Life is a Journey

In the following story I would like you to leave your technological environment and return to a time past when our ancestors were unencumbered by technological paraphernalia and virtual reality. It was a time when wisdom was passed from generation to generation through oral word and experience, when life required uncommon senses.

In a remote part of the world, past the village of “home”–on the edge of the forest of the hunt–Sojo, a young hunter, stood and looked out into the world of a life not yet known. Armed with a bow, the tales of olden sojourners and the wisdom of his father, who stood by his side, Sojo took his first step out onto the open plain. The father, brave enough for both of them–save the shakiness of his voice that gave a clue to his fears–sang a song of advice that would follow the young boy now turning to man.

Life Is a Journey.
Be careful on the open plain.

The young man, trained in the “senus communis” of a hunter, had a 360 degree awareness of his environment. For centuries hunters provided food for the village. In the forest the hunter became one with his environment. He was the focused point of a living gyroscope. It is not enough to see game. Game is wily, crafty and skittish of the hunter’s poisoned arrows. So the hunter was keen with all senses. He smelled. His nose followed the changing scents with the walk and wind, the sweet morning air, the acrid smell of bat, the strongness of a buffalo herd in the distance. He felt the change of the wind from left to right, the rising heat of the morning sun, the smooth change of the dust between his toes. He clutched the bow in his callused but sensitive hands. He thought, knowing the habits of the forest pig and gentle gazelle. But above all he listened. He listened for the go-away bird that would give warning to the animals with its loud cry “go-away, GO-AWAY.” [Note: this skill of be aware of one’s environment is called perceptual acuity; or strong perception and intuition]

He listened for the silence. A silence that captured the rustle of the grass under the hoof of the gazelle, the sliver of the black mamba, the breathing of the puff adder, so many warnings and signs captured by the silence. Then, all the senses come to one as he felt the presence of “other”. It was the art of knowing from experience and training. He breathed in its presence. With all his being he felt an “other” heartbeat of life and fear. There was hope for sustenance of his very life. In a cautious and artful manner, he drew his bow…

The young hunter had been guided from birth to live at peace and harmony with the environment. He learned the skills of living. He respected others and gave help, sharing resources, however meagre they may be, with his collective village. But the open plain is not his home. He reaches for the memory of songs of olden sojourners. Be aware of strangers. Greet those you meet on the road. Don’t pry and allow the stranger to reveal himself. And then he is reassured again by his father’s voice.

Life Is a Journey.
Build a bridge when you reach a chasm.

When was the first time you left home? You may have taken a summer job away from home, visited a summer camp or left for college. Were you prepared for your journey? Did you receive helpful advice? Were you trained by your parents to use all of your senses to be aware of your environment?

I can relate to Sojo and his father, in the story described above. One summer, as a young teenager, I left our small town to “crop tobacco” on my grandfather’s farm on the coast of North Carolina. I remember the words of advice my father and mother gave to me. “Treat your elders with respect. Mind what they say. Eat your vegetables. Wash behind your ears. Save your money.” I’m sure there were some deeper words, but a young boy of 13 seldom hears those words. It was not until I was 29 that I really remembered the advice. Vickie, my wife, I and our three children left for an eleven-year experience in Africa.

For the first time I was to leave my “home.” Despite the fact that we had already lived in seven states in 30 years, we had generally lived with people just like us. Our values, beliefs, identity and culture were basically the same as the communities we moved into. Like Sojo, I was entering the open plain of a big place, our world. The advice I received seemed of great consequence. Build relationships, be flexible and don’t expect everything to be like it is in America.

I also identify with Sojo’s father. I have three children. Painfully at times, each one has left home for boarding school in a neighboring country. They traveled alone making their way through immigration and customs and onward to their destination. Their decisions regarding strangers and “others” would have consequences. I gave advice, realizing their lives may depend on it! At each new journey, with the fears, anxiety, and hopefulness of a father, I knew they must leave. Advice can never be tested, skills never refined or personalities molded without the “journey.” It is a grand journey for survival–physical and spiritual.

From the beginning of time, people have traveled. Those who stay at home begin to stagnate and bring little for the survival of the community in times of trouble. Sojo is encouraged to travel by a father who knows that travel is essential for acquainting oneself with new ways and ideas. “While chasing baboons one discovers a new field,” his father tells him.

