by Tara Livesay on June 2, 2014

For some reason 2014 is the year that I cannot seem to formulate many serious or deep thoughts when discussing my “life overseas”.  I would like to believe it is simply “a season”, and not some major personality flaw.

With a virus spreading like wild-fire, life in Haiti has been especially rough for the last several weeks, it doesn’t appear that it will let up anytime soon.  My husband and I are walking through new things with our adult kids that we launched not so long ago while trying to be present with the five we still have at home.

Things just feel a little more intense than usual. Maybe laughing at myself (and you) is my favored way to remain positive.


When things get rough, find something to laugh at, even if it is yourself.

A few years back there was a skit on Saturday Night Live based on a character named Penelope.  She was the person who was always driven to one-up everyone else, in every situation, even when it was to celebrate how much more miserable she was than everyone else.

Perhaps you stated that your relatives came over on the Mayflower. Well, Penelope’s came over a month before yours did on the “Aprilflower.”

You got in a bad car accident yesterday? Penelope had been in three that very day.

She was often not even invited into a conversation, but still, she would interject and get the spotlight and out-do all other stories being shared with her over the top competitive one-upper neurosis.

I get a kick out of the way humanitarian workers, missionaries, and expats can come off a little bit like Penelope without even lying or trying.  Sometimes we scroll through our Twitter or other social media accounts and see our friends in the developed world airing their legitimate grievances and we nod in agreement.  Often times the Penelope in us comes out.

Now, remember, most of us are being totally honest and not necessarily trying to be a one-upper, but by default and by life circumstance, we just ARE.

Here are some possible examples,

A pal in Minnesota says, “I have been so sick with this nasty cold for more than a week.”  Expat/M/HW says: “Yeah, I have had Dengue Fever, Cerebral Malaria, and Chikungunya this last year, being sick really stinks.”

Your little sister says, “Please pray for my daughter to do well in marching band try outs, she is very nervous.”  Expat/M/HW says: “Yeah, my daughter is getting on a puddle jumper in a few hours to escape civil unrest in our country and she is nervous (about being shot) too.”

Person says, “Oh my gosh, our hot water broke and it has been a week without it!”  Expat/M/HW says: “Yeah, we don’t have hot water (like, ever) – I hear that!”

Your aunt says, “The storm took out our power and we have gone without power for three days!” Expat/M/HW says: “Yeah, our batteries and inverter got stolen and the generator is on the fritz too, we won’t have power for six to nine months – we have to fundraise 5K first.”

Friend says, “Oh.My.GOSH. I sat in traffic forEVER today on the way into the city.”  Expat/M/HW says: “I totally understand that. I do that every day of every month of every year. As a matter of fact, last night I slept in traffic.”

Brother says, “I paid $4.20 per gallon for gas this morning, how atrocious.” Expat/M/HW says: “Oh, gasoline? We haven’t had any here in three weeks. I would love to pay $4.20 for some.”

Co-worker says, “The grocery store was totally out of my brand of Greek yogurt, I was so bummed.” Expat/M/HW says, “The country I live in never built the store that had refrigerators for Greek yogurt. So, yeah, also bummed.”

Your buddy says, “We went out to eat and it took 45 minutes to get our food! Can you believe that?”  Expat/M?HW says, “We did too, there was nothing available on the menu so we had warm Coke for lunch.”

While the truth may be that your day-to-day inconveniences consistently trump those of your friends “back home”, I advise you to leave your Penelope responses in your head.

If you do,  you will always have friends.


Is it ever hard to offer others your sincere empathy or a listening ear when the complaints seem smallish from your point of view?  

Do you bust out your Penelope on them, or hold your tongue? 



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About Tara Livesay

Tara and her family have lived in Haiti since 2006. She resides in Port au Prince, where she serves as a CPM (Midwife) with Heartline Ministries - Maternity Center working in the area orphan prevention, Maternal and Newborn Health. Tara is a the wife of Troy, the mother of seven children ranging in age from 27 to 9 years old and has recently become a grandmother to 3 grandsons. Tara enjoys friends, laughing, sarcasm and spending time with her family.
  • Marilyn Gardner

    hahahahahahaha! I love this so much for so many reasons! First because I love Kristen Wiig and love those sketches. Did you ever see the Thanksgiving one where she feeds the homeless and ends up floating on celery in the soup? Yes. And second because I so do this and then someone always catches me at it and we have a good laugh. Here are a few more for you: Friend: “We went camping for the weekend and there was no flush toilet” Me: “I didn’t have a flush toilet until I was 16.” BAM! The problem comes with the TCK aspect of this. So many TCKs are accused of boasting when they are simply stating their reality. And so they close up and hush up and it results in overwhelming and unresolved grief. So that’s where it gets tricky. Thank you though – for bringing up the wonderful, zany, and ridiculous of this!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Laughing at this. You are so right! TCKs frame everything entirely differnt and I know my TCK, Paige, feels like a grouch a lot of times becasue she just cannot get very worked up about first world inconveniences that her friends think are world-stopping issues.

