Thursday, August 9, 2012

Back from Kenya


Hello, everyone! I'm back from Michura, Kenya and decided to post a summary of my time there on my blog. I hope it does justice to this experience.

When we first arrived in Michura, we were stunned by the warm welcome we received. As we walked up the long, rocky slope to their village, the people came down to greet us with songs and flowers, dancing us to where our welcome service was to take place. After sitting us all in a circle, the community leaders came up and let us know how blessed they were to have us here – which we found a little ironic, considering how much they had already blessed us with their joy! I didn’t think then, and I’m still not sure now, that we could do enough to bless them as much as they would bless us throughout the week.

The villagers
Among the beautiful landscapes, scattered houses and abundant life, the people of Michura were the most wonderful part of it all. Though a surface glance would say they live in poverty, the truth is that they are only poor in material – but very rich in spirit. I was amazed by how they began every speech with “Praise God! (Amen!) Praise God again! (Amen!)” Despite living conditions we would perceive as poor, and despite nearly constant tragedy, they take the time to praise God in everything that they do. One day Esau, one of the pastors there, revealed to us that his brother had died that very morning. In the midst of sorrow, he had taken time to entertain us and make sure we felt welcome. I will say again that I do not believe we could ever bless them as they strived to bless us.

Community leaders in front of the water tank
We did our best, though. We spent three mornings working on their water filtration system, which in a month and a half they had already come near to completing. Our main goal for that week was to fill a pit with rocks. This pit will be the final storage tank for their clean water, after the previous tanks had filtered and chemically treated it. The key is to line this pit with concrete, protecting it from harmful materials leaching in through the dirt. The floor of the pit will be a mixture of rocks and cement – and that’s where we came in. We introduced the idea of the assembly line to them, which seemed to speed up production greatly – before they had carried rocks on their heads from their source to the pit, but now we all formed a line and passed the rocks along it. All we managed to do by the end of our three days was fill the bottom of the pit with rocks, which didn’t feel like much – but judging by what they had already accomplished on their own, it’s clear that this trip wasn’t about how much work we could get done. They could do just fine on their own.

Kids playing "Stop tag"
So what were we doing there? It didn’t seem that they needed our spiritual insights. It didn’t seem that they needed our labor. Our real purpose came in the second halves of our three workdays. The first day the team split up into smaller groups, and spent the afternoon visiting homes. The house my group visited was the home of a woman named Elsa, who was widowed with (I think) five children. She showed us around her home, pictures of her family, and how to cook a delicious fish soup. The next two days our group did a bunch of activities with the kids, including worship songs, a kind of VBS, arts & crafts and numerous games. Through all of these events we grew closer to the community, and their perspective on it became clear in a soccer game on the second day, when a community leader announced: “Crosspointe Cary versus Crosspointe Michura!” I think the best thing we did there was to form relationships – not to set an example – not to compare communities, but to join them.

One of our teammates, Ralph, told the people of Michura this: “For every person standing here, there is a whole group of supporters behind them. We are simply the crest of a wave of support for your community.” Thank you for being the wave behind me and my team on our journey to Michura, Kenya. It was a perspective-changing experience and I hope to return one day.
Great Rift Valley


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Chapter 11: Be Still (Part 2 of A,R&F)

Disclaimer: I discuss some neurology halfway through this post. I actually have no idea what I'm talking about, so take it with a grain of salt.

In fact... most of this is distorted childhood memories. Take it all with a grain of salt.

As we were putting up the Christmas tree last year (2011, that is), I walked through the office room, where our piano stands up against the wall. On the bench were a bunch of piano books I hadn't seen before. I ruffled through them, and then almost dropped them in shock. One of the books was a collection of songs from Steven Curtis Chapman's Speechless album. Had I known we had the sheet music for these songs, I would have learned them long ago. I set all the other books down and opened up Speechless to the one song I immediately knew I wanted to learn first.

***

"Don't go!" I pleaded from my bed. Tears ran down my cheeks as I felt the terrifying and imminent darkness closing in on me again. This being the umpteenth time I pleaded to him, my dad was not going to prolong the conversation. "Just sleep in here. Please?" I had to convince him to stay, or I might die.

This was the world I descended into every night in my preteen years. I had gone through phases like this back in England as well - to the point where my parents had to often find new sleeping pills to get me to rest. I soon became convinced that the pills were poisoned and often refused to take them. It spread into my daily life as well, most vividly when I read Chronicles 21:19 and I became convinced my intestines would fall out if I went to the bathroom. Then it stopped for a little while when we moved back to America, only to return a year later, halfway through middle school. I have no doubt that these anxiety attacks were brought on by stress - whether it was the stress of living in a strange place, or having to deal with the strangeness of middle school. Part of me worries that they might return in college if I don't find a way to balance my activities.

And so every night I lay there, fearing whatever next would crawl out of my mind and into my dark room. It wasn't always as if I thought there would be monsters - though I occasionally did - but I feared most my dreams, for anything can happen there. I wanted to fall asleep because I was tired, and the dark of the night offered me no comfort - but I could not fall asleep, for there would be no rest there either.

In the day, I often saw my therapist Dr. S, to whom I am most indebted. She talked me through my fears in the light, when I had no reason to worry about them, and helped to build a structure in my mind of reality versus imagination, and probability versus possibility. I think she knew that my issues spread beyond the nighttime, and would talk me through the stresses of daily life. Most importantly to me, she encouraged my imagination, to the point where she had me play with her vast collection of toys and action figures in the sandbox, telling the stories that I was always forming in my head. When I play episodes with my brother, I've tried as best as I can to emulate this environment, though unlike her, I often get in silly arguments with him over plot elements.

