This is a follow-up blog entry to my Facebook posts while traveling in Sri Lanka in mid-November. For more photos and the travelogue of our pilgrimage to Sri Lanka, check back here later as I hope to digest the FB postings- including photographs- on this site.
— Thanksgiving morning
28 November 2019
Newark Marriott, NJ
Sri Lanka Reflection
There are just a couple of hours, now, before my husband will pick me up and we will go to Connecticut to share Thanksgiving with family and friends. As eager as I am for that… I am also aware that with this holiday, my Sri Lankan journey ends… and I want to capture some of my reflections before I rejoin the flow of my regular life.
We are one. And we are not.
So much of what I saw and how we interacted with people in the different programs that we visited and places that we stayed affirmed for me that, at its base, humanity is the same. We all experience the same feelings of peace, agency, joy, sadness, fear, and anger- and many of the triggers for these emotions are the same across cultures- injustice, longing, achievement, pride, threats, loss, and love. The pride of preschool parents sitting in on shaky plastic chairs in an open-air classroom watching their children perform a traditional dance for the foreign visitors- I know that swell in my heart from watching my own children in years gone by. The intense devotion and wonder of pilgrims, crowded into a hot and chaotic temple with the promise of catching a glance at a revered relic- I know that feeling of spiritual yearning; I have felt it before- not dressed in white and carrying a floral offering in a Buddhist temple, but kneeling in the age-polished pews of a monastery in Cambridge. The feeling of love as a tired toddler sinks into her mother’s lap and reaches up to stroke her cheek – I know that, too, but not as part of a circle of women who have gathered to oversee their micro-loan financing for their own empowerment. We are one … and… our emotions and expressions are born of things a world apart.
We are one. And we are not.
This trip was disruptive.
Disruptive. This trip took my seven-decade old frame of reference and broke it. The white- privileged-economically stable- abundant-educated-secure locus from which I have operated all my life was shaken, bent, and reformed. I saw up close the history of colonialism and its fallout, the effects of oppression and the deep sadness of the aftermath of war. I was moved to quiet pity, and later ashamed at my inability to process what I was learning in a more gracious way. A friend suggested to me that pity was not useful. It was harder to receive what I was seeing not through my own frame of reference, or even through a broken frame of reference, but with completely new eyes for me- through the eyes of those whom we were visiting, taking who they are and where they are coming from as valid and true and authentic, allowing them to show me a new way- their truth. While I may have wanted the gaggle of young boys whom we met at the tea plantation to break the cycle of poverty and oppression in their generations of servitude, to yearn for that on my part- with shameful pity, no less- wasn’t right. This is a hard learning that I am still processing.
I do not want to forget the beauty of the country that we visited. Mountains and jungles, monkeys and flowers, sea and mist and warm, humid sunshine. Dark brown skin and radiant smiles. Red and pink and green and aqua saris. Brilliant red bindis showing the third eye of wisdom and energy. Elephants. Rice patties, coconuts, fragrant curries. Fertile hills, waterfalls, school girls in white dresses, bare feet in church. Beauty.
The undercarriage of our van was checked for bombs routinely as we entered different campuses and hotels. There’s a gadget for that: a camera on a broomstick.
There is a peninsula being built off of Colombo by the Chinese. Chinese prisoners have been brought to Sri Lanka to perform the manual labor required to build something from nothing, to create a new port for trade and to build a new city on the edge of the capital city of the country.
A new President was elected on the day that we arrived. He is the brother of the former President and promises to bring a more authoritarian way of leading. He is feared by many. In his first week of office, he released the army to the streets, creating a militarized atmosphere with checkpoints, and appointed his brother (the former president) to the office of Prime Minister. It is tense in Sri Lanka.
Reconciliation is a process.
So much of our visit was focused on understanding the process of rebuilding trust, economic stability, families, and communities after a twenty five year civil war. Many of the programs that we visited addressed this process head-on, some of them beginning with the simplest ideas such as a preschool program that includes children from both Tamil and Singalese families, and the training of a group of women as “befrienders” who serve a counselors to families and individuals struggling with PTSD and readjustment after the war. This war, by the way, ended a decade ago. That reconciliation is in its nascent stages ten years later is a truth all its own that should be noted. The work of Reconciliation requires honesty, vulnerability in speaking the truth, cooperation, leadership and community.
Reconciliation occurs when one allows oneself to be emptied. Emptied of pretense and the need to dominate or to be right. Reconciliation happens when humility and graciousness comes first and gentleness of spirit radiates. Christ on the cross emptied himself for the reconciliation of the world to God. His humility and graciousness (“Father, forgive them,” “Today you will be with me in paradise” [Luke 23:34, 43]) taught us, even in his final moments, the way of love which is hope for the healing of the nations.
I am convinced that when we open ourselves to relationships, when we are willing to drop our sturdy and safe frames of reference, when we are okay with being uncomfortable and seek to listen and learn from another, then we are being most Christ-like and maybe even moving the needle a tiny bit towards wholeness and reconciliation in God. I traveled to the other side of the globe to begin to learn this. My prayer is that the journey of discovery and learning carries me well beyond the boundaries of this trip.