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  • Writer's pictureIan Ruohoniemi

Solace in Story

Illness is a part of the common human experience, and one that we all would rather not dwell on. I had the dubious privilege of getting quite sick as a ten-year-old, with a rash on my whole body, aches, and chills. My mother, a pediatrician, knew that lots of potential diseases could cause such symptoms, so she consulted with fellow physicians. One suggested it might be bubonic plague. When I finally got tested at the local hospital, it turned out to be typhus: a death sentence historically, but now quite manageable with modern antibiotics. While I convalesced, my father read more about the disease, and was quite excited to inform me that I had the same illness that killed Anne Frank! Not exactly the thing you want to hear while you’re still sick. But whether he intended it or not, this exchange is my main memory from the illness, not the pain or the misery. This memory has given me opportunity to reflect on the power of story and especially humor in dealing with the horrors of our experiences. I have seen that a good story can prime us to use hardships for growth, rather than woe.

I have seen that a good story can prime us to use hardships for growth, rather than woe.

The hardships that have entered into my story and my family’s stories are perhaps a little atypical. My dad was born in Nepal to American parents a few years after it opened up to Westerners for the first time in over a century, at a time when electricity was a luxury, cars were a rarity, and most houses were still made of mud and thatch. Decades later, he moved back to Nepal with family in tow, just before I turned two. Although forty years had passed, some challenges remained. The electricity grid was still terribly unreliable, most of the country was only accessible by foot, and drinking tap water was a surefire way to get yourself bedridden. Nepal was also in a time of political upheaval, with ongoing violence between the royal government and Maoist insurgents. All this to say, there were lots of potential sources of stress. My parents also experienced additional challenges in their jobs: my mom working as a doctor in often under-resourced hospitals, my dad juggling teaching my sister and me with small-scale engineering tasks.

With the numerous stresses of life in Nepal, one of the best ways expatriate workers found joy in the challenges was through story. Funny stories were always a delight to hear. One friend told the story of traveling between cities in Nepal by bus: Nepal is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, and hence not friendly to weak-stomached passengers. At a stop, the conductor grabbed a bucket of water to wash out the floor of the bus. Much liquid remained, however, and our friend told of a “tide of pre-loved breakfast” rising around his ankles. Perhaps a little too vivid of an image! Although dealing with other people’s vomit is not something anyone would wish to do, you might as well get a laugh out of it.

The winding roads of Nepal also led to lots of bus accidents. For some of my childhood my mother worked as emergency room director and thus saw the tragic consequences of Tata buses plunging down the side of a hill. Good humor helped to cope with these sorrows as well. The ER used a color-coding system to prioritize patients: green for superficial injuries, yellow for moderately serious cases, and red for life-or-death circumstances. After one accident, my mom noticed that all of the patients coming in had yellow on their clothes, in their hair, and all over themselves. She wondered if some orderly was marking them based on their priority. But it turned out that during the accident a bag of turmeric had exploded!

A ubiquitous source of challenge in Nepal for expatriates was the language barrier, a circumstance where making lots of mistakes is necessary to improve. Humor again eased this difficulty by demonstrating how everyone makes embarrassing mistakes. My mother has lots of good stories from her time learning Nepali. Once she asked a young mother if she was feeding her child chicken milk (the mother very earnestly denied doing any such thing). Another time, worn out and needing lunch, she threatened to knock out the people trying to get her attention. Although she just wanted to say that she was about to pass out if she didn’t get lunch, what she actually said probably cleared her path a little more easily! My mother’s ability to laugh at herself is one of her traits I admire most. It makes her an approachable and kind doctor, and her Nepali patients appreciated it.

I spent the last summer traveling through Central Asia while largely functioning in Russian, which allowed me to put the “fail frequently” philosophy of language learning to the test. For example, when people asked if I liked their country, I would try to say that I liked it a lot. Unfortunately I ended up saying that I didn’t like it very much, leaving them rather disheartened. Turns out pronouncing “nyeh” and “mnyeh” differently is a little hard!

A final way in which storytelling is critical in living as a missionary is the way it acts as a reminder of God’s past faithfulness. In my family, stories abound of God’s provision and protection. When I was three, I was on a bicycle with my mother when she noticed that the road ahead was unusually devoid of people. A bystander gave her a noncommittal gesture when she asked if it was ok to go ahead, but she still felt that something was off. Turning around, shortly afterward a bomb went off in the street where we would have been. Truly God preserved our lives that day! Of course, God sometimes allows deep loss as well. My grandfather died in Nepal in his fifties of cancer, which forced my grandmother and her children to reconcile this loss with a loving God. Although it was hard, I now can see how the legacy of my grandfather’s faith has continued through his descendants, and how God can provide in hardship.

In my own journey to the University of Minnesota, I have had to fall back to these stories to be able to see that God has had a plan for my future. I applied to eight graduate schools and was rejected by six of them without hearing any acceptances. This placed significant doubts in me: was I even a good mathematician? If I wasn’t a mathematician, who was I? But remembering that God had been faithful in the past, both to me and those who came before me, convinced me that even if things didn’t go the way I was hoping, God could still work good from them. And after coming to this point of surrender, I was accepted into the University of Minnesota! Thus I was able to start graduate school here with greater confidence that God wanted me here rather than anywhere else I applied.

Storytelling in the missions community in Nepal has fundamentally affected the way that I think about hardship. Although we naturally want to avoid hard things and complain when they inevitably happen, viewing life as a narrative provides a richer alternative. This model encourages seeing hardships as an opportunity to witness God’s faithfulness, even potentially a source of laughter when remembered. Thus hardships are not avoided, but embraced. Because think of what a great story this will make one day.

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