Midlife in Missions

by Roberta Adair

I turned 40 in February, and I think I have a new understanding of the whole “midlife crisis” thing. The completely arbitrary transition from my 30s to my 40s has felt a little (or maybe a lot) disorienting. My swirling thoughts have occasionally bubbled out in conversations (perhaps “bursting forth” is more accurate). If this happens when I’m on the phone, I picture the person I’m talking to staring straight ahead with bug eyes, nodding slowly, and thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot of emotion. She has some stuff to work through.”

More than conversations with real live people, though, I’ve been talking in spits and spurts with my younger self – more often than not defensive and preachy. Perhaps this is because I feel her judgment, her confusion, her disappointment.

After all, when I was 20, I had dreams. Oh boy, did I have dreams – wild, unrealistic, grandiose ideas for who I would be when I grew up. “I’ll volunteer for two to three years with the Peace Corps which will help pay for my master’s in public health which will help me get a noble and important job with the UN which will…” (I have a friend who did this, and I salute her.) Other jobs I remember high school and college student Roberta considering: becoming a reconstructive surgeon for war victims or a human rights lawyer working with victims of the modern slave trade.

I didn’t think then that I’d someday live in Japan. I think differently now, but I’m sure I would have thought of that as soft. I certainly didn’t anticipate getting married or having four wild, tender, ridiculous boys. I most certainly didn’t consider that the bulk of my life in this season would be setting up play dates, getting help from mom friends with my son’s second grade homework, serving a lot of simple meals to people, and doing laundry constantly. Most of all, I would not have expected that I could find contentment – happiness even – with this small, beautiful life.

Most of my family members have skills and jobs that others can easily understand. A college professor, elementary and high school teachers, a high school band director, a nurse practitioner, a dietician. I look at them and think, “Wow, well done.” And then too quickly I think again about me, wishing that I, too, could say: “I am an expert in my field. I have developed this particular skill that I use to serve my school, clients, company, or community. I have arrived. I am an adult.”

I know missionaries in other parts of the world and in Japan who are experts – drilling wells, teaching at medical hospitals and seminaries, running NPOs for displaced people, starting micro-enterprise projects, writing thoughtful, helpful books. Perhaps part of being 40 is seeing these people and cheering them on – proud and not jealous of them – and not having the same angst and internal wrestling I’ve had with wanting their lives, their impact, their skill sets, and their experiences. Perhaps “entering middle age” is about being increasingly present to the people and places in my right-now actual life.

Sometimes I picture myself making peace between my 20-year-old and 40-year-old selves. I listen to Younger Me telling Now Me that she feels a little disappointed in her for not being more impressive or important. And I picture Now Me smiling – a little sad but also nodding with understanding – and gently telling Younger Me that she’s actually pretty happy. That it’s ok that her life looks pretty much nothing like she expected it would.

I picture Now Me having compassion on Younger Me who had a gigantic savior complex. She sees the simplicity and goodness of Younger Me in wanting to be noble and brave and, with a smirk, the ridiculousness of her also wanting to be Xena Warrior Princess. (I watched one episode. Yet that didn’t stop me from wanting to be her, a tall brunette who beat up bad guys.)

I picture Now Me helping Younger Me reframe the phrase her mom said for years before going to school: “Go MAD – go make a difference” (borrowed from a Christian radio personality). I picture them talking about that and some of the messaging she received from church (“dream and do big things for God!”) and society (“you can do and be anything!”) and even from songs and slogans of much-loved missions conferences from childhood (“Let me be a shining light to the nations,” “Let me be the one to take his light into a dying world…” Woah). I see Now Me not looking down on Younger Me or feeling annoyed with or ashamed of her but accepting and even loving her.

I also picture Younger Me not really buying any of it. After all, she knows better. But I also picture her liking and wanting to be friends with Now Me, popping over for tea (of course late, disheveled, and forgetting to exchange pleasantries) and both of them talking with Big Feelings, big hand gestures, and lots and lots of words.

Hopefully we would be less focused on trying to impress one another and more interested in seeking to understand and love one another.

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Originally from Pennsylvania (USA), Roberta lived in Kosovo for three years before getting married and moving to northern Japan in 2012. She and her husband partner with a Japanese church and have four young and energetic boys. She enjoys hiking, camping, and having friends over for average and boisterous meals.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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