Re-potting – unpleasant but necessary

I’ve recently met with a lot of people going through transition.  Whether they are leaving a posting, parting company with their sending agency, closing a ministry, going to a new country… people in mission relocate frequently and are no strangers to change.

People going through change often notice their physical reactions.  They may be unusually tired (beyond the usual jetlag symptoms) or unduly emotional.  This disturbs them, as they like to think of themselves as self-controlled, focussed people who don’t fall apart easily.  But something about leaving has rocked their boat, and they lose emotional equilibrium.  And losing emotional equilibrium rocks their boat further.  So they get tearful, or angry, or sleepy.  It’s a perfectly natural response to a stressful situation.  And relocation is stressful.

It’s like being a plant that has its roots pulled out of a nice snug pot, teased apart a little, and planted back in new soil, unfamiliar soil.  We all know that this needs to be done periodically to help the plant thrive, but you can be certain that the plant doesn’t appreciate the experience.  Most plants wilt a little, or drop a few leaves, before bouncing back with new growth.  Transition is seldom enjoyable.

There is the stress of packing things up, deciding what to keep and what to do with the rest.  There is the endless paperwork involved.  There are emotional goodbyes with people we love.  There is grief at losing relationships, guilt at having the freedom to move on, and bereavement as we leave projects and people we have worked with for years.  If things haven’t worked out there may be a nagging sense of failure, and if our departure is forced, there may be fear, anger and disempowerment involved.

There is also uncertainty about the future – where we are going to live, be church, work and relax.  We may be going to a different culture with which we are unfamiliar.  And we know from experience that transition is seldom one clean step – there are many moves, new starts and restarts until we can feel settled again.  And just as we think we’ve got there, another change rocks our boat, or some innocent comment or event triggers a memory and throws us back into crisis.

Recognising how the uncertainties and stresses affect us is the first part of the solution.  Understanding how the transition affects us reminds us we need to take steps to treat ourselves to familiar things – if you’re going to a major world city it’s quite possible that your favourite chain of coffee shops or restaurants has got there before you!  Doing familiar things helps us cope with the unfamiliar, so we can take refuge in our favourite meals, music or hobbies, and take time to talk with loved ones who support us through the change.

But above all connecting with God is important.  In the busyness of transition God often gets squeezed out, when he is needed even more.  He is the one unchanging constant in our ephemeral lives, and when everything else is upheaval he is the same – yesterday, today and forever.  Many of the Psalmists in times of difficulty and turmoil wrote songs to him reconciling their trust in his unfailing goodness with their unpleasant experiences.  Reading them helps us to connect with him in the midst of our turmoil:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and the mountains slip into the heart of the sea…

“Cease striving, and know that I am God.”

(Psalm 46:1-2, 10)

 

Anyone who is going through a transition and would like some support is welcome to contact Syzygy on info@syzygy.org.uk to arrange a conversation, either in person or via social media.

 

Which sweet are you?

Which one are you?

Which one are you?

Karl Dahlfred’s recent blog on Why missionaries can never go home’ prompts us to introduce you to another missiological breakthrough from Syzygy – the Confectionery Model of Cross-Cultural Adaptation. This is our version of the excellent Pol-Van Cultural Identity Model[1] which provides a way of understanding how people fit into the culture around them.  In this model we use sweets as a visual aid – and the best bit is that you can eat the visual aids while doing the presentation.  The drawback is that our model is still culturally-embedded: you may have different sweets in your country!

Most of us will grow up as Maltesers*.  They look the same on the outside and are the same on the inside.  Every Malteser is alike.  So as we grow up in our home culture, people who meet us will see the way we dress, and hear how we speak, and assume that since we’re the same on the outside (more or less), we’re the same on the inside – we share common cultural assumptions about the way the world works.

But when we first go abroad into the mission field, no matter how much cross-cultural training we’ve had, we’re like Haribos.  On the outside, they have different shapes, and they taste different.  In the same way, on the mission field, we probably look and sound different to the nationals, and we think differently, which is why it’s so easy to assume (erroneously, of course) that people from another culture are ignorant/stupid/uncivilised  – because they think differently, and we don’t understand why they can’t see things the way we do.  That’s why we can so easily suffer from culture shock – because we can feel like a fish out of water.

But slowly, over the course of time, we begin to understand our host culture, and start to think in the same way as the nationals.  That’s when we become M&Ms – still looking different on the outside, but the same on the inside.  So nobody looking at us would think we’re a national, but we’ve learned to think and behave like them.  Which is really good when you’re in the mission field.

