Comfortably numb?

As we enter Holy Week, I am struck by the wide range of emotions involved in the events of this epic week nearly 2000 years ago.

There’s the jubilation of the Triumphal Entry, followed so closely by the disappointment of many of the crowd who expected Jesus to confront the Romans.  There’s the excitement of intellectual debate, the thrill of miracles, the challenge of teaching, the fun of a meal with Lazarus which was suddenly turned solemn by Mary’s worship, Judas’ frustration and betrayal, the terror of the arrest and trial, and of course the tragedy of crucifixion followed by the ecstasy of the resurrection.  And all week long Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, mission workers go through a huge range of emotions during their career, but also any given week can have massive ups and downs.  Ministry success (or disappointment), relationship challenges and joys, the secondary stress of hearing the traumatic stories of people we ministry to, our own physical and medical issues, support-raising, surprise visits, and cultural misunderstandings can have our emotions all over the place.

This can be very exhausting and in order to try and achieve emotional stability some of us can be tempted to shut our emotions down and stop feeling.  For example, TCKs and long-term mission workers who are tired of the pain of so many goodbyes can isolate themselves and stop forming new friendships so they can protect themselves from sadness.  Or we can simply not get involved with the many needs around us.  Someone remarked to me only last week how unloving she had become while on the mission field: because she had no way of meeting the needs of all the people around her, it was easier to ignore them.

Becoming unfeeling can be a sign that we have reached the end of our ability to cope.  Numbness is a way of protecting ourselves which can show we’re not coping well.  Sometimes we have  intentionally fostered emotional numbness to hide the pain – even from ourselves.  We need to be gently coaxed into opening up while receiving love and support.

Warning signs of emotional numbness can include:

  • remoteness towards family and friends
  • lack of joy in things which would have excited us in the past
  • loss of appetite for food or desire for sex
  • lack of delight in the Lord
  • disinterest in pastimes
  • boredom and lethargy

If you find yourself or your friends feeling numb – and even more significantly feeling comfortable about feeling numb – give them love and support, and refer then for member care, whether to their agency or to an outside resource like Syzygy.

Jesus appears to have fully entered into the spirit of each event, conversation and encounter during Holy Week despite the knowledge that he would die a gruesome death towards the end of it.  What kept him going was his awareness that it was only temporary, and that soon he would come out the other side: “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2).

Our heavenly perspective gives us a huge capacity to endure, to maintain perspective, and to trust God in the midst of our difficulties.  Let’s not close down our souls so that we can endure to the end, but open them up to God and to others so that we can truly live the abundant life we are called to.

Dealing with grief and loss

As I remarked a few weeks ago when addressing the question of mourning, Christians are not always good at being in touch with our emotions.

I have been told, probably like you, that since Jesus gives me joy, I should smile.  I shouldn’t be angry.  Fear is the opposite of faith so to be afraid is to sin.  Such comments reflect a heavenly perspective which is so out of touch with the world we live in that it’s fairyland.

Having emotions is part of being human, and to deny or suppress them is merely to try to reject a part of ourselves which is no more sinful than any other part of us.  It’s just human.  And denying aspects of our humanity is bad for us.  It has been rightly observed that:

Any emotion which we buried is always buried alive, and it digs its way out again.

Mission workers can have to confront a wide variety of emotions throughout their lives:

  • leaving family and friends behind when they go to the mission field
  • returning on home assignment to find things have changed
  • sending children to boarding school because the schools where they serve are not good
  • suffering major trauma like civil war, kidnap, traffic accident and disease
  • experiencing secondary trauma as they help the vulnerable and marginalised
  • leaving their way of life in their adopted country to return to a ‘home’ country they no longer feel at home in.

Recognising the emotional impact of these occurrences on us and those around us is a mature and responsible way of coming to terms with them.  That’s why talking therapies such as debriefing or counselling are such good ways of helping the healing process.  The grief-loss cycle (click here to download a copy) is a well-known tool for helping with this.  It helps us understand how we feel in the aftermath of a trauma, and why it’s ok to feel like that.  Often I find that people recovering from trauma feel guilty about their emotions when in fact their feeling is a normal psychological response to what they’ve been through.

