This blog is committed to getting a “fresh perspective,” so I asked my friend to write about his recent experience in the Middle East. Sean is a good friend, teacher, lover of coffee, thinker, husband to Jenn, and a recent camel enthusiast.
I should be writing this guest blog post with a very bad attitude right now. It would be forgiven. It would be normal and expected, under the circumstances. Because those circumstances are so annoying.
You see, I was on my way to a coffee shop this morning to get some work done, but mostly to play chess on my iPhone, when my rear wheel began thumping and shaking and all sorts of other -ings that one is afraid of when one has no mechanical expertise whatsoever. So, annoyed, I called AAA, and annoyed, I gave the service rep my information, and annoyed, I pulled out my phone to kill the 15 annoying minutes it took for the tow-truck driver to show up.
After the annoying three minute drive to the repair shop I had to wait another 10 annoying minutes in line before ordering up two new tires (I ordered an extra back tire to pre-empt any possible annoyance come wintertime).
Now I’m writing this post from an air-conditioned coffee shop while I wait for my chicken sandwich and still feel…privileged. Convenience is my normal.
One month ago I was driving along a highway through the desert in the Middle East, and I wondered what would happen if I popped a tire or if the engine overheated. With only pavement and sand on my horizon, without exits or rest stops for miles upon miles, I became nervous. Then I wondered what the normal response for an annoying situation in the desert was.
Then I wondered if there is even such a thing as annoying, or inconvenient, or mildly frustrating in the Middle East desert. Because after 11 days between two countries, the collective psyche I picked up from the people fluctuated between that of welcoming, hospitable, friendly, and aggressive, crisis, “get it done.”
It seemed like the world was only made to play in, until talk shifted to a local refugee crisis.
It seemed like all people knew how to do was talk and laugh and loiter, until you heard what life was like as a marginalized, displaced person.
It seemed like everyone was so proud that there home was the birthplace of so much ancient history, until you find out that so many people are not allowed to return to their actual homes.
So why would there be categories for trivial issues that can so readily alter the mood of an average Western person, when they so pale in comparison to the depths of love and longing that are experienced on a daily basis?
Maybe these categories do exist where I visited, and I was simply culturally blind to them while adjusting to normal: military officers walking the beat; women wearing layers of covering over their bodies, yet not failing to wholeheartedly express themselves through laughter and smiles and all the emotions communicated through the eyes; witnessing police checkpoints and interrogations from a distance while getting the privileged, trusted American treatment.
I was shocked at how quickly strange became normal. The only true difference is that I had to become aware and make adjustments in the Middle East. By the third or fourth sighting, I hardly noticed the military presence. By the third or fourth conversation, fully-covered women posed no ideological difficulty for me.
(Funny what an encounter with humanity will do to ideology, isn’t it?)
Back here, I don’t need to adjust to a flat tire —> tow-truck —> repair shop —> air-conditioned coffee shop on a laptop experience, all within two and a half hours, because over here it’s just annoying. It’s a lack of convenience turned into the very definition of convenience, with barely an appreciation for it.
So I’m trying to train my mind to relive the trek across the desert, the interactions with expressive eyes, the historic conflicts that are occurring on historic land. Because at this point it does not much matter what constitutes normal. It’s the blinding familiarity with it that can keep us from a full life.
Most good stories don’t contain much normal; we crave fantasy, suspense, adventure. Even so, our favorite stories can become dangerously familiar and routine. As can our daily experienced stories.
And that’s why we ask for a Second Story — to break us out of our normal.
So read on.