  • Kelly Hallahan

    haha- amazing! so true!

  • Haha!! I’ve totally been guilty of this. >.< Great post, Tara!

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      You and I and Goodfellow could do a Penelope skit for our friends at the next gathering! We can make everyone hate us!

  • Lisa DeBusk

    We are missionaries overseas, in an area that most people would love to visit. I LOVE your post so much! We have a bit of reverse of that because people think that we are on perpetual vacation and that everything here is delightful….like their vacation here was! But I probably am guilty of doing what you describe sometimes in the attempt to get folks to understand that we are not on vacation. Thanks for your post! I will not be doing that anymore.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Hi Lisa – Haiti has a few GORGEOUS beaches. When we get to go we often hear how lucky we are, and you are right, in my mind I am all self-important and want to say, “We don’t LIVE at the beach you fool! How lucky am I in the cement jungle of Port au Prince.” — The mind is an ugly thing, thank goodness we can tell our mouths to stay shut. 🙂 It must boil down to wanting people to know we are actually WORKING even if there are some beautiful sights to see.

  • Richelle Wright


    Reality – sometimes I listen and empathize better because I do understand how hard it is. Sometimes Penelope takes over. Really is determined by my perspective on that day. Am I thinking of others first or me? God’s Word teaches to rejoice with those rejoicing, weep with those who weep… and there’s no “contingency” on there of if we think their reasoning is valid for either rejoicing or weeping. I need to remember that going both directions.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Yep, I agree, I want to be a good listening friend and if I am going to be that I cannot get into any routine of comparing problems/situations.

  • I’ve had my moments doing this. 🙂 At least a little bit. It’s just so easy.

    The harder thing for me to step away from though has nothing to do with being an expat and everything to do with being the mother of 5 children. Sometimes when new parents of one or two small children whine on fb about how tired they are, and how hard it is, I laugh to myself really hard, and then I step away from the computer before I do a Penelope, and remind myself that I thought it was hard when I had only 1 child too. I had no idea how much harder, and easier, it would get later on.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      YES!! I am also Penelope on occasion in that situation too. Someone recently said, “Girls are so hard, and complicated.” I had to shove the “I have FIVE daughters” comment back down my throat. NOT helpful. Yes, girls can be very hard at certain ages. 🙂

      • Richelle Wright

        hee hee. 🙂 while the mothers of many boys are rolling their eyes, saying “if you only knew…” i don’t…

  • Yes. Yes. Yes. I have to bite my tongue all the time. I read somewhere once (or heard somewhere) that everyone’s problems are big to them. My problem may be “bigger” but that doesn’t minimize in any way what the other person is feeling. I also ask myself why I want to one-up (because seriously with the dengue and the chikungunya and the no power and IT’S SO HOT) and it doesn’t take me too long to realize it’s because I want people to think I’m a great missionary suffering for Christ and also I want people to be thankful for what they have and stop whining. But does whining + whining = gratitude? I don’t think so.

  • Elizabeth

    This exact same thing can happen with ‘older’ and ‘newer’ expats/missionaries/humanitarian workers:

    Newer ones:
    -The internet is soooo slow here
    -I am going to miss my family so much this Christmas
    -the stores here don’t carry any _____
    -language learning is such a challenge.

    Older ones:
    -We could only send telegrams back in they day, never mind skype and email and all the rest
    -we went for 4 years (6? a decade?) at a time without a visit back ‘home’
    -there weren’t ANY stores when we first arrived here
    -the language hadn’t even been written down when we got here…at least you have language learning books.

    • Elizabeth

      I should add that I have a foot in both camps: I was an MK in the ‘old’ era so remember when “real” sacrifices were called for (tongue in cheek). I’ve worked in remote areas as a “new” expat. And I’m currently living in a place with 24 hour power, running water, and high speed internet…so I can sympathize a little with people in each of the various situations. Also, I’m very guilty of doing exactly what Tara describes – too often in my thoughts; hopefully a little less often in my words.

