Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

A Few Minor Adjustments

In only a week and a half or so, Ramadan will be over.  It’s gotten hotter, unbearably hotter, and I’m always a little hungry, always a little thirsty, and probably more irritable than I’ve ever been.  Something tells me I’m not alone in this.

I was talking with Caity and Avery about that, about how this two years abroad challenges you in ways you didn’t know you could be challenged.  We all got into this experience thinking, “I want a new challenge, one that will make me grow,” and that growth happens to almost all of us in the Peace Corps, I think, but the stress we face is quite literally a world different from what most people back home could even begin to fathom.  And describing what I mean by that is even more difficult to pull off.  You find yourself annoyed by the strangest things here, like people cutting you in line at the post office or someone overcharging you pennies, literally pennies, for something you think should cost pennies less.  It’s like we bump up against how the world works with our own opinions about how the world should work, and we’re constantly in this struggle to make things happen a bit more the way they make the most sense to us.

It’s funny, too.  It’s like Peace Corps gives us all this reading material that tells us exactly what I’m telling you now; we couldn’t be more prepared for this experience in theory.  They even map out exactly how we’ll feel at different stages of our service on the roller-coaster ride of volunteering.  And yet none of that information, perhaps because this experience is so different from anything we’ve encountered before, prepares us for reality.  It’s a tried and true example of where knowledge just doesn’t compare or match experience.

So, where’s the growth?  I think a huge part of the Peace Corps experience is coming to a state of acceptance about a different culture (or even our own) and what it is, and part of that acceptance means letting go of the expectations we hold for how that culture should work, learning to just be comfortable with where life is and how it’s panning out, even if especially if it’s not really panning out at all.  That’s not to say we should get complacent or lazy (as some volunteers do); but we have to walk that fine line between pushing cultural boundaries just enough that we can be ourselves versus integrating into the culture just enough to be able to appreciate and understand it for what it is.  (And it occurs to me that’s as pertinent to living in America as it is to living abroad, though we don’t always think about our own American culture in such terms).

A more concrete example of my recent struggle is in order.  A few days ago, sitting around in my host family’s house to break fast, I was just overwhelmed with exhaustion and ended up passing out on their floor for two hours.  Normally, I would’ve stayed up, tried to be sociable, worked on my language a little, joked with my host brother Omar.  But I just couldn’t do it.  I was too knackered.  And for every part of me that knows it was probably a little rude to show up, eat their food, pass out on their floor, then leave, there’s another part of me altogether that just recognizes that, at the end of the day, I’ll always be more Philip than I can be Fouad.  And that’s okay.  Perhaps part of integration is making clear that you’re not going to become Moroccan, and in my case, that could not be more clear.

Those are all big integration lessons for a Peace Corps volunteer, but I think they hold lessons for life, as well.  Because when things don’t always pan out, when we can’t always be who we’ve set out to be, being ourselves should never be too much to ask.  So many of us do things or try to do things in this little life, where we feel called to some greater sense of purpose, and that’s wonderful and noble, but stepping into those hard-to-fill shoes should never cause us to be scared of the shoes that fit just right.  After all, I’d suspect the shoes that fit just right will take us the farthest.  Or to put that more bluntly, I can’t really wear my grandfather’s shoes.  But I can wear a pair that fit me in a way he would have admired (and we probably shouldn’t put our heroes on such high pedestals anyway; it’s not fair to them or us).  At the least, I’ve become a believer that living into the best of who we are is better than trying to be someone we admire.

So, for now, I trudge on, still thirsty and hungry, still irritable.  Still Philip.

Thoughts for a Spring Day, or Identity Not-so-Crisis

So, it’s a breezy day, and I’m sitting in a chair chewing gum with my mudir (boss) in what might be the only grassy place (the Dar Chebab, or “House of Youth and Sports” where I work) east of the Middle Atlas Mountains, where everything else is desert.  So, we’re sitting there having a short conversation about what’s ahead later this month with all my travels and the different projects we both want to try to make happen.  In September, again thanks to the collaboration with Caity Connolly (and this time, Avery Schmidt), we’ll be bringing forty youth on a two-day education workshop concerning the risks and effects of HIV/AIDs and other STIs, as well as some basic gender education.  Exciting stuff, really.  I’m sitting there getting it all planned out, the finer details, that is (like the cost of paint), and the breeze slaps me in the face just slightly enough to remind me that summer is coming but is not yet here.

