The one-year lease just came up on our house here in Southeast Asia. We love this house. My anxiety set in: Will we get to rent another year? Will the rent go up? How long can this place be “home?”
The cross-cultural life is full of impermanence. I avoid buying my kids big stuffed animals because I know they won’t fit in the suitcases when we leave. I avoid buying too many sets of clothes because a week’s worth is all that will fit in a suitcase anyway. I avoid buying furniture besides the bare minimum or much of any household or seasonal decorations because this house/place/location isn’t forever. We were reluctant to get a pet for the same reasons – though in the end we did.
I know someday we’ll be moving on. This isn’t our passport country. Maybe we won’t get our visas next year. Maybe the government will be unfriendly to foreigners. Maybe a crisis will bring us back to America, or maybe we’ll move because of our kids’ educational or emotional needs. Maybe we’ll get sick and need better medical care, or maybe our funding just won’t come in. Saying “maybe” in this impermanent life is both second nature and a constant opportunity to worry.
Permanence feels like security, and in Western culture, security is something that we crave, idealize, sacrifice to, and worship. In my book about American idols, security is seated near the top. Security in our house, our job, our relationships, our finances, our safety makes us feel in control. (Incidentally, I believe control is the American idol at the very top.)
I serve in a Buddhist context. One of the most important ideas in Buddhism is the idea of impermanence. Buddhists believe we can avoid suffering by being unattached to life. Unattached to physical things, but also unattached from relationships, family, and love. The goal is to empty yourself of desire until you can reach enlightenment. You can follow in the way of Buddha and leave your family, become a monk, unattached and unsecure, relying on your daily ration of rice given each morning by the generous neighbors surrounding the pagoda in your community. Impermanence is a central tenet of Buddhism.
We aren’t Buddhists. We follow Jesus Christ. But on some points, Buddhism and Christianity can have some common ground. Minimalism is good for the Christian. We see Jesus choose that path and encourage His followers to walk in His steps. It is good to live a simple life that is not focused on the accumulation of things to fill the emptiness in our lives. As Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”
One of the central claims of Jesus is that “to save your life, you must lose it.” As believers, we hope and believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. Just as He rose again, we will rise again to a permanent, eternal life in a new heaven and new earth. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” we sing together with vigor. But our daily lives often don’t reflect this impermanent reality.
For Christians, minimalism and impermanence help us to more readily follow Jesus and focus on our eternal life after death. But what about feeling planted and grounded in a community and a culture? What about creating healthy spaces for our TCKs to grow and develop? What about our Christian ideals to encourage the connections to community, love, and family?
How can we develop healthy family patterns and routines that give us stability and ground our kids in an ever-changing impermanent environment filled with instability, loss, and a constant supply of “maybes”?
Here are five practices our family has found to be helpful.
Accept that change is a part of normal.
Impermanence is part of life, whether living overseas or in your passport country. Our friends who have never lived cross-culturally can and do understand unexpected change that leads to loss. We may have experienced different types of losses, but we have a lot in common, too. Security in permanence is an illusion, no matter where we live.
Gratitude is consistently linked to greater happiness and more positive emotions in modern psychology. We are commanded to show gratitude to God, but it should also be a natural overflow of our Christian life. Start a gratitude practice of actually writing down what you are thankful for each day, especially when you are in a season of transition or when you are struggling to accept the changes in life.
Develop family rituals and routines that you can take with you wherever you go.
Get creative and be simple. Start routines that can easily transfer with you regardless of location or special supplies. Maybe you can do your daily Bible story/snack time every afternoon. Or you can say the Lord’s Prayer together every night before bed. Make holiday traditions transferable, too. We “trick or treat” to each door in our house on Halloween and hand out candy, and we hang up a paper and cardboard Season’s Tree in our dining room to decorate for each season.
Do what works for your family, but do something! Find simple and sustainable traditions and routines that can ground your family and create continuity between locations. Seek out education, help, and resources for your TCKs. The time, money, and energy are worth the investment for their future. Help them process and mourn their grief when things change.
I’ve developed a free processing tool that goes along with my new children’s book, When We Called Myanmar Home. There are also many other activities and processing tools available from varied sources. Ask your community or organization for recommendations and help.
Don’t isolate yourself from love and connection, even when those friendships or family members may not be here forever.
Turn to others for comfort and support. Share and mourn the impermanent losses together with others who can listen and understand. Talk about your desire for security, home, and physical objects with others. Keep your heart soft. Stay connected with key relationships in your life, and keep investing in new relationships.
Accept impermanence as a promise of God, rather than a threat to your security.
Remind yourself again that everyone’s lives are impermanent and sometimes unpredictable. Security and control are Western cultural idols, and God won’t share His glory. He will knock the idols down on their faces.
God promises both “peace that passes understanding” and that “in this world you will have troubles, but I have overcome the world.” Each day has enough worry of its own, and Jesus has come to “give us life to the full.”
Our circumstances, location, and relationships may change, but God’s promises are true and lasting. “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).
If you, like me, struggle at times to feel secure in the promises of God to be your security in an ever-changing world, start a “Promises of God” journal, writing down His promises to you as you read them in Scripture or as He speaks to your heart in prayer. Read through the journal when you are struggling to see God’s promises fulfilled in your current circumstance. Lament to God and share your feelings with Him. He will be faithful to you.
We can be healthy, and we can have healthy families even as we live and serve in a world of impermanence and uncertainty. Colossians 2:6-7 tells us, “Just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him.” We can be rooted in Him wherever we go.
God created this world to be impermanent, but our eternal life on the new heaven and new earth will last forever. He is “the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end . . . the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.” We can be rooted in our relationships, in our routines and traditions, in our gratitude, in the promises of God, and in Christ himself, the one who “is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”