Sometimes I forget that I live in rural Africa. Sometimes I forget that my toilet is a hole in the ground, and I forget that the only water available for bathing is cold (that is, at least, until I bathe), and I forget that many of my neighbors live in mud huts and the roosters that wake me each morning are their savings account.
I would not consider myself a very absent-minded person – even though I do lack a certain amount of mindedness from time to time – so to forget where I live is not something that I necessarily expect, especially when where I live is far from the comforts of home.
Thankfully though, these times of forgetfulness are usually brief because something unexpected always brings me back to reality. One such time was just the other day when I was running with our 2 dogs on one of the many paths that web the countryside where we live. This is something I do often so I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary – you know, beyond the expansive pineapple fields, the tropical vegetation, the roaming cattle, the rolling hills, and the exotic birds – but this time I came across a family of vervet monkeys. These small, blue-balled monkeys were hovering in the trees above, wearily looking down at the dogs who wanted nothing more than to give them a good chase.
This might sound ridiculous, but my first instinct after seeing the monkeys was to keep running. If I slowed down or stopped it would have gotten in the way of my workout. But that is when it hit me. I live in rural Africa. I live in a place where I can encounter a family of monkeys on my evening run. If I don’t stop I am not only in danger of missing out on the monkeys, I am in danger of missing out on my surroundings entirely. So, needless to say, I stopped.
In our technological age of Smartphones and Facebook and Twitter we often lament the fact that we forget our surroundings. We forget about the person sitting next to us on the bus as we listen to our iPod, we forget about the trees and the buildings and the people we pass as we text walking down the street, we forget about those closest to us as we watch TV in our homes. In our attempt to be relevant, available, and efficient, we end up being irrelevant and unavailable and ignorant to the world all around us.
Technology, though, is not the whole story. I am far away from many of the gadgets that now characterize our technological age – I don’t have a Smartphone or ready access to the Internet – but I can still forget my surroundings.
The reason I continue to forget my surroundings is, I think, because it isn’t necessarily a bad or unnatural thing to do. For me, the fact that I can forget I live in rural Africa is a sign that I am becoming more part of rural Africa. I am less of an alien now than I was when I first came, which is a good thing. The colour of my skin doesn’t allow me to pass as a resident very easily (or at all), but if I can forget that I am an alien, even for a fleeting moment, then I know that my environment is beginning to settle into my being. I will never become my environment, nor do I want to, but I can at least become part of my environment.
The irony of course is that the more we are part of something, the more we forget about it. Like a fish in water, if there is no reason or tension or incongruence that forces us to think about our environment, we tend to ignore the things around us and we develop this annoying habit of forgetting our surroundings.
The point though is not to be afraid that we will forget things – we all have limits and we will all forget important things from time to time – the point is to fight against the habit of forgetting. Our habits are reflective of who we are and if we orient our habits away from our surroundings in the service of ease and predictability, efficiency and productivity, what does that say about who we are?
Efficiency and productivity are good things, but our habits cannot begin and end there. This is why we need to develop a habit of remembering. We need to be able to slow down and remember that there is a world beyond ourselves. The habit of remembering requires that we put aside our gadgets and our to-do lists so that we can learn how to better become part of our environment, not increasingly distant from it or comfortable in it. This practice of remembering is not easy, but thankfully we have the Sabbath to try anew each week.