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Present, but not Tense

October 13, 2014

 

I already wrote about the very local nature of life here. Another thing that has struck me is the incredibly present tense nature of life here.

 

I knew, of course, that we in the West are a bit obsessed with both time and planning for the future. We are future oriented. We wear watches and have a plan ready for each day and next month and next year. We make long-term goals and we envision possibilities and we hate it when people cancel or make plans at the last minute.

 

Early on in language school we were going over the standard small talk lines that we should use with people here. I immediately translated a standard question from English, “What are you going to do today?” My instructor corrected me, “No, you don't ask that. They don't know what they are going to do today. They don't have plans, except work, and that is just work, nothing more specific. They will find out what they are going to do today as they go throughout their day.”

 

As time goes on, I realize this is true. Parties are a huge deal here, but invitations to weddings and birthdays are literally passed out the day before the event. When a friend tried to pass her invitations out early, neighbors resisted. “If you give it to us now, three days early, we will forget!”

 

Even the grammar of this language expresses the very present focus of life, but that is complex and boring so I won't go there. It's striking in conversation. Small talk is commentary on your present state. “Hey, you're holding a book. What book?” “Judah isn't with you?” “Elly doesn't have long pants on?” As we've gotten the hang of it we've tentatively given it a try. We passed our neighbor chopping wood and although we can clearly see he is chopping wood, we say, “Hey, you're chopping wood?” He cheerfully responds in the affirmative and the conversation begins. In fact, it's even in prayer. “Father, we have finished studying. We are about to go home.” Of course, He knows it already, but I suppose that if we believe in a sovereign, above-time God, it's no weirder than any prayer request. From a Western perspective, it's super weird.

 

Isaac had a revealing conversation about the typical greeting word, “Selamat.” We always thought it sort of meant happy, or good, as we would say, “Good day.” I thought we were saying (may you have) good eating, good travels, good morning, good holidays, etc. Etymylogically the word comes from Salaam, but when Isaac talked to his language helper, he was told that the actual meaning conveyed by local speaker is not that future focus but rather the survival of the past. Good morning; you survived the night. And, indeed, it's also the root word for “saved” and “salvation” in the Bible.

 

One instructor in language classes explained a certain word which refers to someone intelligent, meaning someone who can think not just about today and tomorrow but also the next day and the next day and after that. I'm betting that shows this culture confronted by a very future oriented culture, so that people who can enter the future oriented world of the West are now seen as being intelligent and likely to succeed.

 

It's really interesting. I am a planner and a list-maker and have a hard time resting in the present, but I have to admit that it is somewhat of a weight off the shoulders to not have everyone always worrying about the future all the time.

 

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