Learning and Unlearning

The first moment of my awakening took place over a lively debate about fast-food underneath a cloth canopy jutting out among Wadi Rum’s nothingness.

Steaming cups of sweet Bedouin tea in hand, there was no air of sophistication, no underlying metaphor to dig up. The question was simply this: Can we, or should we, support this chain?

I had no reason to believe all, or even some, of my political, social and cultural beliefs or convictions hung upon the morality of eating a certain chicken sandwich, but the discomfort I felt, the way my palms began to clam up as the conversation became more heated, made me question everything I thought I knew. My world immediately felt very small. The cognitive dissonance was overwhelming. Mine was a physical and emotional reaction to a conversation that became the doorway to my own questioning, restructuring and reclaiming. 

 I’m both a daughter of refugees and a daughter of the South; as with most things, there needed to be room for nuance. At the time, I was vaguely aware of people out in the world, probably residing in some far away place up North, who lived and breathed different politics and had far different life experiences than myself. It’s just that we’d never shared a cup of tea together. In the flesh.

This needful conversation in the most unlikely place is one of the few memories I have from an afternoon trekking through the Jordanian wilderness. Best of all, this took place in 2016, the year many of us, for better or for worse, woke up to our own worlds and the worlds of others. The experience lives with me still in weird and wonderful ways. In retrospect, it was the easiest way to begin.

You see, starting out with, “I see now that you grew up in a very close-minded, fundamentalist environment. You’ve never questioned or critically thought about anything you hold to be true. What do you make of our political climate; How do you think we ought to interpret and live out Scripture in our current context; and also, how in the world can Christians support Donald J. Trump?” The question of the sandwich was quite literally a godsend.

It was beyond me, completely and totally, to attempt to answer any of those questions and the dozens of others that would follow. I had only just begun to see myself and my circumstances for what they were. And it all started with whether or not I should eat a chicken sandwich. 

The road to our awakening, or at times, our unraveling, need not be complete and total to be productive, to be a vital part of our development. It just needs to begin.

My awakening was accelerated by my physical and intellectual position. I chose to study abroad that fall in Amman, Jordan and was one of the only students from my university, from my state and even from any type of faith, far be it a Christian one. It hadn’t dawned upon me that I was leaving the water I’d been swimming in all my life until we stepped underneath that woolen tent in the desert.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, the claim that Socrates staked his life upon, then I’m afraid many of us, myself included, are in trouble. As my quarter-life crisis creeps closer, and it will come, as they predict, I find that I am only now beginning to examine and understand my life. I worry that some may never make it even this far.

What I mean is that I’m beginning to trace the arch of my life story, even as I am in the starting stages of putting words to my experiences. There’s a narrative here, common threads woven from my earliest memories to my current regrets, my deepest joys to the discomforts and pains I’d rather forget about altogether. Life is not just happening to me anymore, I see it for what it is: my rebirth and connection to the stories that came before me, some even welcoming me into the story I now get to live out.

With my awakening comes agency. I have the power, the right, to choose and unchoose what belongs.

My hope is that the stories I tell are an invitation to awaken, to examine and to grow, believing that the process alone is more important than the conclusions. The gift of becoming is a lost skill in a world we now experience statically through algorithms and infinite scrolling, often in an echo chamber. We see the evidence of people’s journeys, but very rarely, if at all, how they arrived. 

For so long, I lived in a silo. I thought I knew who I was, why I believed what I did and what I was going to do about it. Except that this version of myself was false, a shadow of my true self. It was not the person I was created to be, but rather an amalgamation of everything the people around me thought I needed to be. Awakening means actively engaging with my circumstances, my choices, my life. And so I did. Or at least, I try, and the intention alone has already proven itself to be more than enough.

If I had never stepped outside of my comfort zone, I would likely have gone to this college, studied this degree, married this person, and lived this wholly other kind of life. I can see it, it’s all there, because for nearly two decades, it’s the path I planned to pursue. It was an expensive path–it cost me my time, my joy, my fulfillment, and more as I worked to do the work that was not mine to do. If I had never been confronted with difficult questions about my core motivations, fears and beliefs, I’d still be stuck. And I’d never know it. 

Awakening is a gift, and those who don’t think they need it are probably the ones who need it most.