A few weeks before we left for the field in 2010, we met a missionary who’d been in Mexico for about ten years. She was very open about her struggles, and I was grateful for her transparency, until she turned to me and said this: “You know, as soon as you leave here, you can never go home again. You can come back to the same place, but you won’t be the same person.” I didn’t want to believe her.
In addition to writing bossy informational blog posts, I also like to write fiction. Fiction, much like journalism, must have a who, what, where, when, why and how. And when I read about writing, there’s always an emphasis on letting the “who,” your characters, drive the plot. If your hero doesn’t act from a deep place, out of Who They Are, it’s not very satisfying. We don’t want to see the plot just happen to them; we want to feel that they are affecting change in their world.
And this is partly why the missionary life is so confounding. Your character, dear mama, is changing. You may lose touch with your cultural center, that abiding sense of what you should do, when the rules you thought governed the universe turned out to be not be very useful in this corner of it. Your “why” has not changed: you love Christ deeply. You want to give your life in service to a Great King, who laid down his life for you. But the vastly different “what,” “where,” and “how” of your life has turned you upside-down and shaken you by the ankles…and now you’re not sure where your “who” ended up in the mugging.
Dr. Lois Dodds of Heartstream Resources for Cross-cultural Workers says it well: “At home in the U.S., I had created an orderly and satisfying life, as a wife, a mother, a creative person serving the church, a nurturer of the extended family. With our move to the Amazon, it seemed like my carefully constructed life was suddenly thrown in the air, coming down like a jigsaw puzzle unable to hang together. Re-building and re-ordering life in the new culture meant I had to re-form myself as well.”
I can’t speak in complete sentences or do basic adult tasks like drive or go grocery shopping without help…does that mean I’m a child?
When I started working at our ministry office, the national staff would compliment me on days when I dressed up, one of them going so far as to say, “That’s how you should dress every day.” Am I a slob now? I never felt like I was before.
Like Liz mentioned in the podcast, I too used to be a “to-do list, get it done” kind of gal. Not so now… I feel like I’m running hard, but I’m spinning my wheels a lot. Am I lazy?
So if you’re still looking for the corners on your identity jigsaw puzzle…you’re in good company. Dodd gives some ideas for growth in this article, which is well-worth reading if you have the time:
- Realize that you’re not alone. What’s happening to you is not uncommon. (And since you’re reading this article…you can check off that box.)
- Affirm your uniqueness and inherent worth. Apart from what you do, good or bad, right or wrong in any cultural context on the planet, you bear God’s image and you are precious to him. You just can’t imagine how loved you are.
- Nail down your identity “non-negotiables” : What things are essential to “you” feeling like “you”? For me, this meant finding outlets for my writing…one of which you are reading right now. Another was my sense of humor: I intentionally tried to learn how to tell jokes right away in Haitian Kreyol, because I love making people laugh, but most people here hate sarcasm. They do, however, love hyperbole and personification. The jokes changed, but the essential remained the same.
- Realize how much change you’ve already undergone. Write it out: how are you different today from the day you left your passport country? It’s amazing, really. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back.
- Meditate, pray, read the Bible to search out how God transforms people. Hint: it’s slower than you may think. The Holy Spirit is a gift to us; take advantage of his presence and his ability to speak truth and comfort to your soul.
Try to find a way to “pivot”–can you take that essential part of you and express it in a different direction? I taught elementary students in the States, but since arriving here, I’ve taught adults, teens, and tutored struggling students one-on-one…and I loved it all. I know a missionary mama who loved music, so she learned traditional African drumming overseas…and apparently, “the lady drummer” was quite the attraction when they went to churches to perform!
Even though it can be a chance to change and grow as a person and discover new interests, you must also acknowledge that this can be a heartbreaking, exhausting process, and implement a self-care plan. And if you think I’m going to stop mentioning self-care any time soon, you can just forget about it. My new favorite thing is baths. Once a week, I fill the WHOLE TUB with WARM water, adding epsom salts and lavender…it feels decadent, and in this world, it probably is.
You know what? I’m abandoning the jigsaw metaphor…it’s tougher than that. There’s no picture on the box to tell you what your life is going to look like. There is no stinkin’ manual, mamas. It takes more artistry than that. It’s more like a mosaic.
My friend JoAnn makes these (you can find more of her work here), and I will never get over how she can take tiny bits of broken tea cup or plate and suddenly, that same piece of material is now telling a completely different story. It has an entirely different use. It’s made up of the same stuff, but the whole is not the same at all.
How have your put your identity back together since arriving on the field, mamas? Be brave! Share!
Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash