The BLOG: Voices
How faith’s like learning a language
Susan Arico | November 22, 2016
I don’t know if you could say that we’ve carved out a “normal” for ourselves yet,six weeks into living in Crete, but things are definitely feeling a little more stable. The chore chart’s back in action for the first time since June. We have our weekday activity schedule – gymnastics Tuesdays and Thursdays, tennis Wednesdays and Fridays. And we’ve started doing stuff recreationally on weekends – “participating” (quotes necessary) in an evening Chania 5K race with two other families; attending an American Halloween party; taking bike rides through the trails behind our house… plus in the driveway all the time. Turns out a steep, paved driveway’s a total perk. I visited a Cretan ear doctor last week and really liked her – found her well-informed, knowledgable, attentive. A reassuring first step since I need to either get a tube inserted in my crazy misbehaving ear, or go to Athens to get my hearing aid adjusted (my manufacturer has no service providers on Crete), or both. I see her again this week.
Something that occupies a lot of our time now – my husband’s and mine – is Greek. It’s kind of addicting. He has the Pimsleur program and we listen to a lesson occasionally in the evenings. But more often, we just amass new words each day – through Greeks we encounter or just Google translate – and work on learning and using them. It’s basically ‘Greek-lish’ all the time at our house. At first the kids were reluctant to get involved: words seemed hard to remember, and they just didn’t care that much.. Two things happened to kickstart their involvement. The first was a purported school Greek test (I’m not sure it even happened) which prompted us to create a massive Greek alphabet, tack it to our fridge, and go through it repeatedly with them. Once this was done, the oldest kids became intrigued with the idea of writing English names using Greek letters – their own, Captain America, Star Wars, etc. It’s like knowing how to use a secret code – pretty cool. The second was my husband’s ingenuous idea to reward their efforts to learn and incorporate Greek phrases by handing out Pokemon cards. Pokemon fever has fully and officially swept our household- all four kids – and this turns out to be remarkable incentive for all of them.
We probably know 100 plus words now in Greek- basic phrases like “I would like” and “my name is,” numbers to 100, colours, days of the week, some food-related words. It’s exhilarating when you can create a whole sentence, even just a simple one, using newly-learned words. And when I go to a store and use my Greek (I have to work to because everyone’s fifty times more proficient in English than I am in Greek), that can feel encouraging too. Most times when the Greeks hear me trying to communicate in their language, they like it. They help me out – tell me a new word, correct a pronunciation error.
But the reality is that 100 words in Greek is not very many. When I’m among Greek people who’re conversing with each other, I understand almost nothing they’re saying. In those moments of listening mutely, clueless as to what’s transpiring, feeling completely foreign and like The Other… it can feel really discouraging. Like, “Why am I even bothering with this? This is a nice game we’re playing, this ‘learn and practice some Greek words at home,’ but we’ll never actually speak Greek.” Speak it passably well I mean, so that we can engage with the people around us – know and be known (using their language).
This is probably the way anyone feels who’s ever moved to another country and embarked on efforts to learn the language. Daunted, bumbling, sometimes isolated. Often faced with the underlying question, “Why bother? The headway you’re making is minuscule anyway.” The effort defines itself as as impossible.
The sentiment reminds me of C. S. Lewis in (I think) Mere Christianity… though it could be Surprised by Joy. He writes about the experience of being a schoolboy at the start of term, staring out across the sea of weeks between then and the holidays. The time seems forbidding, insurmountable. Sitting behind a school desk the first week, it seems impossible to evenimagine oneself enjoying the freedom and play of the holiday; it’ll never happen. But then – lo and behold! – the weeks plod by and the seemingly inconceivable occurs: the holiday arrives.
This is the analogy, as I remember it (I’m sadly unsuccessful in finding it now; help welcome, if anyone wants!), that Lewis describes in his own experience of faith. Coming to Christianity as an atheist, he found it preposterous that God and a spiritual realm could actually exist. It seemed ludicrous to him. As he dug in and studied further, though, the experience was similar to his boyhood experience thinking about holiday at term’s start. Holiday had seemed impossible, unreal – but it wasn’t. And God seemed imaginary, fantastical, untrue… but he wasn’t. And isn’t.
And this is like starting to learn a language. It’s hard to believe that one could reinvent one’s ongoing listening and understanding and talking to utilize all new sounds and words. Sounds and words that are, on their face at this moment, utterly meaningless and bewildering. In fact it seems preposterous. But the reality is, as every person who has ever learned (and become fluent in) another language demonstrates, that it’s perfectly feasible. Of course it can happen, and it often does. Somehow, early feelings of impossibility to the contrary, it does.
And as I reflect on it I find myself like Lewis, bolstered that the way things seem on their face – sometimes so utterly convincingly – is not the way they actually are. There is more here than meets the eye. More here than meets feeling – discouragement or the inability to imagine. There is more.
God only knows, and I mean it literally, how far I and we will go with Greek language in the months to come. It’d be great to understand a bunch of what’s said and be conversational; it’s unlikely that – in our setting and amount of time lived here – any of us become fluent. And that’s OK. For me the big piece is: don’t rely on how things seem, what I see today. Press in; be open – prayerfully so, always – to what can be. That’s, after all, what the life of faith is supposed to be all about.
Susan Arico — wife, mom, and strategy consultant — can be found atwww.susanbarico.com.