We do what we can

Flying over the Congo jungle is a mesmerizing experience. The WWF quotes the rainforest’s size at 500 million acres, which is a larger footprint than the whole of Alaska. All I could see was mile after mile of trees stretching into the distance.

Our group of about eight was in a small Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) plane, visiting places missionaries had established as ‘stations’ in the 1800s. We decided to abandon one planned visit because fighting had broken out nearby. Instead we’d go a day early to another village where there was no trouble. The pilot invited me to sit up front beside him.

We arrived over our new destination, a place no-one had flown into for many months. It was only what some would call ‘a hole in the jungle’ but as well as homes it had a church, a small hospital and a dirt airstrip. The pilot circled the plane several times, studying that airstrip. He was nervous about landing, or, more accurately, about whether we could take off again. Jungle encroaches on airstrips quickly from all sides, and though the pilot had been told the villagers had cut back the forest it didn’t look like they’d cut enough. He could land the plane, but he’d need more space to take off. We might be stuck there for days.

He decided to go for it, and down we went. The landing was bumpy, but no more than usual on dirt, and the plane came to rest at the end of the airstrip where enthusiastic villagers were waiting for us. The engine was switched off.

It was at exactly that moment about thirty men in army uniforms emerged from the jungle. Quickly they encircled our plane with their automatic weapons pointed at us. My front location got a perfect view of a trestle-mounted machine gun aimed right at the cockpit.

There are many militias in Congo, and there was no immediate way to know who these ‘soldiers’ were. Even government troops could be hostile. And these guys were seriously hostile.

A couple of our number got out to speak with them. A few minutes later they told us we must all get out. We clambered from the plane, and were marched at gunpoint towards the village. The people we’d come to see were super-excited, and sang and rushed back and forth in ways that clearly bothered our captors. My fear was that if they upset them too much, those soldiers might start shooting at random. Thankfully, it never came to that.

We got to the village, received a great welcome from village and church leaders and held a short service in the open air with gun wielding soldiers surrounding all of us. We were given food, and visited the hospital which, tragically, was very broken down but still the only facility which could care for people who might have walked for days through the jungle to get help.

At some point, a call of nature had to be answered. There was a toilet a couple of hundred yards away, but I wasn’t allowed to go alone. My soldier escort kept his weapon pointed in my direction even at my most vulnerable moment.

Apparently we’d aroused great suspicion because our changed plan meant we’d arrived on a day when we weren’t authorised. We couldn’t leave unless a commander from over the river permitted it. By late afternoon we were getting perilously near to sunset, and we couldn’t take off in the dark. Our MAF pilot was seriously afraid an overnight stay would result in his plane being stripped of essential components. That wouldn’t be good for the plane and not good for us because then we couldn’t leave at all.

With only half an hour before daylight would end, news arrived that the commander said we could go. ‘We’re leaving now’ said the pilot, with great emphasis on ‘now’. We were inside the plane in five minutes. The engine started, the plane lined up, and we set off down that airstrip at full power. No-one was sure we’d get into the air before we reached the jungle at the far end. The trees seemed to rush towards us. It looked impossible to miss them. Last second, the pilot pulled back on the stick and up we went, skimming the trees. We were airborne! I glanced out the window, and leaves from the jungle were hanging from the wing tips.

That visit was memorable. But, over the years, the suffering of ordinary people in Congo has been far more memorable than finding myself on the wrong end of soldiers’ guns.

What I also learned from that dramatic and life-threatening experience was a hard but important lesson: We are not as much in control of our lives as we think.

I have a passionate dislike of time management and life management books. Not because they lack any wisdom, but because of the core assumptions almost all of them contain: that we are masters of our destiny, and we can reach our goals if only we order our lives rightly.

I have an ethical problem with that, and believe there’s a major flaw in the logic.

My ethical problem is the inherent selfishness. One book praised the boss who had his secretary screen all incoming calls, and promise he’d return them between 4.00 and 5.00 in the afternoon. He wouldn’t call at any other time. That practice was praised as great time management. Yes, great for that boss, but not great for those told they had to make their schedules fit round his if they were to get his attention. I’ve seen similar advice given for answering emails. And I’ve known people willing to meet others only between hours they defined; if you couldn’t meet then, you didn’t meet at all.

Arrogant people must think they can make the world revolve around them. What if we universalized that form of time management, but all chose different times of the day to be available? Interactions would be impossible.

The flaw in much time and life management thinking is this. Let’s liken it to driving a fairground dodgem (bumper) car. And let’s imagine no other cars are on the track or they’re all stationary. Then driving would be easy. But real life isn’t a static dodgem track. It’s a dodgem track full of people driving crazily, right into our path, crashing us from the side and from behind, jarring our bones and almost toppling us over.

The hard reality is that we can’t regiment the world around us. No matter how good we are at strategizing, planning, organizing, life refuses to be ordered or controlled. The messy world we navigate has events and people crashing into us from all angles. None of us on that plane imagined we’d be surrounded by armed soldiers in a clearing in the jungle. No-one has ready-made strategies for extreme events like that, nor for hundreds of parallel though ordinary happenings in our lives.

So, what do we do? We can’t make problems melt away, and not every circumstance can have a happy ending. Therefore we do what we can. We try not to freeze or panic, or to sit down and moan about the unfairness of life. Probably most of us have surrendered to reactions like these sometimes. But nothing good comes that way.

My ‘we do what we can’ philosophy kicked in during the final stages of my theology degree. A large part of my overall mark depended on a 20,000 word dissertation. My future plans for PhD study also rested on that dissertation. But I was getting nowhere. After months of work the project would not come together. Then one day, out of the blue, a whole new angle on the subject flashed into my mind. But following that intuition would mean starting all over again. I described the new idea to Alison, but added, ‘There just isn’t enough time to do that now.’

‘Are you sure? What if you just start and see what you can do?’

She was right. And I did just start. The research went well, and the writing went well. There was a crisis when a friend typing my draft to dissertation standard suddenly went into hospital. But I found another typist, and the dissertation was handed in with two days to spare. It got good marks, and I was admitted to the PhD programme. In this world we don’t sail on a calm sea. We face storms. Some are minor and some major. Some won’t harm us and some threaten everything. In the Congo jungle I wasn’t in control of the outcome. It was a time to trust God and get on with doing what I could, which was spending time with deeply impoverished people. I’ve practised a ‘do everything you can’ approach many times now. It doesn’t make life easy, but it has meant I keep moving forward. And that’s a good thing.