The car swallowed up the white bars dividing the highway, one by one, not greedily, but insatiably, on the road to Saskatoon. I saw them rise up and disappear in a relentless line, alone on the road in the fall night, mesmerized, caught up not in their infinite regularity but in the words of the immigrant from Sudan recalling on Radio-Canada his first days in Canada. After years in a refugee camp, he said, he marveled at the conveniences we take for granted—a toilet, running water, a hot shower, a stove, a refrigerator, a roof. The loneliness, though, was something else. It took two years, he said, for the phone to ring.
A few years after his arrival in Canada, this man continued to live in exile. Much of what he knew and understood about living was no longer useful to him in this new land of mecanization and strange mores. He was living in a foreign land. Instinctive responses and ways of being he had learned from childhood might not be appropriate in this new context. He would have to reflect much more before acting, or speaking, and consider the cultural impact of his gestures.
We don’t have to move to a different land to be in a situation resembling that of the Sudanese immigrant. All it takes is a new job with new colleagues and a particular culture, and we, too, find that our learned responses and ways of being don’t quite fit in the new environment, and we, too, have to consider the implications of each word and action. Even worse if our new situation is a mismatch with our training or abilities. We feel alone, and joyless, like the Jews in Babylon. Whether we have left the place, or whether the place has left us—valued colleagues have left, or our job description has changed, or management has reorganized, or, God forbid, we have experienced an environmental or political catastrophe—when we no longer recognize our surroundings, we experience alienation from everything that has helped to make us whole. And, to boot, like the Jews in Babylon, we must sing.
As Psalm 137 says, the Jews forced into exile in Babylon were asked to sing the songs of the Lord, their traditional songs of joy: There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy. But how could the Jews sing, stripped of all heart and soul, ravaged in a place not their own, struggling every day just to survive?
By extension, how can we sing our own songs of joy in a place contrary to our nature, whether we have sought a new circumstance or circumstance has been thrust upon us? Can we do our best work, actualize our talents, live as fulfilled human beings, in a metaphorical foreign land? And if that is even possible, what might it take?
Well, it will take time. And adjustment. And rote action, putting one foot ahead of the other and just remembering to breathe in and out. It will take character, and discipline, and perspective, and living in the moment, and patience. It is exhausting and tough. After a bit, though, we can make some headway. We might reclaim our heart and soul.
Maybe we will be able to sing again.
Hey, the phone might even ring.