December 3, 2009

I once despised pleasantries. So much so, in fact, that I became a repeat offender of what my parents believe to be a most heinous felony: I was blunt, occasionally bordering on rude. Then, as if my impertinence were not enough, I became something nearly akin to a philosopher, yet another crime. I discussed the value of niceties with my father, harshly condemning them as the “hypocrisy of society.” I’d argue that a solicitous stranger asking after my health or schedule seemed forced and of no true substance.

Nor was it merely the common inquiry of, “What’s up?” that irked me. There was always a lack of authenticity, a sense that no one seemed to say what he or she meant. A peer, in one instance, ostensibly concerned, beckoned after a friend and me to ask about our midterm scores. In reality, it was inescapably clear that she didn’t care; she desired the satisfaction of knowing whether or not she achieved the higher score. We all knew. I, who did poorly, shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another before trumpeting my grades as loudly as I could. While this is a poor example, it adequately establishes my problem. I was too proud, too certain of the excellence of my character to lie. In truth, I fancied myself above maintaining a façade of confidence in my admittedly frequent moments of anxiety, above declaring beauty where there was none, and, most of all, above telling a “harmless” lie to protect the feelings of another. This unwarranted arrogance kept me from seeing the true value of niceties, not impulsively declaring the first thought that crossed my mind. I suppose arrogance, like love, induces blindness.

In some respect, however subconsciously, my decision to volunteer at an orphanage in Africa, interestingly enough, stems from my haughtiness; I wanted to prove my superiority. It is quite ironic that such a humble act served as the mask for an overbearing pride. I knew shamefully little about Africa, except that it seemed to have been the region of the world that God had chosen to be his litter box, and even less about my precise destination, Ghana. Located in West Africa, sandwiched between Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, Ghana is a hardly contemporary and fully dysfunctional country masquerading as “Africa’s success story.” This is, contrary to the claims of the news media, a blatant lie. Honestly, all that appeared to thrive was destitution. In addition, the allegedly “effective” government that is proud of its “non-burning” villages is also responsible for a surreptitious mass execution of its people. This genocide is characterized, not by gunpowder, but by defective stoplights, horrifying abuses of the merge lane, and a highway Satan himself spit up. Moreover, people actually live in huts on the sides of these roads, huts that could have sprung from the imagination of Dante. Consequently, Ghana is no better off than the bomb-ridden hellscapes surrounding it.

Although I will forever be both appalled and amused by the region’s lack of infrastructure, I fell in love with Ghana’s people, namely their uncompromising straightforwardness; I was among my own kind. This, however, led to several bizarre occurrences, seemingly inevitable when the tactless of the world receive their own country. Perhaps the most peculiar moment of my Ghanaian adventure came when a walk into town led to an impromptu marriage proposal from a middle-aged man. Evidently, he was serious, as he cried when I turned on my heel and ducked around the nearest corner.

However, another moment, a defining moment, came on the final day of my excursion to this region so foreign; it appeared to be from another planetary system. After trotting through the blue-painted gate of New Life Orphanage, I was greeted, as usual, by Godwin’s cries of “Awy;” he was, inexplicably, unable to pronounce the l in my name. We became inseparable. At six-years old, he was small for his age and had a severe overbite that no one would ever have the money or resources to fix. None of the orphanage’s managers knew anything of Godwin’s life before his enrollment a year prior, including his birthday and last name, as he had been found in a graveyard -- his past shrouded in mystery. All the boy appears to have known was his first name. And I loved him as though he were my own child. I mothered him as best I could and was, at times, his disciplinarian. Had I been older, I’ve little doubt that I would have adopted him as my own. But both of us knew that it was the last time I would see him, possibly ever. For his sake, I pretended that it was another day; my wide-eyed orphan knew otherwise. Distractedly, he snatched the bag I was holding and literally dragged me to the orphanage’s closet-guest room, complete with mold-covered soap and a decaying hammock. “Sleep here.” Godwin gazed at me expectantly. Momentarily, my breathing ceased and my words deserted me; I hadn’t the strength to confront a six-year old child about my plans to abandon him. As a result, I responded in the only manner in which I could: I instigated a tickle fight. All his “brothers” and “sisters” quickly joined; for a single moment, all was well.

By sunset, I had emotionally and mentally braced myself for the imminent goodbye. I had, drawing on my experiences in Ghana, anticipated more than a cool “nice to meet you,” but to my shock and grief, Godwin ignored me. The diminutive boy hadn’t so much as looked me in the eye. Dejected, I wondered if Godwin would miss me at all. Subsequently, I turned and lifted myself into the waiting van. Mere moments before I was to take off, however, Godwin vaulted into the car, clinging to my leg, wailing, “Awy, Awy. Don’t leave me. I be a good boy.” Darkness passed over his countenance as I attempted to detach him from my leg; he then cried out, as if I’d burned him, and continued to sob uncontrollably. “I have to go,” was all I managed to choke out before he was pulled away. Tears streaming down his innocent face, he waved his arms wildly, screeching, “I love you, love you.” As I drove away, entirely numb, I saw him on the ground, and his face was deep in the dirt. Now I realize a “nice to meet you” would have been far easier.

That night, I accomplished nothing. I did not pack, nor journal, nor sleep. Instead, I stared absently at a ceiling I did not see, too immersed in my shame and misery to care – about anything.

It was then that I had my epiphany. There is a reason people exchange so many platitudes and tell so many white lies. They serve as protection for those we love. By telling each other “stories,” we spare those we care about the heartbreak and distress that often comes with the blatant disclosure of our true feelings or thoughts. The pleasantries that I had once cursed are, in reality, the lubricant that holds society together. Thus, what I condemned as the sin of lying is actually our saving grace.

And so, the following day, feeling more miserable than I could ever recall, I endeavored to ensconce myself in the overcrowded coach cabin of a 757. I was nearly sitting on my poor seatmate, who, seeing my distress, asked the compulsory question: “How are you?” Gazing past her and out the window into the blank sky, I wondered if God was avoiding eye contact with me. With considerable effort, I looked back into her eyes, and, mustering as large a smile as I could, I answered, “Wonderful. And yourself?”

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