And then something else hits me, like a breeze, something I’ve known for awhile but haven’t really had a chance to express or explore.  As much as I love Morocco and as much as I feel that this next year-and-a-half is a part of who I am and where I need to be, development work is not what I want to do with my life.  No surprises there.  I majored in religion and kinda already had different plans anyway, but it’s just nice to have those little confirmations along the way, to have a clearer picture in your head of where you need to be, and it wasn’t one of those negative moments where you’re suddenly like, “Oh crap, I hate my job.”  To the contrary, like I said before, I’m really happy and feel privileged to be here and know this is where I need to be right now, and yet at the same time, I could recognize how temporary this is, like it was a stepping stone to something else and far more about following in some special footsteps, those of my grandfather.

Which really goes back to my last post, about how there’s no such thing as true altruism, that everything we do – whether we want to admit it or not – is actually at least somewhat self-serving.  No kidding.  I’m not here because I decided one day that “I want to help people” (and I don’t even think that’s an appropriate way of phrasing what the Peace Corps does).  And I’m not here because I want to make an impact or a difference in Morocco (and statistically-speaking, I’m not convinced the Peace Corps actually does that either).  I mean, if along the way, I touch someone’s life in a positive way, then great, that’s wonderful, and I’d like to think – be it thru this HIV/AIDs seminar, the glasses project, or something else – someone will gain something.  We’ll have worked together so we can all have something to smile about.  After all, what I actually think the Peace Corps is here to do (or should be here to do) isn’t so much about the bureaucratic numbers we’re required to report about how many Moroccans we worked with or how many organizations we helped to create sustainable programs; I think it’s a little more about the more immeasurable aspects of life and the little stories that come with those.

That is, you can’t really measure the friendship I’ve gained with Omar, when he comes over to my house and pretends to enjoy the tea or the spaghetti I make him.  You can’t really put statistics on sitting at a cafe with Driss discussing the Arab Spring, revolution after revolution.  But that’s more about what I’m here to do, to foster friendships.  Plain and simple like that.  And I’m not sure any report I could write or submit to Peace Corps could ever capture the importance of that (or the importance of that for American tax dollars), but I think and believe it has a lasting impact on these two societies, fostering these little friendships that ultimately reflects the friendship of not solely these individuals but of these two societies, as well.  And that’s something to write home about.

But in the long run, however you choose to “measure” our “efforts” in this country, I imagine I’ll gain more out of this than any “host country national” will, and I imagine I’ll have moments where I can picture my grandfather leaning against a Moroccan building, one leg kicked up against the wall with a half-smile across his face, and I might mimic that just a tad.  Because we live like the people we love.  We mimic their moves and try to be who they were, and God willing, the people we love and admire, the people we want to reflect, will be good people, people who lived the kind of lives worth reflecting.  There’s too many people in this world reflecting and admiring the wrong kind of people.  Which brings me to a whole other conversation altogether.

I was chatting with a few friends, different conversations but both of whom have really been struggling with gaining a sense of identity and purpose lately, and one of whom is in many respects reflecting anyone who will listen, it seems, anyone who will make him feel like he’s cared about.  [This, by the way, was another one of those confirming moments for me, where I realized that development work may not be my calling but listening to people and giving them some degree of guidance might be more my speed.]  So, in both conversations, one of the realizations I had was that when we’re faced with the trite question, “Who Am I?” we force ourselves to find answers to that.  We never just stop, sit back and let that question be a question.  We have to fill  that void with something and constantly be prepared to provide a very concise answer.  Who am I?  I am a hipster.  I am a goth kid.  I am a Republican.  I am a Democrat.  I am an American.  I am this music, not that music.  I am the North Face with Adidas sandals.  You get the point.

Okay, but this isn’t solely a critique of labels.  The point, rather, is that we never let ourselves just chew on that question – who am I  – and be comfortable without having an answer.  Why is that?  Why are we so afraid of uncertainty, even to the point that many of us would rather be something we don’t fully understand or like rather than simply… being.  Just be.  See, I already want to go buy Nike now.  What the heck?  But just being, simply being, was the best advice I had to offer my friends, and I think in time, we grow into who we want to be, and it’s often far more complex than any labels could give it justice, and that’s okay.  We’re human beings.  We don’t have to be easily understood or have simple answers to who we are, and if we did, we’d be much simpler creatures and not the top of the food chain.  Who am I?  Lately, I’ve been my grandfather’s grandson, but who I am is ever-forming and changing, and letting that shape and move and grow is extremely difficult but necessary.  Lest I be trapped in some label I can’t escape.

But all those complexities of our identity aside, and I think who we are as a human race is actually a bit of a paradox between what makes us complex and what makes us simple.  We are love.  That’s what I believe.  And yet, there’s so much more to it than that, now isn’t there?

The Days of Allah are Longer.

