03 November 2014

coping with chaos.

Of course becoming a missioner and moving to a developing world country would be difficult. I expected that. Widespread poverty. Lack of infrastructure. Corruption. Good and decent people struggling to meet their basic needs. It comes with the job description…literally.

But I didn't know it would be like this.

There is a Swahili phrase for it: "shaghala baghala." It means chaos. Utter chaos. Without benefit. Chaos for the sake of chaos. And the shaghala baghala monster is sucking me in.

Shaghala baghala manifests itself in Mwanza, the city in which we live, frequently and intensely: people yelling at me, crazy and unsafe motorists, trash being thrown everywhere, getting sick with malaria and typhoid, water and electricity being out day after day only to come back on and yet another pipe bursts in the house, etc. The list is without end and I have seen its effect on me. It's not pretty.

I have seen myself become a product of my environment. I have allowed my circumstances to dictate my attitude and control me. I have become intensely reactive or maliciously proactive. When a pikipiki (motorcycle) goes zooming by and swerves in front of me, I instinctively react and chase after them like villagers with pitchforks on a zombie hunt (or something). When I board the daladala (picture the broken down van by the river that Chris Farley spoke of), I proactively think of malicious comebacks, cutting words in the event yet another passenger tries to get all the others laughing at my expense. Only my comebacks are in the language of a five-year old so they're pretty pathetic.

And then I stop and think, "What am I doing? What have I become?"

Sure, it would be easy to lay blame on Tanzania. On Mwanza. Say it's not my fault. It's just this country. This city. Or the culture. Honestly, I do think that sometimes. But when I think that way, I am the one in the wrong. Not a country. Not a city. Not a culture. At the end of the day, I control my thoughts. I control my attitude. I have to live with myself. I have to wake up each day and look at the man in the mirror. Beard or no beard. And I have to live with what I see.

So in the immortal words of Michael Jackson:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and then make a change

It is ridiculously easy to get caught up in the spinning vortex of the world around, most especially in the hot mess in which I presently live. But allowing myself to get sucked in by the shaghala baghala monster only leads to frustration, stress, anger and weird smells. I don't like that stuff.

In Psalm 46, the Israelites are faced with great calamity and war. Yet they are reminded, in the midst of the shaghala baghala, to "be still and know that I am God." Whoa. How do you do that? I mean when everything is going my way, sure, no problem. But to be still in the midst of chaos? I guess it's like this: If I am only happy and at peace when everything is going my way, what credit is that to me? I think it is learning to rejoice in the storm that we find a lasting happiness. An enduring sense of peace. A nail in the coffin to the shaghala baghala monster.

So the question is not, "How can I avoid the shaghala baghala in my life?" No. There are too many things in this world I cannot control. Rather, the questions become, "Regardless of my external circumstances, (1) how can I be willing to seeing the beauty in every moment and (2) how can I be an instrument that seeks nothing more than to increase the measure of love in my community?"

These questions lead to behaviors that are difficult to live out, but ultimately worth the struggle.


  1. Seriously, we need to stop having similar experiences half a world away, it is getting freaky. Good luck with overcoming this struggle and know you are not alone!

    1. Thanks Karen. Sounds like a lot of this stuff transcends culture. Your pictures of Angkor Wat looked great by the way. Glad to see you have been able to get out and explore Cambodia a bit.

  2. I felt like this a lot of the time I lived in Moscow. The summers there are beautiful and very easy, but the winters turn the inhabitants of the city into different people. I felt angry every day - all the time. One morning I chased a woman down the street, shouting (in English I might add) and gesturing because she'd pushed me as I had slowed down for an old lady to cross the ice in front of us. I was so mad it scared me. And you're absolutely right, we choose how we approach things and how we handle hurdles. I found that it was actually easier if I wasn't so negative. That said, I think it's definitely part of the the learning curve when moving somewhere abroad.

    1. It's amazing what living in a cross-cultural context can teach you about yourself. And like you said, sometimes it can be scary. Deep down I know it feels better to live positively, but at times I want nothing more than to just sit in my anger. Generally not a good decision.

  3. I had a similar experience the first time I lived in another country. Actually it was the South Side of Chicago. People would do what I called the RAMs - random acts of meanness. Like everyday, a total stranger would just go out of their way to put a little meanness in your life, and the astonishing thing was that it usually required more effort on their part. Like your friend from Moscow said, it happened more in the winter. But it substantially darkened my view of humanity, and I didn't really experience catharsis until I wrote about it several years later.

    So good luck! I wish I had had your positive attitude. You're taking the right approach. Something that might help to tell yourself is that it takes effort to feel anger and vitriol. When you feel those things course through you, you are actually expending energy that the situation doesn't require you to expend (unless you're in a fight or flight situation). So, why waste the effort on it?

    I'll also leave you with some words of wisdom from Richard Nixon (of all people, right?). He said this when he resigned the presidency: "Remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself."

    God bless y'all.

    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment, Michael! It encourages us so much to hear of people's similar experiences. And I'm really going to use your advice about expelling effort through anger... and instead, use my energy for other, uplifting things.