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.

 

You can never go back…

IMG_20160715_163854Recently I visited a village I had lived in when I was a child.  It was several decades since I had last been there, but I hadn’t expected much to have changed.  It’s a sleepy little village on the way to nowhere.  Our house was still there, though the big elm trees in the front garden had fallen victim do Dutch elm disease many years ago.  The two churches and my primary school were still there, the latter extensively rebuilt, the former completely untouched.  But everything else had changed.

The shopping parade had been converted into houses.  The post office had disappeared, together with the pillar box where I used to lean out of our car’s passenger window to post letters while my father drove past without stopping.  The large house at the bottom of our garden where the bank manager lived had become a housing estate.  Not even the village pub had survived.

I came away with the sad feeling that it’s a place I ought to have recognised, but didn’t feel at home in.  There were enough landmarks to orientate me, but not enough familiar sights for me to feel I still belonged.

This feeling may be familiar to many of us who have gone back to try to regain hold of the past, only to find it just beyond their reach.  This is what many mission workers feel when they return to their ‘home’ country, often after many years abroad, to find it has changed beyond recognition and they don’t fit in.  Many of us end up feeling more at home in our country of service, and wish we could go back – in fact some of us make so many return visits that we end up damaging our re-entry into our ‘home’ country, because we never really let go of the other one.

It’s an alarming feeling to be so disorientated, particularly because it’s unexpected.  We call this Reverse Culture Shock – and it’s a shock because we are often completely unprepared for it.  We prepare hard to go and live in a culture which is different to the one we grew up in, but we often fail to train to go and live in a culture which we think ought to be the same, but is different.

We have plenty of advice for mission workers in other blogs and in our Guide to Re-entry, but churches and families too need to understand this.  It’s not that returning mission workers aren’t delighted to see you, but so much has changed that they need time – often several years – to find their feet in their new ‘home’.  The reason they talk so boringly about where they used to serve is that it feels familiar to them, and they have a sense of belonging there which they haven’t yet found at ‘home’.  The reason they may be restless and grumpy is that they had a significant ministry there and haven’t yet developed one here.  And where they served, they were surrounded by other people driven by a passion for taking the gospel to the nations, and here they can’t quite understand why your new car, house extension or promotion are quite so significant to you.  Which can easily make them come across as arrogant, impatient, or judgmental.  They would hate to know you thought that, but it’s easy for them to create that impression.  So please be patient with them.  Friendship means sticking with them even when you don’t feel like it.  Allow them to talk.  Help them work out how to belong.  Connect them with other mission workers who’ve been through the same thing.  And please connect them to Syzygy, because we can help them – and you – battle through this to find a place where they can really feel at home.

Sadly, many mission workers struggling with re-entry lose friends in the process.  Some become estranged from family members and others end up leaving their churches and try, often without success, to find a church where they feel they fit.

We can never go back… but we can always go on.

Circle of life?

Does John McLane's 'mission' typify the experiences of many of us?

Does John McClane’s ‘mission’ typify the experiences of many of us?

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph relates how a US scriptwriter says there are eight key  elements of any story which guarantee that the film or television programme which uses them will be a best seller.  Stories which fit the mould include such diverse productions as Frozen, Sex and the City, Last Tango in Halifax, Die Hard, Father Ted and Breaking Bad.

Dan Harmon describes the elements as forming a circle which brings the protagonist back to the starting place, but having changed along the way.  The appropriate elements are that the lead character:

  • is introduced
  • wants something
  • enters a new world
  • adapts to that environment
  • gets what they want
  • suffers as a result
  • returns to their previous world
  • changes as a result

And of course, if it’s a Hollywood production, there’s a happy ending.  This scenario could equally be, instead of a movie, the life cycle of a mission worker:

  • we want to serve God
  • we go abroad or into a new culture to do it
  • we learn (slowly and painfully) to adapt
  • in the process we are serving God
  • but it costs us
  • eventually we return to our previous world
  • we have changed as a result of the experience we’ve had

For many of us, the changes we have experienced and the lessons we’ve learned help us to become more Christlike.  Despite the hardships, the overall experience has been enriching and worthwhile.  But for some of us, the fact that we have changed along the way makes it hard to enter our previous home.  In fact it’s not home.  We are overwhelmed by reverse culture shock.  Moreover, some of the changes may have made us angry, bitter and resentful.  We don’t feel comfortable alongside our old friends.  We relate differently to our family.  We feel we don’t fit into our church any more.

For those of us who haven’t experienced the Hollywood ending, there is hope.  Syzygy has produced a one-day workshop to help us process our experiences and unpack our emotions.  You can find out more about it by clicking on Crash Landing?

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.

Reverse culture shock

More change on the way

More change on the way

It seems to me that every time I come back from a trip abroad, a new shop has opened on my local high street.  I don’t know if they wait for me to go away, in the hope that I won’t notice, but it’s a regular occurrence.  Since I travel quite frequently, this adds up to quite a turnover of stores.  Over time, the character of the high street changes, but most people wouldn’t notice, as the change is gradual and incremental.

But if I were to come back after a year or two away, the difference would be much more marked.  I would still recognise the high street, but I could clearly see it’s different.  The supermarket has changed hands (again!).  The post office has gone.  The bank has turned into a posh restaurant.  The greengrocer’s is now a charity shop.  We grieve (just a little bit) the loss.

This is a small example of what is called ‘reverse culture shock’.  It never ceases to amaze me how few mission workers, particularly independent ones, are prepared for the fact that things are not the same as they were when they left.  Life has moved on without them.  The sense of things not being quite the same can lead to a feeling of not quite belonging any more.  Once the euphoria of meeting family and friends again has worn off, returning mission workers can be left feeling slightly disorientated.  It’s a mild form of grieving – grieving for a lost past that cannot be recovered.

La bancaAdd into the changing high street the fact that church has changed (there may be a new vicar, old friends have left), family has changed (granny has died, mum and dad have moved into a house that was never home to me), and society has changed around us in too many ways to mention, and reverse culture shock can become quite an issue.  On top of what has changed in our environment, we have changed too while we’ve been away.  We’ve learned a new language, taken on aspects of a new culture, and seen God at work in an entirely different context.  So we can’t reasonably expect to fit back in where we left off, whether it was three decades ago, or just a year.  These changes can lead to loss of friendships, dislocation of family, and alienation from church.

If you find yourself feeling unaccountably emotional (tearful, angry, impatient, frustrated) – or indeed curiously numb – some 6-8 weeks after your return, it’s possible you’re suffering from reverse culture shock.  This can go on for quite some time, but recognising it for what it is will be the best way to start dealing with it.  Having a proper, formal debrief can help – either with your church or agency, or if they don’t feel competent to do it, please contact Syzygy to arrange one with us.  Talking about it with somebody who understands can help normalise your experience and facilitate your adaptation.  If you’re the church, family, or friends of people returning from abroad, watch for signs of reverse culture shock and be prepared to help with it.  For more information about it, see our article which is part of our guide to re-entry.

Overseas mission has a habit of knocking off some of our sharp edges.  As a result, we don’t fit back into the square holes we came out of.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with us.  We’ve just grown.