Tending to the Garden of Expat Emotions

by Lauren Swenson

It was so strange to me, the day when someone asked our names at church as if we were total strangers. We’d played volleyball several times together, had a host of mutual friends, and attended the same service regularly. I asked him, “Do you seriously not remember meeting us before?” His response was, “Oh I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve decided not to make any friends until I know they’ll be staying in Nairobi for a while. How long have you been here?” (Two years, and we met you within the first month or two.) “What do you do?” (We’re building a CrossFit gym.) “Oh, so you own a business! Yes, maybe you’ll be here a while.” He then proceeded to give us his name – again – and he told us he’d try to remember our names this time.

Surprisingly, although this weirdly frank conversation is not the norm, there have been quite a number of people we’ve met who ask prequalifying questions like “How long have you been here?” or “How long do you intend to stay?” or “What organization are you with?” to try to gauge if there’s a possibility of a longer-term relationship or if it’s going to be a short-lived acquaintance.

And I can say truthfully now, I get it. I get why people try to hedge their expectations. It hurts. I find myself grieving over the loss of friendships regularly here. I find myself saddened by the reality that we live in a place where people very regularly move on.

Strictly from a professional standpoint, we have trained with, invested in, and brought on fourteen people who joined us and then left, and we have two more highly integrated individuals who are moving on in the immediate future. The majority of these people are driven by worthy aspirations and have made meaningful life-moves for themselves, so of course I celebrate those realized hopes with them.

But ouch.

It’s not easy being left behind, rebuilding and finding new people to fill spaces that belonged to someone else who uniquely fulfilled their role with us, with our story and aspirations and structure.

I find myself grieving, because I give, invest, pour into people, and then the gaps appear, and the process has to start all over again. It’s disappointing when I have to slow my own progress to go back and train a new teammate.

I grieve because saying goodbye so often makes me feel isolated and alone, and like my story matters little compared to others’ stories.

Maybe someone more mature than me could take the losses in stride. What I do know is that I don’t want to grow heart-calluses that keep people at arms’ length, so I choose to dive in to understand, invest, know, and trust. But is there a way to do this without it hurting?

And in a context where life is not easy and opportunities are sought after like the rare treasures they are, I hurt at the heartbreak and hardships so many face. The never-ending toil of trying to find enough work to put food on the table at the end of each day. The lack of quality public education that puts tremendous burden on families to put children through school. No money for rent, people dodging landlords praying their home won’t be padlocked, possessions seized and tossed into the street. I am not here to work with the poor and disenfranchised, but in the course of my regular life – friends, neighbors, consultants – the realities are humbling, desperate, and overwhelming.

What do I do when this unsettling grief seems to circle around me? It’s not a distant discomfort; it is very present and tangible.

In some ways, it’s a good thing to grieve like this; it is evidence that I am present and alive – feeling, empathizing, caring – in my relationships. As a matter of principle, I want to be all of those things with people, and I believe I am choosing the right priorities.

What troubles me is how I feel when I give myself to training, believing, raising up, trusting, and investing my time, ideas and often finances, and I don’t feel it reciprocated with the loyalty of longevity. Somehow I feel betrayed, like I’ve been used (or am being used) as a steppingstone.

Yet those words war against another reality: I can literally say that one of the joys of my life is being a conduit of grace and hope and being an equipper, someone who can be relied upon and who helps others see a way forward. I desire to be living part of others’ pathway to seeing God’s providence and purpose in their lives, and I feel like I’m operating in my giftings when I do so. I feel my own purpose in being a steppingstone.

It feels like more than a matter of semantics, this steppingstone question. The tension in equipping others and releasing them. The pain of relationship and community. There isn’t a lighthearted quip or pearl of wisdom to nicely qualify and take care of the discomfort that seems like a constant ache in me. I am convinced I can’t make a mental decision, alter a belief, or take a vow that will make the grief disappear.

Instead, I find myself imagining a garden: soil and flowers and crawling things with a stone pathway meandering through it. The hedges don’t guard on the inside of the garden; rather, they keep what isn’t necessary from disturbing the space within. Inside the garden there are park benches awaiting conversations, a table awaiting the opportunity of a shared meal, the bird bath welcoming song, the green grass hoping for small feet to run and tumble through it.

I don’t want to hedge against good grief. I want to be a place where the sadness I feel is because my life is that garden, and my heart has been the steppingstone that welcomed guests in and has seen them leave, better than when they arrived.

Help me, Jesus, to know how to do this well, because sometimes it hurts more than I want it to.

Originally published here.

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Feeling compelled to influence a part of the world just beginning to embrace fitness as a lifestyle, Lauren and Bryant Swenson and their three teenagers relocated to Nairobi, Kenya in 2016 to open a CrossFit gym. To keep family and friends connected with their journey overseas, Lauren started a blog, which has become her own soul-nurturing chronicle even as life abroad stretches her faith and understanding. Through her writing, Lauren desires to be an authentic and faithful voice, and to foster the togetherness, teachability, tenacity, and transformation that define their purpose in Africa.

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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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