The other day in philosophy class I was teaching about existentialism, a philosophy with which I have myriad problems. The universe is absurd, life is meaningless, authenticate yourself with irrational leaps of faith! Hopeless and disconnected from reality if you ask me. Get out of the café Camus, mix with some common folk! Nevertheless, as I was introducing the material I mentioned that the existentialists really probed the questions of Life's meaning and purpose:
"How do I create myself to be unique and significant?"
"How do I live an authentic existence?"
"How do I give my life meaning and purpose in an otherwise meaningless universe?"
These seem to be questions that are attendant to societies that possess extreme wealth and privilege and an over-abundance of leisure time. I have serious doubts that 15th Century English peasants or even nobles for that matter, spent much time contemplating how they might make their lives unique or leave a significant mark on the world. Surely there were some, but in the thick, teleologically-ordered society in which they lived, where everyone had their assigned place; purpose and meaning came part and parcel with their station in life and the cultural and religious rituals that they all practiced together. The week after they were born they were baptized into the shared religion of the society and so they went throughout the rest of their lives, going through the same religious motions as everyone else they knew, motions which directed them towards the divine and their ultimate end. Their class, trade or guild gave them a function within society, a function that without which, the social order would begin to break down. So too did a shared sense of cultural uniqueness in language, ethnicity, history, dress and customs, set them apart, give them a sense of superiority, and make them uniquely adept at inhabiting the land that they did. These things then; station, a common religion, a thick culture laden with tradition and communally-practiced rituals, infused pre-modern man with meaning, purpose and a sense of direction both in this life and for all eternity. Our postmodern society by contrast sets us adrift in a liquid culture. We change identities, roles, beliefs, employment, cities, and relationships with an ease and freedom that would be simply incomprehensible to our forefathers of even a hundred years ago. I'm not exactly bemoaning the freedom that liquid modernity has saddled us with nor am I enamored of pre-modern societies; I am after all a product of the liberal, postmodern order and my very life is a testament to a liquid existence. I am however pointing out that the breakdown of thick cultures, coupled with a trend towards humanism and away from belief in the transcendent and divine has made the need to ask (and answer) the aforementioned questions seem axiomatic. Every single one of my philosophy students, college-bound seniors all, has thought about how they might live a unique, significant life, free of the mundanities and trivialities that they see around them. They want to be world-changers, cultural influencers and niche cultivators. They also want a life filled with travel, leisure, luxury and a partner to share it with. Indeed, they're encouraged to want these things by their teachers, parents and favorite YouTube stars. And as far as they're concerned they deserve to have these things. This, they think will bring their lives meaning, it will infuse their existence with purpose. They refuse to see, or perhaps they cannot see, adrift as they are, that in chasing these things they've made their purpose, their selves. I am my purpose, validate me.
I apologize for the muddled foray into philosophy but the reason that I bring this all up is that as I was teaching this, it suddenly dawned on me that I am here, living in Honduras, in large part because more than a decade ago I began asking myself those very existentialist questions. Coming out of college, I simply knew, at the core of my being and with an iron conviction that only a college-student who is steeped in ideology but not reality can have, that my life was meant to be different. I was not content to be a teacher in a wealthy, suburban school-district or even a poor, rural school district - such pedestrian, white-bread employment was beneath me. My life had to be about something more, something truly impactful, a true watershed. I was meant to make a difference, I was meant to be radically different from everyone else. My entire life needed to be a testament to this difference.
Truly I hope that my writing is conveying the loathing I know feel for my younger, idealistic and narcissistic self. In case it isn't though, let me be clear: I was naive and stupid and unnaturally optimistic.
To be sure, my belief in God drove me in this desire as well, I truly yearned to serve God and share the love of Christ in all that I did. I wanted my life, every aspect of it, to be about living out the precepts of the Christian Life. At the time, it seemed to me that perhaps the only way that I could authentically be unique and significant and radically serve Christ was by sacrificing my own comfort and earning potential and finding a way to spend my life serving the poor. At first I thought this might look something like moving into a poor, inner-city neighborhood, teaching at a failing school and single-handedly turning the institution and the adjacent neighborhood around. Everything was well planned in my head and the year I spent as a long-term substitute in the Philadelphia School District, while reality-inducing, was also one of the great joys of my life. Philadelphia never hired me full-time. Undaunted, I took a job at a small, rural Mennonite school - two of the blithest years of my life. But always I was unsatisfied with the common, suburban existence I felt that I was slowly being sucked in to. Thus I began looking overseas, and specifically through the mission board of the Lancaster Mennonites. It was in that time, in July of 2006, that my local church took a trip to visit the Central Mennonite Church of La Ceiba, Honduras. I was invited to participate and eagerly signed up to go.
I can't say that I fell instantly in love with Honduras on that week-long trip. From what I remember, I was nauseous, hot and unable to understand a single word that anyone said to me. What I do remember though is a sense that the people here were truly special. The members of the church expressed a joy and an openness that we northern Mennonites were not accustomed to and sometimes simply incapable of. In fact Ceibans in general just seemed to be smiling and laughing all the time. Throughout that week I had a growing sense that this was the place I was meant to be; God wanted me here, here there might be a purpose. On the second to last day of our visit here, I met my purpose. His name was Angel and he was a gang member. He's the reason I moved to Honduras.
I'll expand on Angel and his story tomorrow
On a side-note: My good friend Jackie, ever the realist, told me later that considering that Honduras was only 8 years removed from the deadliest and most destructive hurricane in their history, perhaps I should have left that particular thrift-store shirt at home.