Sunday, June 23, 2013

Words I Thought I Knew, Until I Moved to Kenya

Living in another culture and attempting, however poorly, to understand and be understood another language makes you pretty philosophical.  I've written before about how the very existence or absence of a word in a language can be a window to that culture or even a window to the human condition. Of course the language I'm speaking of is Kiswahili and the culture is East African.

Except it's not.

The culture I'm thinking about is the one that includes people whose Christian faith is central to their identity, and the language I'm referring to is English, but with subtle and illuminating differences.  I'm embarrassed to say that at my ripe age, I'm really meeting and befriending people who have a strong Christian faith, for among the first times in my life.

I grew up in the outskirts of a city in a suburb that consisted largely of my people (Jews), whose religious identity is defined more by tradition than faith, and people who describe themselves as "lapsed Catholics" or "Christmas mass Christians."  No one in our neighborhood described themselves as a "strong Christian man/woman/boy" or talked about openly about their "love of the Lord."  No one ever comforted me with "I'll pray for you" or included "God's plan" in any philosophical discussions or ever uttered "the Lord Jesus Christ" in my presence. I probably would have found it strange if they did.

In college, that quintessential time of questioning and rebellion, this was only accelerated. I went to an east coast University, which probably took itself too seriously.  Discussions, among people of all faith backgrounds, was of pulling back the blinders that religion had hung and of all the devastation and conflict caused in the name of competing gods. There was an implication that leaving the future to faith and attributing the past a deity's plan was unthinking.  Unintellectual. Even harmful. And the strongest proponents of this line of thinking tended to be those who grew up in more religious homes.

But even then it seemed a bit like cultural prejudice to me. I didn't fully buy it. I knew, somewhere inside, faith could be a comfort. A saving grace.

But the point is, I really didn't have exposure to Christians of strong faith, and now that I do I'm surprised at the subtle differences in the use of the English language.  Two examples come to mind:

(1) Grace. When I conjure up images of grace, I think of elegance, fluid movement, and good posture.  But then I started hearing people say, "I wanted to treat him with grace" or "he showed me grace."  I have to admit I didn't entirely get the meaning.  I mean, I consider myself a pretty advanced user of the English language, but I was missing out on something that seemed to be pretty important to a lot of people.

I asked a missionary friend to explain the concept to me an she took the task to heart, providing a bunch of thoughtful examples. "It's when you show someone a kindness that that don't really 'deserve.'" she offered. She talked about how at times she has a short fuse with her husband and probably doesn't deserve the kindness he shows her in response, but he "acts with grace."  The most profound example, in Christian thinking, is Jesus dying for the sins of others.  It's not exactly compassion or kindness or turning the other cheek, but maybe something in between or all of those all wrapped up together.  Lord knows (euphemism when I say it), I could use some more of it.  And maybe now that I have a word for it, I'll actually have a behavior for it.  Maybe.

(2) Season. OK. I know what a season is, and I definitely understand it's use in the metaphorical sense, but I don't go around using it that way.  But more and more I hear people saying things like, "She was probably just going through a season in which she had difficulty/struggles/changes... "  Us agnostics probably say "time" or "period," but there's something nice about referring to it as a season. Season implies it's only a natural (even inevitable) course of events, that there will be a waning out of it into something different but also beautiful and useful in its own right. There's something to look forward to and cherish about all seasons.  You don't get that with "time period."

Don't worry mom, I'm still Jewish. I'm just finding it interesting that I have to go all the way to Kenya to meet different American cultures and learn something new and beautiful from our subtle differences.

Can think of any other words in the English language that different traditions use differently that has helped you see things differently?  

12 comments:

  1. I like! I learned the meaning of Grace not too long ago after listening to "Women of Faith" sing sweet christian melodies.
    As for "seasons", it should always be encouraging to know that every situation (especially bad) is seasonal.Amen to that Kim!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment Nancy. Yeah, I love the notion of each thing difficulty having a season.

      Delete
  2. It's funny, but I'm at the opposite end of that spectrum. I grew up with many devout Catholics in Buffalo, NY and then lived amongst many Born Again Christians and Baptists in Georgia for the largest part of my adult life. Now, I live in Casablanca, Morocco, and I notice the absence of Christian faith and the greater percentage of open mindedness and willingness to explore other cultures.

    I have, however, gained a great new English vocabulary - that of all the British, Irish, and South African expats in the community.

    Whatever your experience, living abroad can teach you a whole new vocabulary.

    Heidi Raki
    www.rakisradresources.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know! I love the subtle differences in british, american and australian english and even kenyan english. Some I've adopted so fully I dno't even realize I'm using them any more!

      Delete
  3. These two words are, indeed, lovely and meaningful. However, as a lifelong and very "churched" Christian with an active, hands-on faith, I would like to add that some Christians use this kind of language as a weapon of separation instead of words of faith. I am suspicious when I hear what I call the "blissed out" who spout these seemingly lovely phrases when, actually, they are (humanly) defining who will really get into heaven "when the rapture comes" - their phrase and man-made deus ex machina. Therefore, I keep my dogma radar on full power 24/7. But you're right, Kim, it is always interesting to glean from other cultures and religions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I know what you are talking about Heidi. Luckily I haven't encountered too much of that here. The Christians I meet here are very inclusive and have not pushed their faith on me or been wary of my Jewish background. I guess there are all kinds in all faiths.

      But it's an interesting point. I wonder if this language is used to separate or to carve out a separate identity or if it's just evolved a bit separately because there's not a lot of mingling between devout religious people and others (at least in my experience). Probably a bit of both?

      Delete
    2. I couldn't agree more that language can be used (by anyone, by any faith) as "a weapon of separation instead of words of faith." How beautifully said, Heidi! At another East Coast university I once wrote a paper about the anthropology of this as applied to an extracurricular activity, so it's not just religion.

      Delete
  4. Be blessed, Kim. We will forgive you your sinful ways...

    ReplyDelete
  5. The use of "grace" for unmerited assistance is, indeed, specifically Christian, but I find it a lovely concept applicable to anyone who believes in a Higher Power. I didn't know about the Christian implications of "season," but surely its first religious meaning is Jewish ("to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" - Ecclesiates 3).

    You certainly make an interesting point about words connoting different things to different faiths, Kim. Perhaps for me as a Baha'i, the answer to your question about other words used differently by different faiths might include "unity" and "oneness." In our community that is all about harmonized diversity, such as different flowers in one garden - each with its own shape and color, each contributing to the beauty of the whole. But other folks seem to assume that we all have to be the same, or believe the same, to be united.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It all comes back to my people, huh? I love it. Oh, and I totally noticed the Bahai "language" when I started to date colin. Oneness, unity, all the garden and nature-inspired imagery and even calling it "the faith" and Bahai's "members" (i.e. I am not a "member of the Jewish faith," I'm just Jewish) - was new to me.

      Delete
  6. I have racked my brains all week to see if there were words in the Jewish lexicon to see if it fits your paradigm. I think it was hard because it of the two languages - Hebrew and English. I finally came up with one - but it doesn't have a real positive context. The word "ghetto" has a particularly Jewish context. It originated from the ghettos established in Italy and then was copied by other European countries, and of course, there was the Warsaw Ghetto in WWII. The ghetto had specific rules and regulations - entrance and egress was regulated, Jews were prohibited from certain professions, their lives were regulated from the outside. It conjures up a certain picture for Jews that I don't that people outside the community understand when they use the word ghetto now.

    I am sure there are other theological ones, but I can't think of them.

    ReplyDelete

There was an error in this gadget