      Rachel Held Evans has a great post about Poverty Elitism…well worth the read and very related to the current conversation.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    This cracked me up! In our family we ’em “me monsters” (taken from a different comedian, different sketch, same point). Mostly I think I just avoid people like this in real life (though for long term missionaries here, I actually love hearing their stories of hardship, it puts everything in perspective). I think the hard part for me is social media — when I see this happening “back home.” When a person is exceptionally and repeatedly whiny about “small” problems, that’s when I get really frustrated. I don’t say something . . . out loud. But I say lots in my head. Which I’m not sure is any better, actually. :/
    I think this is actually reversed for me, sometimes. I have friends back home with bigger and harder problems than I have, and sometimes I’ll just be going along, talking about myself or some problem of mine, and I realize, wait, how can this matter to them? This pales in comparison to theirs. But my friends are really nice to me, and they say, no no, we want to hear your stories, too. Because sometimes I am the one who could be one-upped, and maybe I should be the one keeping my mouth shut about myself!

  • Hilarious, Tara! I know you are going through a TON right now. I agree that laughter will push us through.

    A couple furloughs ago my cousin came in from the other room complaining about the lack of charge on his new phone. I piped up sincerely trying to roll with the current lingo and said, “First world problems, right?” I thought statement was void of sarcasm and would get a laugh. The room went quiet. My cousin scraped his jaw off the floor and said with an annoyed droll, “Well, it is not funny when someone who lives in the 3rd world says it.” Oops. My bad…

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Your comment made ME laugh, Angie! Couple of years late, but I totally get it. Great post Tara – got to watch my tongue and my thoughts. I know I do this and always wish I could take it back when I do.

  • robyn

    Hilarious. Thank you. I’m not a missionary/expat, but I am a ministry wife/home missionary. So I get it, in part. Usually I feel like commenting with a simple #firstworldproblems, but I most often restrain myself. My favorite is when people complain about their iphones/technology. That’s fun. But this post will help me remember that being snarky doesn’t help me have friends. And having friends is important. *smile*

    • Ah! All the time I want to shout at the statuses with “first world problems” hashtagged! LOL!

      Although I have to admit, sometimes I like to be the one to start with my “problems” just because of the people who try to be “one uppers” make me laugh and feel a lot better about my life.

      Here’s the song your post made me think of:

  • I have to watch my responses. Sometimes, I don’t though. I bore my friends with my super-unique challenges.

    Right now, my truck has two flat tires, a bad battery (which is almost new – or so they said) and 2 back lights missing due to vandalism. Instead of complaining I need to find the number of my mechanic and get him over here ASAP. I don’t want to be the bore who tells everyone the challenges of living in a country with super-high crime rates.

  • LOVE this post. I really really try hard nowadays to keep my Penelope comments to myself when the situation involves other people.

    But… do you ever bust out your Penelope on yourself, though? In my last blog post about our “less than fun” return to Laos after Mike’s cancer treatment I wrote this: “You know the problem with having someone in your family get cancer
    (apart from the fact that cancer can kill and that treatment really
    sucks)? It makes you feel weak when you struggle to cope with what are,
    objectively, lesser challenges. I was exhausted, sick, and completely
    paralyzed by the heat on Sunday. I was also felt pathetic and small for
    feeling so utterly, completely, miserable. I haven’t yet worked out how
    to put things in perspective globally and still give myself permission
    to have bad days.”

    I find that sometimes busting out the Penelope on myself helps, and sometimes it just makes me feel worse.

  • Honestly, I try REALLY hard to hold my tongue. I’m not sure how well I do at that; you’d have to ask my wife.

  • Charity

    This is great! So very true and such a challenge. But I just wonder — how do I actually offer “sincere empathy,” as Tara put it, when I just feel like rolling my eyes?! I mean, I may not say/write anything to actually one-up someone, but I sure feel a lot of things when I read others’ stuff. I truly want to be empathetic, but isn’t it just so hard when the other situations really seem so petty and “first world”? I really need to remember that God is teaching everyone in their own situations, time, and circumstances. Most of the time if I feel the need to comment, it’s to make myself look better or to feel better about myself or to add some shock-value to the conversation (which is usually totally selfish too!)… and well, I need to just get over myself sometimes, ya know?! Thanks for sharing this, Tara. Definitely good things to think about.

    • Tara Porter-Livesay

      Thanks Charity — I am always Penelope in my head— downplaying concerns that seem petty to me – even kind of mocking at times (never out loud) – but you nailed it when you said “God is teaching everyone in their own situations, time, and circumstances.” — We need to be gracious – as hard as it might be. 🙂

  • Kristy Wacek

    Hi Tara! I loved this post. I am the editor of Thrive Connection We publish weekly articles written by women serving cross-culturally to encourage others in the same situation. We have 10,000 subscribers to our weekly Thrive Connection email that highlights these articles and our other publications. Would you be willing to let us republish this blog post as an article. I see it was helpful for so many here and hope it can be of encouragement to our readers as well. Please let me know what you think. I can be reached at Thanks!

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