Even God traveled on the earth, so the Masai legend tells–walking through the plains near Nairobi, Kenya God tripped and fell. His hand braced his fall to a muddy earth and carved out four rises between his fingers now called Ngong hills. Yet, journeys do not take place in isolation. Even God, as Genesis in the Bible relates, was lonely and created us for fellowship.

Life is a journey with others

Life is a journey with others. The Matabele people of Southern Zimbabwe have an expression, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” People are people because of other people.

Sojo learned that while the journey is important, it does not take place in isolation. He will help and be helped in the journey of life. It is in “common searches and shared risks that new ideas are born, that new visions reveal themselves and that new roads become visible.”

The concept of journey is almost lost in our contemporary world of mobility and technology. We live in an ever “Global Village,” yet we live increasingly in isolation. Several years ago, my family returned to the United States after living eleven years overseas. We experienced reverse culture shock at the independence and isolation of American society. We learned that we did not have to travel to meet our basic needs. Everything was close by, or virtually available on the Internet.

If we choose, the dry cleaners will collect and deliver our laundry (although if we never leave home I don’t know why we need clothing). We can order our groceries on the Internet. Technology of satellite and TV screen further allows me to visit anywhere in the world, though I can’t taste the food or smell the air. I used to joke about broadcasting my 8 o’clock class from my bed, via closed circuit TV, to student bedrooms in the dorm. That way we all could use less energy. Now it is possible through on-line courses. And, I often work from home in my pajamas!

It is little wonder that a new field of psychiatry is the treatment of socio-phobia, the fear of social contact. Our fear is increased by the endless visual news of violence on those who travel outside their home. Our fear is intensified by the films of our age which instill fear of “close encounters.” Aliens appear from every doorway, window, and mirror. There is no place to hide, so we encase ourselves in protective suits of isolation.

When we do venture out, it is in private vehicles. One visiting international student, upon seeing so many private cars in America and aware of drive-by shootings, called them “armed personal carriers.” We are translocated in our outward journey. Our inward journey has been mega eclipsed by fearful imagination. We have lost the art of conversation, yet we crave relationships. We fear “other,” yet we are starved for community. We are desperate for quality of life.

Those who live in isolation do not know the joy, discovery or tragedy of the journey. Sooner or later, whether a tourist or life traveler, we venture out for different purposes and different destinations. As we journey a lonely road we mirror the words of Henri J. M. Nouwen,

Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert with many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.

Recently a young Chinese student was staying with us to study English and American culture. After visiting a neighborhood in Philadelphia she observed,

Americans are like birds in cages, you leave your birdcage (house) go to work, and then return to your cage at night, without ever being a part of your community.

There are a number of ways in which we journey. See which one describes you.

Visitors and Tourists

At a very short-term, and often superficial level, we travel as visitors. When we visit, we go and come to a single place. We stay, look, and leave like the momentary perch of the bird on my window sill. The Ndebele of Southern Zimbabwe have a saying, “those who visit have big eyes but they do not see everything, those with big ears do not hear everything.”

Sometimes we travel as tourists. A tourist, according to the dictionary is “a person who travels for pleasure, usually sightseeing and staying in hotels.” Our intent is self-centered. We seek to see the world and fill our senses with the unusual. Tourism in Kenya provides an excellent example.

Kenya thrives on the tourist industry. Nairobi is filled with tour companies where along Kenyatta Avenue one will see offices of the United Touring Company, Airways of Japan, Swissair, KLM and British Airways and large hotels encase the city center.

At Jomo Kenyatta Airport local taxi drivers aggressively seek a fare in their call of survival. “Need a Taxi, Need a Taxi?” These friendly and hungry drivers can spot a tourist a shilling away. Donning new khaki safari suits with bush hats, reflecting a colonial past the local people would like to forget, tourists strap cameras to their shoulders and clutch bulging fanny packs bouncing on their hips.

With big eyes these tourists seek to drink in the environment, looking for the visions of their imagination, yet often missing many details. Herding white faces resemble lost sheep traveling in flocks guided by a tour guide. At each point in the journey they are led to a water hole here, a grazing ground of new artifacts or sights there. They photo-capture part of the tour to take back home and mount it on a wall to re-consume or discard at a later time.

