How to Give Yourself Grace: Advice to someone returning from a long journey!

by Marilyn on February 4, 2015

Our community at A Life Overseas knows what it is to leave and return. We know the anticipation of arrival and the tears of goodbye. We know the nervous stomach and gnawing unease of a new place and the warmth and comfort of an old place. And we know grace – oh how we know grace in all of this.

But sometimes we forget what it is to live out that grace in practical ways. My friend Robynn has earned wisdom in this area. When I returned from Turkey in November and felt anxious and uneasy it was Robynn I contacted. When an overwhelming sense of homesickness attacks me, it’s Robynn I text or call. So it is her words I offer today; words that articulate what it is to give ourselves grace in a world of living between.

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Last year we returned to India – a place where we lived for fifteen years. It was a trip of a life time. We visited our old lives, old haunts, favourite places and people. We ate delicious food at every stop. We cried at old memories and laughed at new jokes. Our children were steeped in the places of their early childhoods. It was rich and full and we left with hearts overwhelmingly grateful. What an undeserved joy to be able to travel back again to that precious place!

However, coming back to my regular routines has been difficult. I anticipated grief and a sense of loss, but that’s not really what’s characterized my return. A friend recently inquired on Facebook as to how I am doing. My response to her was, “I have this relapse of culture shock. I feel at odds once again. That nervous uneasiness has reentered my stomach. I feel overwhelmed and easily anxious.”

Each time I try to explain what’s circling inside my soul to friends, in person or online, they respond gently, kindly, “Give yourself grace!”

Just give yourself some grace.

It was a big trip. You were gone a long time.

Give yourself grace!

You planned for it most of last year. It was a big deal. For heaven’s sake…you just went to India!

Give yourself some grace!

But I have no idea what that means. Looking it up in the dictionary does little to help. I don’t know how to do that. What does it look like to give myself grace?  I’ve spent some time stewing on this. If this is the advice I repeatedly receive, I owe it to advice givers and, perhaps also, to myself to figure this out!

Here’s what I’ve come up with. Here’s what I think it means to Give Yourself Grace:

  • It’s going to take time. It took time to prepare for the trip. There were passports to renew and visas to apply for. The kids had to finish up their school work. Christmas presents had to be bought in advance. Bills would need to be paid while we were gone, plants would need watering. It all took a lot of time to organize and coordinate and arrange. It’s going to also take time to come back in. Returning requires time too. Unpacking, putting away suitcases, sorting through mail, making to do lists. There will be photos to sort through, piles of paper work to process, routines to reestablish. These things all take time.
  • Whatever you’re feeling is normal and to be expected. At least I hope this is true. I remember once in a moment of profound grief after the death of a close friend, a psychologist who was related to the family said, “Whatever you’re feeling is normal.” That actually brought a lot of comfort at that time. I was feeling some sadness but I also felt anger and exhaustion; I felt bitter and guilty at not being more upset than I was. Her pronouncement over my emotions gave me some relief and some freedom. I find myself repeating that over my heart when I don’t even necessarily know what I’m feeling.  Emotions are so complex. How can I sort through them all? Surely, whatever I’m feeling just now is normal and to be expected!
  • You can expect waves of grief and relief. There are these moments of deep sadness after saying goodbye to South Asia, to close friends, to the place, even to myself. (I often leave large chunks of me there!). But there are also waves of relief. Life in India is hard work. Electricity is unpredictable. Pollution is intense—both in the air and on the ground. If I’m completely honest with myself, I also feel some relief that I don’t have to contend with those things every day. The relief is mixed with the grief which is mixed with equal parts of guilt and sorrow. It’s an odd cocktail but it’s the cup I’ve been given to drink.
  • You can anticipate some cultural confusion. When you switch a baby from breast-feeding to bottle feeding and then back to breast-feeding often the baby experiences some “nipple confusion.” As earthy as the metaphor might be, I think it describes some of what we feel when we return to our beloved places and then reenter our regular placements. We are confused. Our souls are unsettled. We knew a particular way and then we became used to a different way and now we’re back to the old way, but only temporarily and now we race to what was sort of familiar and yet now not so much. There has to be some cultural confusion….some yanking of our tethers, our leashes. We are whiplashed from culture to culture. You can expect to be out of whack!
  • There’s no rush. What’s the hurry? Where’s the deadline? It’s going to take time. (I think this really is the heart of “give yourself grace” and it begs repeating….)
  • Tap into God’s grace, his “unmerited divine assistance.” He specializes in going with people from place to place. He goes before and behind, encircling those he’s fond of. Certainly he understands and he can help. Ask him for some of that “divine assistance!”

“You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it… You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” (Psalm 139:2-5)

  • Maybe the dictionary can help! Give yourself, “a temporary exemption:  REPRIEVE,” a “special favour,” or, “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency.” In other words be nice to yourself! Pamper yourself. Make yourself a cup of hot tea. Sit quietly in your favourite chair. Watch a cathartic something that will make you cry! Watch something that will make you laugh out loud! Read through your journal again. Pour yourself a hot bath. Be very nice to yourself.
  • Resist the urge to return too quickly. Try not to rush back in. Breathe deeply. Move slowly. Go ahead and do the next thing on your list but don’t hurry. Your poor body has been around the world and back again. Let your soul catch up! Come home slowly.
  • Make to do lists. It’s pathetic, I know, but one thing you’re likely feeling is completely out of control! And of course you are! Regaining control is a mirage….it can’t really happen. But there is something to be said about doing the next thing. And it’s easier to know what that is when you have some good lists to work from.

So this is what I think it means to Give Myself some Grace! And it’s what I’m trying to do just now. The return journey from India is a lot longer than the one that took us there. I’m giving myself grace.

About Robynn – Robynn is a proud Canadian who spent her childhood in Pakistan, married an American. and went on to live, work, and raise a family in India.  She is co-author of the book Expectations and Burnout:Women Surviving the Great Commission and writes at Communicating Across Boundaries every Friday. This post is adapted from the original piece on Communicating Across Boundaries.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/india-market-color-colorful-henna-324/

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    Marking this for my future, inevitable return. So good: The return journey from India is a lot longer than the one that took us there. I’m giving myself grace.

  • Rachel Beth Tan

    Thanks for this. I moved back last year from Thailand after living there for 6 years… I’m still feeling like my soul is catching up.

  • Nomad

    Been living in South America for 4 years, aiming for 5-6 years here. Yet, every time I go home, I feel the same, I have so many mixed emotions when I’m home. Yet, God’s grace is so beautiful.

  • Kara C

    Great post, on what that good phrase really means! I would interpret the core as, “Don’t judge yourself,” and, “it’s okay to take care of yourself.” Whether it’s because strange emotions are roiling, or just a lack of energy, or feeling incapable of functioning normally, culture stress and grief take our emotional and therefore physical capacity.

    The hardest part of living it out for me is also giving my husband and kids grace! I’d love to hear how you balance your needs with your spouse and children’s needs!

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