Two of her suggestions still stick very clearly with me after all these years - one came from one of my favorite book series of all time, Harry Potter. You can probably guess where I'm going. Whenever a scary thought enters your head, imagine (with all your might!) the funniest situation that scary thought could find itself in. Then, with all your voice, whisper (cause people are sleeping) "Riddikulus!" And the scary thought magically disappears! Okay, it wasn't foolproof, but certainly it was a repeatable process that could ward off scary thoughts efficiently.

The other technique she taught me was that of the Baku. The Baku is your guardian - it can be anything. My Baku was my stuffed dinosaur Frankie (who I can name seeing as he's not a real person). Since I couldn't very well carry Frankie into Dr. S's office without looking silly, we used her plastic T-Rex as a replacement. When I closed my eyes and scary images filled my head, Frankie entered and chased them away, squashing them with his sheer size.

Despite all of our best efforts, however, I could not find a way to set my anxiety aside when it came in the night. My parents set me up with a psychiatrist, Dr. M, who explained the issue behind the issue - a symptom of Asperger's is a low serotonin level. Serotonin, in a nutshell, makes your neurons work more easily and keeps them from getting stuck in certain paths - in other words, it prevents severe obsession. With my low serotonin levels, I was stuck in a rut every night as my fears played themselves over and over again. It was not uncontrollable - but it was certainly darn hard for a kid my age to overcome his obsessions without medical help.

I was hesitant to take serotonin supplements, partly due to my past history with medicine (thinking it was poison and all) and partly due to a longstanding dislike I'd had of medication anyways. Perhaps it was still part of a larger paranoia, but I just don't like the idea of someone controlling the way my mind works through drugs. Would you? I agreed though, and it was a good decision. The time in which I took it provided me with the window of opportunity I needed to overcome my obsessions and set better habits in place. I think I can attribute my slow change in social behavior to this time frame; I slowly began to become a little more outgoing than I was before.

The anxiety attacks didn't end immediately, though. I still had (and still have) scary thoughts and worried about what would happen in my dreams when I fell asleep, even when my reality was freed from my imagination. This made it very difficult for me to fall asleep, though I knew now that waking up my parents wouldn't help much.

And so it came as a great relief to me when I decided one night to put Stephen Curtis Chapman'sSpeechless on my CD player, and the song Be Still came on.

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is holy
Be still, O restless soul of mine
Bow before the Prince of peace
Let the noise and clamor cease
Be still

This song became my mantra that I repeated slowly throughout my mind as I drifted off to sleep. It was a lullaby, for someone who will never be too old for them. The words and melody brought me peace.

***

I can't speak for all Aspies, but I can speak for myself when I say that for all my rationality, I'm also a highly irrational person. I go through many paranoid and borderline crazy fears every day, though now I have the state of mind to dismiss them as they come. I find that the more I entertain a thought the more I believe it, and I have to be careful when examining my fears. It also doesn't do much credit to my supposed rationality that I finally defeated my irrational fears with a song about God, and knowing his being and existence. Back then I could easily just believe. These days, it's much harder. I can't tell you why I believe in God - I don't know myself, you see - and I could only really give you the vague idea through telling the long and highly personal story of my spiritual development so far, and that's not a story I'm ready to tell.

I will, though, give you three points that I often walk myself through when experiencing a crisis of faith:

  1. My parents believe in God, as well as many other people whose wisdom I know and respect. While this does not in itself prove anything, it provides some comfort - I'm not a fool for believing if so many wise people believe.
  2. I imagine trying to live a life devoid of God. What purpose would I have to do good? And I don't mean I'm motivated by trying to get into Heaven, or those sorts of things. What I'm mostly trying to get at is that I do believe in Hell, after a fashion - it's the absence of God. To believe I live in a universe where we just live and get blown about by chance and randomness without a purpose or a meaning - to live and burn out like a candle in the wind - that'd be accepting Hell. Again, this doesn't prove anything - it's more a comfort thing.
  3. This. Again, doesn't prove anything - plenty of scientists familiar with that image don't believe in God - but I feel like this is the sort of thing Paul meant when he said that nature cries out God's existence. You just have to listen. Famed scientist Roger Penrose once used an argument against God that essentially ran like this: God could have created a human-inhabited universe that was much smaller and easier than ours with relative ease, but instead he apparently made a huge universe full of intricate complexity. It goes against all sensibility. But I think that Penrose hits on a good point, in the other direction: God didn't create the universe for efficiency. Perhaps he didn't even create it just for us, but for many other species. He made the universe because he wanted to make something beautiful. "And he saw that it was good." By far the weakest argument, but one of the strongest emotional reasons for me.

These are pretty weak logical arguments, but for me they keep me going in times of extreme doubt. Maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe I'm just separating myself from the inevitable truth - that there is no God, and we are just here randomly. But I'm sure I could make you understand why I still believe if I told you the whole story - though it may be a long time before I do that.

***

I closed the music book, having played through Be Still a few times on the piano. My parents had gone to bed. My rendition of the song would obviously require much more practice, but hopefully I could master it one day. Maybe, if I ever have kids, I could sing them to sleep with it. I stood up and went over to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth and put in my retainer. I turned off all the lights downstairs and quickly moved up the stairs and into my room. My fear of the dark had not completely disappeared yet - nor has it now - but I hope it will in time.