June! With a month remaining in my China adventure, I’m trying to take stock of what has made this season special, those things that have defined my time here. There are many places I could begin. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately has more to do with my own transformation. I think a good way to articulate this is: learning to be rooted. Or grounded. Or confident and secure.
I like the imagery of rootedness. It conjures up a picture for me of something that, despite wind and weather and human hands, does not easily budge from its place. Yet at the same time it’s not so set in its “trajectory” that it can’t be influenced by its surroundings. By being malleable and open to influence, a plant can be redirected and altered. But it remains in the ground, nourished by soil and water, not thrown into chaos due to the forces swirling around it.
I guess I’m creating two metaphors out of this image, and the connection with "belief" is not really my point here. That is, the importance of being rooted in beliefs while being open to having those beliefs—especially their practical application—shaped by our environment and adjusted. We may know our identity as a plant but might not know how to actually BE a plant. Literally, we may believe in something but not know exactly how to manifest those beliefs into every context we find ourselves in.
We need help from others, I think. We need to be able to say, “here is what I believe about purpose, human nature, what is right and good. Can you help me figure out how to live my beliefs?” I think that is a part of what interfaith dialogue entails. It means grasping firmly to our beliefs—at least admitting we believe SOMETHING more than we believe something else—but looking around for help as to how to live out those beliefs.
We ask people who are different than us: “what do you need? How do people in your culture experience love? What is beautiful to you? What causes you pain? How do you understand the ‘good life?’ What draws you to the worldview you have? When you observe me, how might I be captive to my own cultural worldview? How do you think humans can make the world better?”
Or even, “I am (such-and-such religion or political ideology); how do you think I can more fully and effectively and faithfully live out my mission?” Dialogue means getting help from others, and dropping the assumption that others have no help to give. I think we shouldn’t be afraid of opening ourselves up to the assistance of others—especially if we are truly “rooted.” We should have no fear.
But alas, as I said, this is not my main concern here. And the metaphor is imperfect, anyway. We may very well THINK we are rooted in something good and true but actually be so misguided that we actually NEED to be uprooted and re-planted in soil that is more life-giving…or, closer to the truth, closer to the way things really are. I might be a Christian and be confident in what I believe but be missing the mark in some ways and thus holding tightly to a version of Christianity that has diverged a bit from the intentions of its initiator. Maybe a little uprooting is called for.
But I’m thinking more of rootedness in terms of having a sense of peace about who I am and not being overly influenced by the way it seems others respond to me. It’s so easy to be caught up in how I’m being perceived, in the opinions of others, in how my words and actions are affecting others. China has been such a good challenge in not understanding my identity as based on the way others favorably or dis-favorably respond to me.
I’m not sure if this makes total sense and if I’m not indulging a bit here in over-reflection. But maybe some of you can relate to that frantic feeling that comes when you’re thinking about how others perceive you. Me, I get reactive. Maybe the annoying thing is that I’m self-aware enough that I know when I get reactive and it drives me crazy, because I should be further along in this journey of spiritual formation than I am.
I don’t think God’s grace entitles us to simply repeatedly apologize to God for our mistakes because we’re not ever going to get any better. I think God’s grace should inspire us toward transformation, becoming a different kind of person than we were a day ago, or a decade ago. I don’t like “God’s grace” being used as an excuse to be unwilling to be changed and renewed into something that resembles Jesus maybe a bit more than before.
What do I mean in practice by the need to be rooted? At times when Chinese people are talking about me, laughing at me, staring at me, or even just obviously too shy to talk to me, I can feel that initial concern: “what are they thinking about me? What are they saying? Don’t they know how rude they are?” It’s like my first reaction is negative; I assume the worst. I think it's because I feel threatened. Because I’m not as “rooted” as I should be.
I don’t always respond out of a place of peace, a peace that enables me to respond with love and gratitude, to see other people not as threats to my self-worth, but as people who are beautiful, people who have their own concerns and issues and whose top priority is not really me. Sometimes I feel like while I might outwardly smile back I feel inwardly annoyed by these interactions. To be fair, sometimes I think I “pass” the test, and can accept these moments in life with grace, rather than reactivity.
I guess that’s what I mean by being rooted. But there are other ways this plays out. Like when I express an opinion I have about something, and find that another disagrees. What should be an opportunity to learn something new—as I’ve preached above—becomes more about how I feel like maybe I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about and maybe my opinions aren’t legitimate…or, how can I rephrase it and backtrack so I can save face and look better? Or how can I win the argument? Rooted: welcoming disagreement as an opportunity to grow, not putting up walls against others.
Rooted. In China, no one understands me as deeply as I’d like to be understood. The cultural and language barriers are simply too strong. Actually, none of my friends and family, not even my fiancée, who probably understands me better than anyone, understands me as much as I’d like. That’s not their fault, nor mine, really.
But instead of despairing about this, I think being rooted means finding what I’m looking for from somewhere else, so that I don’t place unrealistic expectations on the people around me. For me, I think that’s God—believing that God’s knowledge of and empathy for the intricacies of “me” is enough. It also means relishing those moments when I AM understood by those I care about, giving them grace when they don’t, and having the patience and tenacity to make myself understood.
Rooted. I’ve been shown a lot of kindness and hospitality by the people I’ve met in China. I can’t say that enough. But there are inevitably moments where the attention or affection I’d hope for from those I give my attention and affection to is not returned. Some of it’s probably immaturity on the part of my students. They’re young, and they just take my kindness and devotion to them for granted, or have their own concerns and insecurities that disable them from whatever ideal response it is I'm looking for.
But that definitely does not apply to all of my students. And some of it’s probably shyness. They don’t know how to respond accordingly in a way that shows they care and like me because they are timid and are afraid to look silly. Some of it is probably cultural, and more my fault for missing their gratitude when they display it.
I think my whole life will be a journey of increasingly learning how to love. Living in China has only contributed to this journey, as I have to constantly return to my “roots” and remember that the kind of love I want to give to others is a love that loves without judgment, without expectations of reciprocity, without pushiness. Feeling blue because some students keep themselves at a distance from me—whatever their reasons may be—or because they make a comment, or give a look that feels unkind is not a state of emotion I want to stay in for long. I want to be able to shake things off, to respond to un-lovingness with more love, to not let a lack of positive affirmation stop me from loving. (Gosh...maybe I'm ready to be a parent.)
I think all that is a part of being rooted. Almost like an ability to kind of float through life unfazed when we feel like our actions, good intentions, or personality/self are not noticed, affirmed, and celebrated in the way we’d like, and to trust that Love is so powerful and wonderful that there’s nothing so worthwhile as giving more and more love, trusting that the “fruits of our labors” will eventually manifest themselves even if we don’t see them. And that at the very least—if you share my views on such matters—that God is pleased that we are living out our design and will not forget our efforts.
So thank you China for such life lessons, lessons that I’ve been learning for some time and will continue to learn long after I leave. You and your people have been so good to me.