When I was 37, I took a memorable trip to Bangladesh.
Massive cyclone waves had just hit that country, killing 140,000 people. I saw videos of the carnage, and wanted to help.
I discovered that the country’s infrastructure included a dismal early warning system, and no place for people to shelter when life-threatening storms hit.
So I started a relief fund to finance the building of a shelter. The support from my family, friends, and clients was quick, and generous.
My travel agent secured free passage on British Airways for me and one other person, as I prepared to visit the area hit by the storms. To accompany me as a translator, I was fortunate to locate a retired missionary priest who had formerly served in Bangladesh.
The money I collected was used to build a concrete cyclone shelter in Anwara, a vulnerable coastal village. I met the surviving inhabitants there, talked to local disaster relief officials, and transferred the money I had collected.
The purpose of my visit had been achieved. I was ready to return to my Rochester home.
Enter the unexpected.
The evening before returning, I accepted an invitation to visit an orphanage in Chittagong. I was eager to have a first-hand experience of life in an orphanage because my spouse and I had talked for some time about the possibility of cross-cultural adoption.
During my informal tour, I encountered a 6-month-old girl in a crib, who had been brought to the orphanage immediately after her birth. “We want her to have a home,” the orphanage director said.
Upon my return, adoption conversations got underway. A series of remarkable events happened over the next several months, favorable gestures and occurrences that neither my wife nor I could have expected.
A year later, 18-month-old Maria joined our family. She’s now 30, and thriving.
My analytical mind wanted to understand how all of this turned out so well. Yes, I took initiative and made some things happen. That’s part of the story. But many other factors – emotional, intentional, logistic – went into the turn of events that led to Maria’s adoption.
All the ifs could have gone a different way: IF I had not paid attention to the news the week the cyclone hit; IF I had not visited the orphanage that one evening; IF the relief fund hadn’t been successful; IF I had not had support from my spouse and family; IF I had refused or been unable to pay a bribe to a suspicious officer at the airport who stopped me before boarding my return flight with Maria…
It hit me then – and has stayed with me ever since – that not everything is easily explained.
Often, we are ushered into events and encounters that leave us stricken by the awareness of something more. Call it, “That Which I Cannot Put My Finger On.”
It’s as if we are surrounded by mystery.
Surprise and Confusion
How do we recognize it? The usual calling cards for the unexplainable are surprise and confusion.
Something happens and we don’t know what to make of it, or how to respond. A child develops a brain tumor. An old woman never seems to age. A disadvantaged student becomes a teacher. Anticipated success turns to failure. Migraines disappear.
This territory of mystery is slippery business. It’s a land where definitions and explanations fall short. Self-assured convictions face scrutiny, and pretenses melt.
The invitation is to listen and pay attention. That’s not easy in the midst of a busy life.
Something in us wants to go with the convenient explanation: That God has cast favor or scorn upon us, or, to the contrary, that it’s a mere coincidence, a matter of luck, pure randomness. Maybe so, but humans are meaning-makers. We want to know why.
Inventing a Story
And if we cannot find a reason, we do a very human thing: We invent a story.
I have composed an inner story about Bangladesh, and Maria’s adoption. The story includes facts, beliefs, feelings, and interpretations. The story is simply one person’s experience, not “the objective truth.”
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” presents us with a grand and soothing fiction. Can anyone claim they have the whole truth?
Sometimes, as with Maria, mystery produces joy. At other times, there is heartache.
Who can explain the specific elements of love, faith, inspiration, or an unforeseen tragedy?
I have to admit, it’s somewhat pressure-reducing to acknowledge the reality of “That Which I Cannot Put a Finger On.” It relieves me of the fantasy that I am fully in control.
I’m still going to work at trying to figure things out, no matter how inexplicable the circumstances.
In the meantime, I’ll weave meaningful-to-me stories that help me make sense of the unexplainable, the rumblings of mystery all around me.