There is something missing in this type of travel. Local people are the objects of the tour. There is verbal communication, kind words about the culture, interest in exotic customs and food, promises of future hopes for interaction but in the end the tourist boards a bus, then a plane and returns home. In the words of James Michener,

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home. You are like a pebble thrown into the water; you become wet on the surface, but are never part of the water.

At best, the tour opens the eyes and expands the senses on the commercial sidewalk over a deeper subway of a society of people. Sometimes, we fail to perch for a visit or stop by the roadside.

The Transient

Did you ever get the feeling you were always in transit and never arriving at your destination? As a young boy I used to sit by the roadside of a highway and watch passing trucks hauling produce to market. The speed limit was 60MPH but the trucks often pushed the limit to 75MPH, unless a Highway Patrolman was in the area. The transient moves so quickly through the open plain of life that they become the blowing wind that fans the standing grass by the roadside never stopping to catch its wave in return.

Transients are “in-between” people–in-between jobs, in-between positions, in-between life–who are never really there. “All I care about is to get my diploma and then I’m out of here to earn my $35,000 a year salary.” One student told me. He was an in-between person who was always studying and never learning.

Tourists and transients are “doers.” They are busy in accomplishing a goal or a task, often worthy, yet consumed by their own consumption. Their journey is a trip, a joyride, a ramble, a peregrination on the open plain. The sojourner, however, is a be-er. S/he is one who lives to be a person at the present moment expectantly waiting for life to happen in new and glorious ways. The sojourner expects a revelation of life in the unfolding expansions of a grand odyssey.

The Sojourner

I met my first sojourner in 1988. At least she was the first one I recognized. An organization I was consulting with at the time was constantly involved in grand projects in a third world country and receiving considerable media coverage. “Why are you always trying to do so much?” She asked one day. “I’ve seen those projects. Your organization moves in for a week or two, takes a lot of pictures and then moves on to the next project. You’re always ‘doing’ something which builds expectations too high only to lose the initial support you gain. It looks to me like your philosophy is ‘Go ye into all the world and take a photograph’.”

“What is your philosophy?” I asked. “My philosophy is to be.” She replied. She was and is cultural competent. She took public transport in order to adjust to the rhythm of the culture while many other transients speeded by the local people from one project to another. She was one to take time and develop relationships with someone, even on a crowded bus seat speeding on bumpy roads. She drank long and deep at many relational oases that dotted her adventures. Not a thing happened in the country that she did not know about because of her willingness to “be” with people in the good times and bad. She lived the prayer of one tribal people, “Lord be with me. Be with me. In a world of problems. Be with me.”

Some of us grow to be true sojourners. Those who see our lives as a grand journey. And see those on our journey as fellow travelers on a long walk homeward. The sojourner is a special person–but one you may not recognize. They have a calm spirit of patient awareness of the world about them that often grows from a life of open plains and crossing chasms. They indeed have a strong center that exudes a wisdom for living a balanced life in an unbalanced world. They seem to have the time for every person, yet not the answer to every problem, but the prudence for knowing their role.

Sojourners are 360° people with four basic identifiable qualities. They are aware. Like the young hunter, Sojo, there senses are alive to the world around them. They are willing (motivated), wanting and committing themselves to be a 360° sojourner. They are mindful, aware of the world around them by knowing what is taking place and actively learning to live in their environment. They are artful, through training and experience they have learned how to build bridges with those around them. They are at once centered on who they are and yet aware–all about them–of the presence of other and their relationship to them.

Willingness

To will something is to want it to happen. It is the concept of a strong calling or purpose. It is more than just being willing. M. Scott Peck says that “Will is desire of sufficient intensity that it is translated into action.” It is being tenacious, as well. Have you ever wanted something so bad you could taste it? Wanting something however does not make it happen. It is a constant and ongoing commitment to making it happen. It is a knowledge that it is an ongoing process–never-ending in spite of difficulties and setbacks. In my survey of cross-cultural sojourners over the past years, willingness–a wanting and committed sense of calling or purpose, is a major factor in their success at living with “other” cultures. Your willingness is inevitably tested by time and circumstance. It requires an attitude of love, patience, perseverance and humility.

