This one time in a third world country in Asia, my team and I were assigned to train with the local military. The base we trained at was a little affair of cement buildings with tin roofs, charmingly straggling down the side of a mountain. We worked there, but we were staying at a little family owned in about half a mile down the mountain.
Now, I am pretty big on working out. Even when I am overseas I maintain a solid workout program. I see it as an intrinsicart of my overall worship of God, to strengthen and train everything He has given me, and hopefully toplaceit at His service however He wishes. Since my favorite workouts, besides martial arts, are weight training sessions, and since weights and kettlebells are too heavy and expensive to take with me, I found a piece of equipment that I can pack for cheap. It is a sandbag, specifically designed for working out. It has an inner liner of tough plastic with a velcro-reinforced zipper, and anouter bag of heavy duty canvas with reinforced handles and an even beefier velcro-reinforced zipper. Simply fill it up with dirt or sand, and you can lift it, swing it, throw it or slam it to your heart’s content. Beautifully simple and elegant.
The first day after we had gotten settled in I looked around for a place to get some dirt to fill my sandbags. I planned on leaving them at the base so I could exercise after work each day, but the place I found to get dirt from was at a little construction site next to the inn. The innkeeper was building some new buildings so he had hired some local peasants to make bricks for him. They had a little dirt quarry carved into the hillside and they were carrying the dirt to the platform and pressing it into bricks with a hand operated press. The innkeeper’s son said I could take as much dirt as I wanted. He also looked at me like I was crazy when I explained what I was doing.
So I designated Operation Fill the Bags as the workout for the day. I would run up to the base, grab my sandbags, run them down and fill them, and then carry them back up the half mile to the base, one at a time. Getting them down to the dirt quarry was pretty simple, just a nice easy run. Once down there I borrowed a shovel from the workers and began to fill them.
Now, the workers spoke no English, but they seemed very interested in what I was doing. They stopped their work, all of them, and squatted in place. The press handle operating guy stopped operating his press handle, the dirt mixing lady stopped mixing her dirt, and they just squatted on their heels and watched me with strange, quiet bemused looks on their faces. I filled one part of the way, closed it up and hefted it to test the weight, then opened it back up and kept filling.
The innkeeper came down to laugh, and asked me how heavy I was making thiem. I guessed the one I had finished was about 40 kilos (turned out it was actually 42.) He laughed and said something to the workers. They shook their heads and murmured to each other. He informed me that they had been wondering if I were going to carry dirt over to the work site for them, and they didn’t understand what I was doing.
You see, they absolutely could not conceive of any purpose for loading up a bag of dirt except to use it for construction. The concept of doing that simply for the purpose of exercise was utterly foreign to them. The had the looks that said, “What will these crazy white people think of next?”
It reminded me a lot of a look my dad’s dad used to wear. He was extremely hard of hearing and completely out of touch with his grandchildren’s world. I remember running up to him over flowing with excitement about dinosaurs or a lego building or some such thing and trying to explain it to him. We could never be sure how many of our words he actually heard and how much of it he just didn’t understand, but he would usually end up shaking his head with a bewildered smile. His face seemed to say, “How do these kids have time for this stuff? Why do they need to know about dinosaurs? When I was young all I needed to know about was farm work.” And he would shake his head as if he couldn’t understand such a waste of time.
The peasant workers had the exact same look on their faces, as brown and hard as the bricks they were making. “This crazy white boy! What is he thinking? Moving dirt for exercise? How does he have time for such nonsense? And I have been moving dirt for my whole life. If he wants to move dirt so much, let him come here and move some dirt in a way that will at least be useful. But if I were that rich that I had spare time, I certainly would not be moving dirt.”
It occured to me that there was an unbridgable gap between their experience and mine. From my perspective, what I was doing made perfect sense. From their point of view it was sheer nonsense.
This troubles me in a way. I have always been driven to try to understand other people’s point of view as much as possible from the inside, imaginatively stepping into their shoes and really trying to see what they see and feel what they feel. I guess it is part of being a storyteller, but this made me realize that no matter how hard I try, I can never fully enter into their experience. My background has given me a depth of imagination so that I can guess to some extent how they might be feeling. But they have no frame of reference whereby they can understand what I was doing and why. They cannot imagine what I have done, where I have been, what I have seen, what I have put myself through. And there is no way that I can know what it is like to labor at making bricks all day, every day, from the time I was old enough to pick up a shovel, never learning how to read, never imagining a world outside my mountain valley.
And yet God knows both of us. Compared to His greatness our relqtive levels of amallness are nonexistent. He is more intimate to each of us than we are to ourselves,and He loces each of us with an infinite love. Somehow, in knowing Him as I pray we both will someday, we will know each other perfectly.
May I see Him and all that He loves so that I forget myself.