I have listened to your stories. I have cried with you, laughed with you, and hurt with you. I have reminisced with you and celebrated with you. And… I have learned from you. Yes, I have had my own re-entry experiences (and mistakes), but for the last 10 years or so, I’ve been given treasures of gold – your stories. Stories from those of you returning after serving 1 year, 10 years, 5 years, 20 years… from all over this globe – from the bush of Africa, from the dusty roads of Nepal, from the villages of India, from the high-rises of China, from the Latin tropics, from the shops of Germany … and everywhere in between. Returning.
And as I have listened, I have started to notice themes – themes of struggle, themes of triumph, themes of resilience, themes of surprise. Themes. These are the themes I’ve been seeing:
1. This life of living cross-culturally – loving and becoming like those not like you – is a life marked by grief. Grief. Not easy. Not fun. But real. And it won’t go away if you ignore it. Constant leaving, relentless changing, the revolving door of ex-pat communities, packing, unpacking, hellos, and goodbyes…every transition is a welcoming of something new, but also a loss of something ‘old’. And for those who learn to grieve well, greater identification with the Man of Sorrows, a growing anticipation for the New Heaven and New Earth, and a restored joy on this Earth all await.
2. Returning starts as soon as you think about leaving. Once it is decided you are leaving, you start packing your emotional bags. You start to detach. You may even stop caring about some things. You start to notice more the things that bother you and anticipate leaving the things don’t want to have to deal with anymore. But at the same time, you are also painfully aware of the things that you do not want to leave… and you cling to them, weep over losing them, and sometimes even find the strength to say goodbye to them.
3. Some of your biggest internal battles will likely be to leave without bitterness and to adjust to your new normal without accusation and pride. If bitterness is the infection, then forgiveness is the antiseptic. And once you return, you will naturally compare cultures, fellowships, people, and practices. It will take keeping in step with the Spirit to avoid these pitfalls of accusation and pride.
5. Sometimes you will wonder – did I really do that? Did we really live there? At times, it will feel like such a mirage – something from a storybook, a fairytale, or someone else’s life… but not your own life – until you look at the pictures, see stories from where you lived in the news, meet up with an old friend, or travel back.
6.You will be tempted to tell a skewed story. You may be tempted to tell about your life as better than it was, or as worse than it was, or something in between. But the story that you tell is the story that you believe. And the story that you believe is the story that you begin to live. It is important that you discover the real story – accepting the good and the bad of where you just were and are now – so that you can live the real story you are being given.
7. Transition comes with ‘odd’ symptoms that are a NORMAL part of loss and change – memory loss (yes, like the time I forgot the zip code of my address where I had mail sent to for… well, 20 years), insomnia, irritability, higher susceptibility to sickness, anxiety, trouble concentrating, fatigue, atypical indecisiveness, confusion, greater challenges with depression, and feeling out of sorts…to name a few.
8. Re-entry is like a dense fog that takes awhile to lift. For most, the beginning of re-entry is about 2-3 months of a frantic, frenzied fog – of getting a vehicle, signing up on a new phone plan, unpacking, finding a job, setting into a job, getting the utilities turned on, enrolling in insurance, learning new roads, figuring out a new budget, finding new places to shop, getting climate-appropriate clothing, setting up a residence, getting kids enrolled…and the list goes on. Attention to your emotions and the deep waters of your soul often get side-lined to the tasks of survival. But once the fog lifts…
9. You will be tempted to step over some of the greatest treasures you’ve ever been given – seeing them more as obstacles than gems. Once the fog lifts, you will be tempted to just ‘get on with life’ and not take the time to reflect on how you’ve changed, the experiences you’ve had, and why it all matters going forward. But, (oh, how it pains me so!), in doing so, you are missing out on unearthing and putting to use some of the greatest treasures that you’ve ever been given – and these treasures are not only for you, but also for others and the Kingdom!
10. Your new normal will come, but probably not as soon as you’d like. Returning to a new normal on average takes 6 months to 2 years depending on how long your most recent season of service lasted, the intensity of experiences you had during that season, how intentionally you process it, when your next transition will be, how long you will be where you currently are, and the community to have to help you through the transition. It is usually an uncomfortable time, but for those who intentionally glean insights from their past experiences, put those insights to use, and keep putting one in-the-process-of-being-sanctified foot in front of the other, new normal will gradually come.
11. Returning happens best in the presence of others who are genuinely interested in hearing your story. In 2012-2013, people returning from all over the world engaged Returning Well (the re-entry guidebook I am in the process of publishing) in their re-entry and then gave me feedback. It became crystal clear and painfully obvious that those who had people skilled in active listening that they trusted to help them process (aka effectively debrief to reach a dynamic renewal) adjusted more quickly, felt connected more readily, grieved more fully, and entered into their new season of life more joyfully. AND get this (this surprised me) it did not matter if these persons had cross-cultural experience. In fact, in some situations it was better they didn’t as they asked more questions and didn’t assume or take the conversation hostage sharing about their own experiences.
So for those in the thick of returning –
– What do you still need to grieve? How do you grieve best?
– When does bitterness and accusation most tempt you?
– What “odd” symptoms of transition have you been experiencing?
– What will help you to unearth the gems in your story?
– Who can walk beside you as you return?
– How can the Velvet Ashes community support you in your re-entry?
In response to His call and seeing such a great need to develop a tool that makes an effective debriefing that leads to a dynamic renewal available to all people in re-entry, Melissa has been listening and crafting Returning Well for several years and eagerly awaits its arrival. If you’d like to be notified when it is published, or if you have any questions, you can contact her at Melissa@MelissaChaplin.com