The grief-loss cycle charts typical stages of trauma recovery.  It shows how our well-being descends from where it was to a low, and then comes out of it.  Though it’s not the same journey for everybody, and it’s not always a linear progression through the curve, it can help us understand why we feel what we do, and acknowledging those feelings help us to recover more rapidly.

Research has shown that getting some talking therapy while going through a recovery process can often help people’s well-being return to the level it was previously, it can actually help them come out of the experience in an even better place as they grow through the experience.  Syzygy can help by providing mission workers with a debrief following a significant incident.  Click here to get in touch and find out more.

Supporting traumatised mission workers

pastoralMany people in the mission world are exposed to significant levels of suffering.  Whether it’s walking past vast numbers of the destitute on the streets of Asian megacities, watching people die of diseases that could be cured in the west, or supporting the millions of people worldwide living in refugee camps, mission workers witness a lot of suffering.  Sometimes it’s a passive experience which can be part of life in their field of ministry, or sometimes an active one as they devote themselves to providing relief.

Others of us experience suffering ourselves, perhaps through the car accidents which are all-too-frequent in the sort of places we work, robbery, kidnap, assault, or natural disaster.  We may experience broken relationships, spiritual abuse within toxic agencies, or exploitation by those we are aiming to serve.

Such exposure to suffering can have a variety of impacts.  It can lead to compassion fatigue, with people becoming uncaring as they steel themselves to withstand the suffering around them.  It can lead to burnout as they strive compassionately to personally meet the needs of everyone they come across.  And it can, in extreme circumstances, lead to severe theological doubts or even a loss of faith as people struggle to come to terms with the presence of suffering in a world created by a loving God.  Not to mention conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How do mission workers suffering from such trauma find relief for it?

  • They need to get away. People working in traumatic contexts should withdraw regularly for rest and healthcare, to make sure they stay well enough to do their jobs.  In the process they’ll need to feel helped not to feel guilty for leaving those who need their help.  By withdrawing to recharge their batteries, they will in the long run be able to be help more people.  Fortunately there is a growing number of retreat centres worldwide where mission workers can get a break and, if they want, also find debriefing.
  • They need to engage spiritually with the situation. Where is God to be found in this mess?  What is God saying to them?  How is the Holy Spirit empowering them to do their ministry?
  • They need to have a proper debrief. It’s important with people engaging with trauma that they don’t merely have a brief chat with a colleague, but meet with professionals as part of a process of unpacking their emotions.  Ministries like ARREST, Healthlink360, Interhealth, and Le Rucher specialise in providing such focussed support.
  • They need a supporting church that can care for them when they come “home” for a break, by providing hospitality, love and support, and an opportunity for them to talk if they want to, while respecting the fact that they may want to keep silent and think things through in their minds rather than verbalising everything. They need to feel involved without having lots to do, as they will need space to work through what is going on inside them.
  • They need to be accepted for who they are at this moment. One of the big challenges for mission workers with doubts about their faith is that there are few people they can talk to honestly.  They are frightened to tell their agency that they are constantly tearful and feel guilty of their relative wealth and security for fear of not being allowed to go back.  They fear they will lose the support of their church if they say that after what they’ve seen, they can’t believe in a God of love any more.  An accepting, non-judgmental environment in which mission workers can express such doubts can go a long way towards their healing, though sadly what we hear most from mission workers is that they have nobody who understands.

In order to prevent the build-up of stress in a mission worker to an unhealthy state, they should have a good understanding of a theology of suffering, recognise their own physical responses to stress so that they can take appropriate action, and have supportive relationships where it is safe to talk openly about the challenges they face.

Far too many mission workers are invalided out of the field because they weren’t properly supported and cared for… by church, by agency, and by themselves.