Then we go back to our ‘home’ country.  But we’ve changed on the inside.  So although we look like everybody else on the outside, we’re different on the inside.  Everyone assumes we fit in, but we feel displaced.  ‘Home isn’t home any more.  This is when we can get reverse culture shock.

Sweets

So what do we do about it?  Some people would suggest that our goal is to try to become a Malteser again.  But that’s not possible unless we can forget our experiences abroad and unlearn every lesson.  That’s why returning mission workers can never really go ‘home’.  Trying to be a Malteser will only lead to frustration and disillusion.

The alternative is to try to thrive as a Revel.  They look reasonably similar on the outside, but inside they’re different.  It’s notoriously difficult for mission workers to do this, because everyone around them expects them to be Maltesers and can’t understand why they’re not.  So they try hard to fit in, even when they don’t feel like they do.  This can be dispiriting, and Revels can even end up leaving the church in frustration.

Syzygy’s response to this situation is to create Crash Landing, a day workshop for returned mission workers experiencing the challenge of life back in a ‘home’ country that doesn’t feel like home any more.  We’ll explore these issues, look at questions of our identity, and try to identify strategies for thriving.  Contact us on info@syzygy.org.uk for more details.

* Other types of confectionery are available.

  • [1] Pollock DC, Van Reken RE (2009). Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Culture shock

Company's Gardens, Cape Town

Company’s Gardens, Cape Town

When I first went to live in Africa, after a couple of months I started to feel unhappy.  I didn’t feel comfortable in my surroundings, and had difficulty accepting some of the ways things were done.  Then I went on a trip to Cape Town, where I felt very happy, so happy in fact that it threw my recent experience into sharp contrast and I began to reflect on it.

I realised that Cape Town has a lot of architecture that is familiar to me.  It has an Anglican cathedral and, formal parks with flower beds and statues.  And of course, an Irish pub!  There is a distinctly European feel to the city centre.  I realised that I didn’t have to apologise for being European – that was what God had made me – and that it was unsurprising if I didn’t fit in easily in Africa.

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

I had culture shock, a mysterious state of dis-ease which many mission workers will recognise but which still really unsettles beginners.  Unresolved, it can lead to spiritual and emotional problems which can contribute to early and preventable departure from the field.  Those serving with agencies will have been warned about it, and hopefully will be supported through the experience, but those serving independently may be completely ignorant of it, as I was.

Culture shock often strikes after the initial excitement of a new mission and the euphoria of discovering a new country have started to wear off, and we have to get on with the demanding task of settling down in an alien environment.  It can vary from being a vague sense of unhappiness to a debilitating depression which can have a severe impact on physical energy levels.

It can be triggered by something as trivial as not enjoying rice porridge for breakfast every day, or not being able to sleep because of the heat or the noise of the insects, but it is actually the symptoms of the mind struggling to adapt to a different reality to the one you were previously used to.  Whenever change happens in our lives, we bolster our emotional stability by depending on the things that haven’t changed.  But when you find yourself living in a new country, unable to say even the simplest things in the local language, not recognising the food, having no friends, with a different work culture and a new way of doing church, there’s not much left that hasn’t changed, so we struggle to cope.

Strange food?

Strange food?

The loss of identity which can arise from going back to stage one and becoming a beginner again, and the loneliness and isolation that can result from not having supportive relationships only compound the struggle.

Sadly, there is no quick remedy.  But recognising that you are suffering from culture shock is the first part of dealing with it.  Just be patient – it will eventually wear off, usually after a few months.  It doesn’t mean you’re unfit for cross-cultural ministry, you just take a bit of time to adapt.  You can mitigate the effects by going to places that are familiar (air-conditioned malls or western-style restaurants) or by doing familiar things (your favourite dvds or music, for example).  Write down how you feel, maybe as a poem – that can help to express unwanted emotions.  Try to get to know people from your own country, if there are any around, and talk about your feelings.  Don’t be embarrassed – they’ve probably struggled through culture shock themselves.

But amidst all the change of going to do mission in a new country, remember the one thing in your life that hasn’t changed – God.  Place your security in God’s love for you, pour out your frustration in prayer, and ask for grace to cope.  God has sent you on your mission, and will equip you to survive.  The ancient Israelites suffered from culture shock when they went into exile.  They found no sympathy from their captors.  They wrote the experience down in Psalm 137 – a cathartic way of dealing with emotions.  We are uncomfortable with some of the understandable anger they felt, but they asserted their own cultural identity in the midst of it (verses 5-6).  History tells us that they survived, adapted and thrived.  I am sure you will too.

For more background to cross-cultural issues, see our cross-cultural training manual Worlds Apart