We were hosting another vision trip for bright-eyed twenty-somethings, and I found myself trying desperately to stifle another eyeroll. A recent college grad was explaining his plans to move to Afghanistan and eventually completely revamp the entire education system.
“Oh, would you try to do that before or after your closest friends are kidnapped and killed?”
“How innovative of you! I bet none of the countries that have poured billions of dollars into the country have ever tried such a thing! It’s a good thing that you’re here and can show them how it’s done.”
These are things I was tempted to say, but by the grace of God and the knowledge that I could unleash my eyerolls later, I kept my thoughts to myself.
If you have been on the field for more than a few years, perhaps you are familiar with the cynicism that so easily creeps into the consciousness of the field worker. It’s the uneasiness we feel when new co-workers arrive, but their excitement and fervor feel more like ignorance than vibrant ambition to us.
It’s seeing new teammates talk about the great spiritual conversation they had with a friend but privately thinking that it will not ever really go any further than that. After all, you have had many similar conversations.
There’s no denying how jaded we can become after experiencing countless disappointments and atrocities. Like tire tracks on a dried-up dirt road, my mind had created expectations for disappointment, for nothing to actually turn out well, and for people I love to eventually leave the field.
What had happened to me? I came to the field with so much excitement and hope. But the difficulties and disappointments had taken such a toll that I could not even respond with a kind word to our young friend’s enthusiasm. Granted, his ideas were lacking historical awareness, but my attitude towards any lofty plan or vision was one of sheer cynicism rather than tempered optimism.
For most of us, our expectations have been forged by the fact that life on the field can be brutal. Endless goodbyes, evacuations, and friends who had been murdered had all taken a heavy toll on my own ability to retain any sense of optimism. While I had dealt with the trauma of the painful events, I had not acknowledged the fact that my mind had been trained to expect the absolute worst. And I wanted everyone else to expect the worst, too.
I would really love to tell you that I had some special encounter with Jesus or a few breakthrough sessions of therapy that completely turned around my critical attitude. I wish I could report that I now listen to people’s well-meaning aspirations and feel the urge to empower them rather than poke holes in their dreams. But that would not be entirely true.
Not long after feeling convicted about what a downer I had become, a friend and fellow worker came to stay with us. She also happened to be a mental health professional, and she too was feeling the cynicism sneak in when spending time with new arrivals. Together, we prayed for a renewed spirit of joy and compassion when met with the tender naiveté of our friends.
She asked me what I was like when I first landed in Afghanistan, and I confessed that I secretly thought that I was going to be like Mother Teresa. She shared her own misguided expectations of being in perfect, harmonious friendships with all of her teammates and local friends. We both laughed until we cried as we remembered our hopes that had been blown to smithereens by the ruthless realities of life on the field. We, too, had once been the newbies with preposterous ideas. The only difference was that we did not have the audacity to actually voice them out loud upon our arrival.
This little moment of clarity did help me to approach short-term visitors and field hopefuls with more tenderness and grace. My friend encouraged me to share my stories with them in a way that was personal rather than didactic. Our stories of heartbreak, disappointment, and times of despair are both true and relevant.
Rather than telling someone to adjust their expectations, a story gives listeners the option of taking in new information and assimilating it into their own perspective. The difficulty, of course, is that many stories are painful to retell. It is far easier to say, “Trust me, you are about to have your heart ripped from your chest and repeatedly stomped,” than to tell the stories of friends’ tragic deaths. It is more expedient to let newly arrived ladies know that it’s only a matter of time before they are sexually assaulted on the street than to share with them personal experiences of violation. But lasting relationships and trust are not built on ease and expedience.
When I am really honest with myself, I have to admit that I want people to believe what I say simply because I have experience they do not have. This is unreasonable, pretentious, and ultimately says a lot more about my pride than anyone’s naivete.
Jesus could have quite easily told his listeners, “Trust me . . . I’m actually God and I know everything.” Instead, he approached the crowds and his disciples with relatable stories and agricultural metaphors. He explained hidden realities with the familiarity of the mundane. Despite his intimate knowledge of each person he encountered, he still took the time to ask questions. “Who do you say I am?” “Where is your husband?” “Where have they all gone?” “Are you going to leave, too?” The compassionate curiosity of Jesus exposes my pride and impatience.
The freshness of new field workers also tends to highlight how much my faith has changed. Sure, my expectations have been weathered by hardship, but my belief that God is truly a salvager of the perverse, atrocious, and devastating has taken some blows. I want to believe that the wreckage I see is not the end of the story, because my hope is still in the all-powerful God who has promised to make all things new. But asking God for the improbable now requires a painfully honest examination of my heart, because the temptation is to expect disappointment rather than relinquishing the actual fear of failure and disappointment to Him.
When new co-workers arrive with a head full of dreams and hearts full of hope, their excitement and joy have the potential to ignite new ideas, bring fresh perspective, and remind us to expect beautiful gifts from the Father. The Spirit of God has birthed dreams in their hearts and a fire in their bones, and it may look entirely different than anything I have ever imagined.
That new field worker will eventually be a seasoned one. The hardship and heartache will eventually take up residence, and they will need the refreshing and reassurance that we have also needed.
As we welcome new arrivals, may we choose to bless their dreams and listen to their hopes with tenderness. May we hold space for them when the disappointments feel crushing, and may we find fellowship together in both joy and heartache.