I saw a headline a couple weeks ago that pressed down on my chest like a heavy stone. It read, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter.” While the lead-in question is directed at young adults, asked by parents who don’t understand why they won’t be sharing a holiday meal together during the pandemic, it could just as easily be asked of health-care workers or grocery-store employees by loved ones wondering why they are putting themselves at risk by going to work every day.
So this is another thing that cross-cultural workers face that is similar to what’s been brought on by COVID-19: the questions.
Hands up. When you decided to work overseas, did any of you hear “Don’t you love us?” or something similar, from parents, siblings, children, or close friends? How many of you have heard it more than once, maybe each time you say goodbye?
When we make decisions based on our convictions, when we decide to do something difficult or out of the ordinary because we believe it to be right, our actions often affect others, especially those closest to us. And they have questions, and those questions can land with a thud.
That weight on my chest is because my wife and I have heard a couple of those questions ourselves, and the effect still lingers. How about you? Here are some more examples:
- Can’t you serve God here?
- How can you be so sure?
- Why can’t someone else go instead?
- Are you taking your children with you?
- What will happen to our grandkids?
- Aren’t you being selfish?
- Can’t God talk to me, too?
- Why do you have to save the world?
- Why are you leaving me?
- Why would God want you to hurt us?
- Can’t you stay?
- How will you ever get married?
- When will this be over?
- Do you know what this is doing to us?
- Why can’t you get a real job?
- What about all your plans?
- What if . . . ?
It’s not just the words that are said, it’s the meaning that lurks behind and between them. We have complex relationships with those near to us. They’re the ones who know our emotional wrinkles, nooks, and crannies. They’re the ones who know the words that can slip into the hidden spaces, spaces where our own doubts sometimes live.
All these questions need answers, right?
Maybe not. But if answers are in order, what should they be? Well, that depends on the person, the relationship, the situation, the setting, and the timing. While I can’t offer up specific replies, I can suggest an attitude.
I don’t tend to take these kinds of questions well. I too easily hear them as attacks or passive-aggressive challenges (“Wow, I was only asking!”). And I live in a culture that celebrates “clapping back,” “pushing back,” “shutting somebody down,” “destroying someone,” and “counterpunching.” At best, I lean toward responding with a chilly silence.
But I think age and experience (that’s what it’s taken for me) have taught me a better way. I’d rather put effort into thinking about where the questions are coming from. We often say “consider the source” to discount something said because we don’t trust the one saying it. But “consider the source” can also apply to the emotions leading to what is spoken. Yes, some mean words come from mean places, but most of our loved ones are asking their questions out of fear or concern or shock or disappointment or grief or confusion or misunderstanding.
Knowing that, I need to be able to give people the benefit of the doubt, to wait, leaving space in the conversation when necessary—and then, when I’m able, stepping into that space with empathy, compassion, grace, and love.
I’ve learned this from better examining my own motivations and actions over the years, knowing I wasn’t always the best at communicating them to others. I’ve learned this from seeing godly family members of cross-cultural workers type out their honest, desperate questions—in all caps—wondering if they’re allowed to feel that way. I’ve learned this from having grown children of my own, children whose principled decisions aren’t always going to fit with my closely held, best-laid plans.
There’s something else I’ve learned—that when I feel a heavy weight, it helps when I can share it with people who understand, people such as you. Thanks.
(Erin McDowell, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter,” Insider, April 9, 2020)
[photo: “What?” by Véronique Debord-Lazaro, used under a Creative Commons license]