I’ve heard the trees called strong.
A tall, towering palm, or a thick, rough eucalyptus. I know the word for tree in four languages. Pohon, arbre, tree, árvore. Having a few extraordinary vocabulary words floating around my mind apparently makes me like the eucalyptus tree: tough, and well rounded. At least that’s what my friends say – the ones who have never left their home country.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after living abroad for 17 years it is that everybody has a different idea of strength. Some cultures think the ultimate achievement in life is being able to trick someone really well, but if that’s the standard I were to define by strength by, I’d be pitifully weak. Other people prefer those who own the most pigs, and unfortunately I’m also short on that account.
But the culture I’ve learned to identify with the most has a different idea of strength. For us, for the ones who live in between worlds, we’ve learned that what makes us strong is the connections we’ve made. The bridges we’ve built across oceans and mountains, which pull the earth together. And make it a smaller, more comfortable place.
They said the Internet shrunk the world, and before that the telephone, the telegraph, and written words. But while those technologies help us communicate ideas, and now even sounds and pictures, there is a sense they will never be able to convey: touch. I’ve touched a eucalyptus tree, and climbed up a palm before jumping off of it into the ocean. I feel the rough bark on my skin, a rush of air as my heart leaps, and then the gratifying surge of the warm Pacific water, I blink crusty salt out of my eyes to see the faces above me, now beside me, smiling as they too get engulfed in the ocean. Having such visceral experience can only give so much satisfaction, and some people I’ve known are content without it. But when it comes to human interaction, a sense of touch is something no one can do without.
Would you believe me if I told you that what has made me strong in life is this gift I’ve been given where I can know people all over the world, and go give them a hug? I’ve written long words of encouragement through tears, and yet even that can’t compare to the simple communication of touch, feel, and know. It helps me to understand people more intimately; it gives me a window into lives I never would have seen. Physical actions convey meaning that words can’t.
How do I show love to a people group that has been isolated from the world for the last thousands of years, and is now dying from a disease brought in by colonialists? Words aren’t enough. But to be there with them, and listen to and learn from them, to shake their hands and pray for them, to hike, or play, or build something together, that says something. And it speaks to my own heart too. To serve others in a tangible way, and more than just transferring dollar signs from one online account to another, makes me more energized and confident that there is hope for a world that at times tries its best to tear itself apart.
Trees don’t connect with the world around them by the sounds of creaking they make, and humans don’t either. Trees send out roots and seeds, and let their leaves fall until they are fully connected with their environment, whether its on a pristine beach or gentle grasslands, and that’s what gives them strength. I’m glad I’ve been able to spend my life connecting in the strongest way with all sorts of different environments, and most importantly the people in them. The people I’ve lived with and loved are the ones that give me the most strength in life, and the connections that we’ve made are the ones that are pulling the world together.
 In the interest of honesty, I can’t remember exactly where I heard this, possibly from some Disney cartoon, a local Papuan tribe, and a good dash of Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings all mixed together.
 That would be Portuguese, English, French, and Indonesian from right to left. I was born in Canada, hence the English and French, and I’ve lived in Angola and Indonesia each for about half my life, where I learned the other two languages.
 Although a lot of people I know act like being creaky or cranky is the only way to communicate with their fellow human beings, I tend to differ with them on whether this communication is actually meaningful.