why I was here, so after the sermon, I walked up to the front of the church and told them about myself and how my family and I had prayed that I would find a church. Echoes of “slava bogu” (praise God!) rang throughout the small building, and Ekaterina even shed a tear. After the service I met a younger woman named Luba who offered to show me around the city next week, and an older woman named Olga invited me to eat with them. They took me to the basement with a few other families from the church, where we ate boiled buckwheat with carrots and chicken, followed by tea with cookies and candy. They asked me lots of questions about America, and they told me a little bit about the history of their church. It is definitely not what I am used to; it is clearly much more conservative than any church I have been to in America, but despite the differences, I felt truly welcomed. As I left, one of the women, Olga, gave me her phone number and told me to call her if I need anything. As I trekked back to the dorm through mud decorated with yellow fall leaves, I thanked God for his provision, for answering my prayers in a way that was abundantly more than I asked or imagined.

I start work tomorrow, and I have no idea what to expect, but I am not as scared as I was before. The last few days, where I have gone from weakness and almost despair to strength and joy have vividly illustrated God’s intimate care for my life.