Sunlight fades to a glorious, breezy, dry-season evening. Rickshaws and motorbikes hurtle in mesmerizing rhythm amidst the unfamiliar bustle below.
I stand here at the railing for a moment, then walk over to the pool, kick my sandals off and sit down by water’s edge. As the light wanes, I lay, staring up at the warm painted sky. I feel the sensation of cool water between my toes and consider for a moment the weight and glory of what lies before me.
Through the grind of ‘normal life’ back stateside, I feel defined, propelled, and constrained by my own history and baggage. There is never a point where I’m not judged on the basis of some part of my past or performance. There is rarely an instant where my conception of self is not bent in some way by the complex fabric of the community in which I find myself enmeshed. There is seldom a situation where I am not — to some meaningful extent — known.
Though imperfectly, I am now in the midst of one of those rare, oft-celebrated moments in life where you start from close to zero. No familiarity, no reputation — good or bad — to accept or fight against. New people, new perspective, and an opportunity for re-invention, re-formation.
As American writer, William Least Heat Moon famously put it: “When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
In a sense, this is a life overseas at its best — isolation and disconnection from normalcy so intense and deep it forces new relationships to take hold and new identities to emerge organically.
But, the question remains. What am I ‘right there and then’ — right here and now?
As I lay by the hotel pool, staring up at the coming night sky, thoughts swirl in my head of the infinite possibilities before me. The barriers to my dreams seemingly vanished along with the web of old relationship and expectation that once bound me tight to my course. Yet, my starting point, the real thing that guided me into that old path and will lead me to the next, is still painfully intact.
The myths I tell myself; the egocentric way I conceive of my life; the things I silently, often unconsciously believe — or wish to believe — about who I am, tragically remain. I do not somehow find myself liberated from my selfishness, my vanity, my fear, or my doubt just by ‘starting over’ in this strange new city on the other side of the globe.
When we are separate from our historical baggage and community, we reach a radical moment to start over, yes. But we do not start from square one.
What we are offered in such moments is nothing more and nothing less than a spark of clarity on where we place our identity, what we hope to believe about ourselves.
Perhaps, we imagine ourselves as masters of our own destiny — liberated now to pursue that thing we always vaguely wished might help us feel significant.
Perhaps, we fancy ourselves self-fulfillment gurus — recognizing this moment as a call to search ever deeper for illusive meaning.
Perhaps, we see ourselves as worthless, beyond redemption — abandoning our search for true belonging; now eager to feed our darker urges in greater anonymity.
Since leaving home for college nearly 15 years ago, I’ve experienced a number of ‘fresh starts’ in strange new cities around the world. Along the way, I’ve wrestled with each of these myths about my life, amongst others.
Without exception, this journey results in failure, disillusionment and regret. The insatiable hunger for self leaves all who indulge profoundly empty.
It’s fully night. The rooftop bar is now alive with the sorts of people who also probably walk this road — the diplomats, the expats, the English teachers, and business people. I wonder for a moment what each of them is searching for out here, so far from home. I wonder if any have found it.
Jarringly few of these folk look like they might be from here. Frankly, those who grew up in this rapidly developing community cannot afford to sit by this pool with me — or to ‘start over’ as I do today. I ponder for a moment how the weight of cultural dominance reinforces our belief that we are somehow the heroes of this story, entitled to our wealth and privilege and selfish personal myths.
And then, as it is apt to do, my attention returns to my own plight. As I step into this new space, this fresh beginning, I am keen to avoid the traps and myths I’ve fallen into in the past. Yet, given the ‘fresh start’ which brought me here, I am drawn by another myth this evening -- the heroic delusion.
I lounge by this luxurious rooftop pool as a newly minted country director for a major NGO. Tonight, I am moved by the temptations particular to such a strange world.
The private sector has its money. Politics has its power. NGOs have narrative.
Comparatively yes, we have power and money in abundance. But these are not our currency. Rather, we all too often trade shamelessly in the story of what it is that we do.
If we aren’t extremely careful, we can get carried away. We are easily tempted to define ourselves as innately worthy; somehow sufficient to the great things we aspire to do. We often forget our true nature and rest our identity in the tale of these good works, our good works.
Whether it is the norms of our industry; western cultural dominance; or just our own personal brokenness, we are bombarded constantly with the temptation to make the story about ourselves.
If we are Christians and our organizations happen to be as well, there is a word for this: heresy.
Activist and theologian Tyler Wigg-Stevenson responds beautifully to this dangerous delusion in his 2012 title, The World Is Not Ours to Save. He argues that regardless of where we are or what we are doing, we cannot get away from our nature. Apart from Christ, we are as fractured as the systems we come to help mend.
We are not sufficient. I am not sufficient. We may have the honour of working for great and worthy causes. But, we remain our lost selves — adrift, alone, and afraid of not being enough.
So, as we engage in our work and lives at home or in brave new locations around the world, we must endeavor to battle our self-conceptions. We must reject these powerful myths if we are to catch a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us — as we truly are.
Only once we remember this simple fact — that we are not sufficient, but we are not alone — will God truly begin to prepare us for His great good works wherever we find ourselves.