When You Second-Guess Your Life

by Lisa McKay on August 4, 2014

Last night while we were getting ready for bed, my two year old started to tell me a story. He told me this story three times in a row, getting more excited and delighted every time.

Was this story about the herd of cows we’d seen blocking the road to our house that morning? Or how our gardener had let him cut the bushes all by himself with a huge pair of shears (gulp)? Or about how the seatbelt-less van we’d been riding in that day had braked suddenly and he had flipped right up and over onto the (thankfully, empty) seat in front of us? (It’s been quite a week, and don’t even get me started on how we all had to go to the clinic and get tested for TB last night.)

No, the story that Dominic was so excited to tell me was about making blueberry pancakes at his grandparents’ house three months ago.

He misses his grandparents terribly. So do I. And when I pause for too long and think about what we’re losing by living so far away from parents, sisters, brothers and cousins, it can really make me wonder whether this living overseas thing is worth it.

Question-MarkI know some of you who read this blog have a very clear sense that God wants you to live and work in a particular place for an extended period.

My husband, Mike, and I don’t have that.

Instead, Mike and I have the sense that God wants us to use our skills and talents for good wherever we are.

It so happens that many of our skills and passions equip us well for overseas living and development work. It so happens that opportunities for my husband to use his skills and work within the circle of his passions have opened up here in Laos. It so happens that we judged that taking up those opportunities was the best fit for the overall family system right now. And, so here we are.

Who knows where we’ll be this time next year. We don’t.

Today, I want to speak to those of you who don’t fit the typical missionary model. Those of you who don’t feel called to a particular place. Those of you who don’t intend to land somewhere and stay there – God willing – for a decade or more.

If you move overseas without a clear commitment to a place, an organization, or a time-frame, you should be prepared to second-guess yourself often. You will need to learn to build meaningful relationships within a constantly shifting social framework. You will need to grow in your ability to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. You will ask yourself the question “is this worth it?” frequently. You will need to answer the question “what’s next” every couple of years.

Answering both of those questions requires re-visiting a complex equation involving any or all of the following shifting variables:

  • Your perception of God’s opinion on the issue
  • Each partner’s (if you’re married) skills, passions, wants, and needs
  • Existing professional commitments and logistical constraints
  • What seems best (emotionally, educationally, and/or medically) for any children you might have.
  • Health risks and constraints for every family member
  • The career, financial, and logistical implications of any change you might make.
  • The needs and wants of your extended family.

If you’re anything like me, trying to figure life out in relation to just one of the variables listed above is hard enough. Throw them all in the mix, and decision-making in the absence of a clear sense of “divine assignment” can quickly become seriously overwhelming and very taxing.

I’ve been doing the “professional expatriate” thing for more than a decade now –most of my life, really – and I don’t have any sure-fire solutions for you on how to deal with the dynamics of this lifestyle. What I can do is offer you some things that have helped me at various points.

Direction road signs

1. Get some clarity on the hierarchy of the variables in your list. Is this a season for prioritizing building a stable community over taking an exciting job in a new country? If you can get some idea of how the variables in your own personal universe are weighted in this season of your life, it’ll help guide your decision-making.

2. Once you’ve actually made a decision, try not to second-guess yourself. Not for a while, anyway. Protect some space to live in the now. If you know you probably need to move or switch jobs in July next year you might, for example, agree to not talk a great deal about next steps until March.

3. At risk of sounding like I’m contradicting myself… talk. Talk with your partner about the whole, complicated mess, without feeling you need to make any immediate decisions. Talk about the things you love about living overseas and those you loathe. Talk about what you miss about living back home. Talk about what you want, and what you fear, and what you feel like you should want, and what you actually want, and what makes you scared and mad and sad and happy and grateful about this crazy extreme adventure you’re living.

U-turn-permitted-cropped4. Keep a physical or mental list of all the wonderful things about your life overseas so that when your two-year-old waxes wistful and begs to “go home” it doesn’t spark a complete existential crises (not most of the time, anyway). Regularly, intentionally, celebrate these wonderful things about living where you are. Rehearse how living overseas allows you to live in your strengths, to grow, to help others, and to experience life.

5. Give yourself permission sometimes to seriously consider alternate realities. Finding yourself wondering often whether you’re in the right place? Consider whether you are in the right place. Spend some time thinking about what life might be like elsewhere, doing different things. Seriously map it out. Give yourself permission to change course.

6. Pay for your parents to come visit. Tell them to bring blueberries and pancake mix with them.

When you start second guessing your life, what helps you?

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.

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