This is sort of backtracking a week or so, but it’s a story I wanted to share, because it’s about one of the highlights of my time in Morocco so far.  It’s not that it’s exciting or adventurous or anything like that; it’s just one, long, really good day, especially since most days, I just study Arabic for six hours a day.  When I do get a break, it’s special.

Last Sunday, I woke up at 5:45am and went running with Khalil and Marwan, my brothers, as well as their friend Haleef.  Haleef is a bit of an interesting character in that he’s one of the only Moroccans I’ve met so far who speaks English fluently outside of the Peace Corps staff.  We ran together for a good twenty minutes until we arrived at a large arena with three dirt soccer fields, one basketball court, and a track around them.  For two hours, we played soccer or ran, but in the middle of our fun, the wind started to kick up the dirt until everyone pulled their shirts over their heads and ran off the field.  It quickly became difficult to breathe with all the dust in the air, and we had to seek shelter behind rocks, trees, or walls that were falling apart.  Haleef joked, “This is Morocco.  Don’t you want to go home now?”  I told him this was the kind of thing I both loved and hated at the same time.

I’m finding that’s quickly ringing true in my life, that real beauty in the world is seeing the best and the worst in something and loving it as it is.

Around nine in the morning, we ran home for breakfast, which typically consists of one or two types of bread, butter, oil, and the infamous mint tea you find everywhere here.  There’s also usually kind of apricot jam for the bread.

Honestly, I’ve been fairly mum about the food thus far, because I don’t really know what to say about it; it’s more than simply food.  It’s an entire experience.  Case in point, my class recently ate “bastilla,” a sweet or sometimes savory dish that will cost you upwards of 1000DH (about $120) to eat in a restaurant.  To get this treat is rare, and we probably should have invited David Lille, the Country Director, to eat it with us.  He did say he would drive the three hours from Rabat if we had it.  But alas, we didn’t really know we were having it until the day before.

The meal itself is a smörgåsbord of different flavors and dishes, including eggs, chicken, brown sugar, cinnamon, and layers of finely breaded crust, topped with confectioner sugar and almonds.  Of course, there are many different kinds of bastilla, but ours was an overwhelming reminder that food is not just energy that replenishes the body but can also be an encounter with the divine!

I’m getting off-track, though.

After breakfast and a short nap, we spent two-and-a-half hours at the hammam.  I’ve already written about the hammam, so I won’t dwell on that other than to say two hours is probably a bit much for me personally.  I think I shampooed my hair three times and scrubbed myself down five times.  Haleef also walked on my back to pop it, so after all that rubbing and scrubbing in the Moroccan hammam, I think most people find themselves pretty tired.  I mean, it’s like a sport activity or something.  Who would’ve thought taking a shower would be so much work?

You’d think the day would’ve come to a close after all that, and I had been worried that I wouldn’t have time to see my American friends (all of whom live a forty minute walk through the city away from me, by the way). …but there’s a saying in Morocco – yamat lla twila, or the days of God are longer.  Basically, this means that with God, there’s always plenty of time to do what needs to be done.  I love this concept, especially in terms of how counter-cultural it is compared with America, where it seems there’s never enough time.  We always stress and worry about accomplishing the next goal, making that important meeting date, checking off every little project we have to do.  Not here.  Here, those things are not worries, really.  There’s plenty of time.  Love God, love people; the rest will fall into place in God’s time.  What a nice concept to live by.

So, with Khalil at my side, we walked to the taxi stand to meet my teacher, Driss, and a few Americans.  Then, if we weren’t tired enough already, we hiked to the peak of a small mountain (really it was more like a cliff) and spent time there just letting the breeze catch and carry us over Sefrou, which stretched from cliff to cliff across the valley below.  I’ve already uploaded those pictures and a video.  Check them out if you haven’t already.

By the time we got back, there were still several hours left in the day.  It’s funny – if Mom and Dad call me at ten o’clock my time, we’re usually eating dinner at the same time.  Dinner here can be as late as eleven, and most families seem to go to bed not long after eating the last meal.

So, there you have it (for now) – a day in the life.

The next three weeks are fairly stationary with mostly lots of careful language study, and a Peace Corps Volunteer will train us in the afternoons on how to teach English to Moroccans.  Next weekend, one of my friends is coming to Sefrou to celebrate a birthday of another friend.  Then, two weeks later, we find out our final site and take a week to visit and discover the place we will live for the next two years.  It’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

Oh!  I also received my first mailings – a letter from the Madison County Election Commission (go McWherther!); a letter from Hope Montgomery; and a letter from Kurtis MacKendree.  All three of them have mail on the way to the States, so write me if you want.  I will write you back promptly!

And go vote!  I voted from Morocco, so you have no excuse for not voting.

That’s all for now.