Mindfulness

The third quality of the 360 degree person is that of mindfulness. You know the opposite of mindful. It is the mindless person who “walks about with their heads in the clouds” as my grandmother used to say. Someone who has lost their head and is unaware of what is taking place around them, one who temporarily leaves the physical place. A daydreaming tourist can get lost in place.

To the contrary, like Sojo on a forest hunt, the mindful sojourner is intuitively aware and perceptively engaged in the event. We are often mindful of the product but not the process of our communication. In short, mindfulness is knowing how to communicate. It is knowing how relationships are built, the process involved and the consequences of our actions.

Artfulness

A fourth characteristic of the 360 degree sojourner is that of artfulness. Artfulness, or cultural competence, is the wisdom and ability to apply what we know in an effective manner. Artfulness is more than applying skills. It is the finesse and gentility of appropriate interaction with others. Communicating with other cultures becomes an art when it becomes a fluent language. I am a musician. For many years I studied music. I took lessons, practiced and performed. My teachers were experienced experts. I read many books. However, it was not until I entered the practice room and disciplined myself to connect and interact with my instrument that I began to develop a skill. After many years my instrument became part of me. I could express myself with and through my instrument. In the last few years, however, I have not taken the time to practice. I have lost my “lip” and don’t have the endurance to play past a few minutes. I have lost my endurance, my finesse. My ability has atrophied. Much to my embarrassment, I am no longer artful.

The artful communicator seeks to develop community and sojourn with others as a life long practice. I wish I could say that the road would be easy. It is often filled with pain and rejection. We are to be, in the words of Neuwen, wounded healers. “…no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process.”

Rules of the Journey

Like the song of Sojo’s father who sent his son on the journey away from the village let’s look at the first rules of the road.

Greet those you meet on the journey. In a later module we will talk about invisible people. One way that we recognize the presence of “other” is to greet them. All cultures have greetings. Some short and some very long. Commit yourself to greeting others on the journey. Recognize their presence.

Be friendly. Being friendly is a step further. Friendliness is a quality that says we are available. It says that we are open to the presence of others. It means talking about the weather and subjects that matter to all of us.

Be cautious. Being friendly requires a certain amount of vulnerability. Friendly vulnerability has to do with revealing ourselves and our emotions. Friendliness is cautious and sometimes guarded depending upon the environment. One must also be cautious. There are potential dangers on the journey. Physical vulnerability is always a consideration. Being cautious requires that we be aware of the context of our meeting others and the environment surrounding our context. Some people choose to travel alone. Some people are street wise with experience in dealing with danger. Some of us are not. It may be that being cautious means sojourning with a partner.

Be honest. At the heart of our person and the center of our journey is a character of honesty. Honest sojourners come to be trusted. The sojourner is always a stranger in a distant land. Most villages do not trust strangers. The stranger is, in the words of linguist Don Larson, an outsider and alien and a foreigner–a big OAF! In order to establish credibility–the distance between who you say you are and what other people see you are–we must have integrity.

Be helpful. We are all Samaritans at one time or another. Sometimes we are good Samaritans when we know what to do. Establish an attitude of helping others, in little things first.

Expect the unexpected. We are prone, in our society to avoid uncertainty. Our litigious society has a contingency plan for every task and project. Long range planning has been a watchword of business, military and government, even religious organizations. We live in a fast changing world. But expecting the unexpected does not have to be expect the worst. Sojourners are often surprised by the unexpected joy and excitement of discovery which comes at serendipitous turns of the road.

Allow others to reveal themselves. One of the temptations of the novice traveler is to delve deeply into the lives of every person and situation. In a crisis this may be necessary. But to receive trust we must be patient and allow the people and situations to reveal themselves.

Have a sense of humor. A sojourner will make many mistakes. It is always more fun if we enjoy the journey. Learn to laugh at you mistakes because you will not be the first to make the mistake–or the last. Cultivate the joy of being wrong–in order to be right.

Enjoy yourself. Above all enjoy the journey. There are many exciting explorations ahead.

Life IS a journey. The world is a BIG place. The easiest road is to travel on familiar paths well worn by others and in the process live in a small world. People who live in small worlds find their emotional and spiritual selves atrophy and die. The journey awaits. Find the open plain and build a bridge when you reach a chasm.

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