When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back

by Craig Thompson on April 26, 2017

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

When our inner GPS is “recalibrating”
When we decide to go overseas, our convictions tell us that we’re making progress. No matter what careers or plans we’re giving up, mission work is a promotion. And as we acclimate ourselves to our new home and the depths of our new work, we say things like “I could never go back to my old life.” But what happens when we do go back? We’re faced with the jobs, lifestyles, and habits that we told ourselves were in our past, and we can feel guilty for pointing ourselves in that direction. Forward seems backward and backward seems forward. The way of life we are seeking can be the way of life that we fear.

In The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Matt B. Redmond writes about the difficulties of living a run-of-the-mill life when we believe that radical service is what God wants from us. As a pastor, Redmond had often preached this message:

Your days should be blood-earnestly marked by an urgent, nerve-twisting love for people you have never known. And if you truly loved them you would join the mission team’s trip at the expense of your vacation to know them. If you loved God, you would do it. And if you really believed—BELIEVED, you would go and stay. You should want to go. It should be hard to stay where you are in the comfort of where you are.

While understanding the value of the call to “change the world,” Redmond looked over his congregation and realized that he also needed to preach another sermon—that there’s “a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers.” There’s a God for construction workers and teachers and the unemployed and cooks and cashiers and bankers. That last one Redmond learned about through experience. After writing his book, he left his church position and took a job—for him an often frustrating job—at a bank. As he writes at Echoes and Stars, living out the mundane can, at times, frustrate the soul, even as it teaches valuable lessons, and practicing it can be harder than preaching it.

When embracing means letting go
The goal for those of us who’ve returned is to find our place and to live out God’s kingdom here, but that means releasing the hopes and dreams and prayers that we’ve held close for so long. Will we go back?  Probably not . . . but maybe? We can’t stay in a holding pattern forever. That’s not realistic nor is it healthy.

As time goes by, we give up our support, we quit mailing out prayer letters, we change our Facebook details, we forget words in our second languages, we take new jobs, we buy houses and couches and lawn mowers, and we hang pictures. With each step we see ourselves moving further away from resuming our cross-cultural lives, and we hear the distant sound of closing doors. Some slam quickly, while others we watch slide closed slowly, over time.

When we lose even more of our Me Toos
We’re no longer missionaries, no longer expats, no longer neighbors to the nationals oceans away. So with whom do we identify? Well, there’s still the group of fellow travelers living through the challenges of repatriation. But even then . . . as our roots grow deeper and we become more a part of the landscape, we find ourselves leaving that group, that identity, too. As our prayers are answered, as our goals are realized, are we walking away from even these brothers and sisters, those who aren’t as far along? What about next year, when we hear of other cross-cultural workers just returned? Will we have forgotten what they’re going through?

With each move, we leave others behind. May we continue forward and yet still remember, and empathize with, all those who continue in the places where we’ve been.

When disappointment becomes a way of life
During a flight across the Pacific, following a time overseas involving several setbacks, my wife and I watched Last Chance Harvey, a movie about a down-on-his-luck American pursuing the affections of a tired-of-being-let-down Brit. In one scene, Harvey (Dustin Hoffman) implores Kate (Emma Thompson) to give their relationship a chance. She replies,

I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it, because it’ll hurt. . . . and I won’t do it. . . .

You see, what I think it is, is . . . is that I think I’m more comfortable with being disappointed. I think I’m angry with you for trying to take that away.

When we’ve faced disappointments, especially disappointments on top of disappointments, we can get to the point where we find comfort in the predictability of our discomfort. So we stop hoping for something better, because we’re afraid “it’ll hurt” more.

Ruth Van Reken, Adult Third Culture Kid and former missionary, discusses something similar in Letters Never Sent. As a TCK, she’s many times had to let go of things she holds dear, and as an adult, she writes the following concerning her engagement to her fiancé, David:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

A few months later, after her wedding, she writes, “God didn’t yank David away after all!”—though she still needs more time to deal with her continuing fears.

When everything’s “OK”
Last month I wrote that as we chronicle our lives, we need to share epilogues to our stories even when things haven’t gone the way we’d hoped. But it can also be difficult to share the positive updates, too. I know my own tendency, when I hear someone’s slice of good news, to say too quickly, “Glad to hear all is well.” And then I stop asking questions and cross that person off my prayer list. We so much want to get rid of all the loose ends in our lives and in the lives of others. But I distrust tying everything up in a neat bow, because, well . . . life.

When Letters Never Sent came out in 1988, the publishers gave it the subtitle “One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness.” In the 2012 edition, Van Reken writes in a new epilogue that when she originally saw the full title, her reaction was a feeling of horror and she immediately called the publishers. “That subtitle isn’t right,” she told them. “I’m not whole yet. My life is still in process.” But they responded, “We need to sell the book,” and the subtitle remained unchanged. (I guess most readers don’t like unresolved issues.)

But the new version has a different publisher and a different title: Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing. For Van Reken, there is hope in the process. Yes, transition brings wounds, but God’s grace brings healing, bit by bit, even if complete wholeness is still out of reach. It may take longer than we’d like, or longer than we’d planned on, but healing does come, because of the one we follow— Jehovah Rapha, the Lord who heals.

So . . . our pictures are on the walls!

Some of our pictures made the trip from the States and back again. Some we added to our collection while we were abroad. We’ve got photos, prints, and a puzzle mounted in a frame. And another one is the painting at the top of this post, by my now 96-year-old mother. It has a prominent place in our entryway, which is appropriate, since we’re working on a new beginning . . . and Mom didn’t take up painting until her 70s.

We’re enjoying this time of being closer to family. We’re enjoying meeting our new neighbors. And we’re also looking for some more pictures to hang, ones that represent this next chapter we’re starting, while we make our new home. It may be hard, but that doesn’t mean it it can’t be good.

As I work on my own epilogue, I’d like to return to Van Reken’s—and close with her description of the healing that is still taking place for her. It is so good to learn from the wisdom of those who have traveled the same paths before.

[T]his is my story—a life hopefully in process and growing, but not completed nor perfected until the Shepherd I love calls me for my last journey home.

(Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Ruth Van Reken, Letters Never Sent: A Global Nomad’s Journey from Hurt to Healing, Summertime, 2012)

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Marilyn Gardner

    so, so good, Thank you. I’m due to skype with Ruth soon – want to talk to her about that. I remember feeling the same way with buying a house. There’s no way God would “let” it happen, because I wanted it too much. Distorted theology, but when it is such a part of your processing, you need others to help you see it. Thanks Craig.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Marilyn. I had the great pleasure of hearing Ruth speak at a retreat several years ago and then sharing a meal with her afterwards. What a wonderful lady.

  • Anne Ijäs

    We are now 9 months into being back home and really enjoying being near family. But What/who is a missionary who is not leaving, going anywhere…
    And What does a missionary become?
    No answer on that yet….
    Blessings to your family, Craig!

    • Craig Thompson

      Great questions! You’ve worded that well. I guess we’re finding out what missionaries become as we go. So glad we can still have connections with our life “over there.” Thanks, Anne. Blessings to you and yours, too.

  • Jon Halterman

    It’s been 10 months since we’ve been back from a year in Guatemala. We miss it so much. Your blog hit me hard (in a good way). I’m stuck in the holding pattern you mentioned. I don’t know how to embrace where I am or whether I really want to.

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