The mist hangs heavy over the Charles River as I make my way onto Storrow Drive. It is the day after a holiday weekend, and the traffic in Boston is heavy. Glancing over at the river, I see a line of ducks placidly making their way through the mist and utterly content.
I know that soon the mist will give way to blue sky and sunshine, but right now it is welcome. It reflects my inner world. I have just said goodbye to my youngest son.
Last week it was my other son and his wife. One day we were picking apples and making apple crisp and the next day I was hugging them goodbye. One day the house was full, the conversation loud over games and ideas and I was eating the best breakfast sandwiches on the planet. The next day? Empty space.
Jonathan has been with us since mid June. He arrived as summer was beginning and is heading back to Greece as the leaves change and golden Autumn arrives. He arrived as a support and help during a deeply difficult time. He arrived and suddenly, there was music in the house. He arrived and my mind spun as we shared theological truths and philosphical beliefs. He arrived, and now he is leaving.
Last night we took a long walk by the harbor. I looked over at the Zakim Bridge and said “Look – a perfect sunset for the evening before you leave.” It was indeed. A benediction of a time well spent.
My job schedule dictates my inability to take him to the airport so the goodbyes happened in the sanctuary of our living room. It was better this way. No matter how warm the temperature, airports can be cold places to say goodbye.
Just yesterday morning my own mom said goodbye to me, and I watched through a car window as she waved until I was out of sight. Generations of goodbyes – this is our family. Three generations of living between. Three generations of waving until you can no longer see the person, whether because they are out of sight or because the tears blur your eyes so much that you can no longer see clearly.
Now is not the time to say how rich our lives have been. Now is not the time to say how much I love the airport, adventure, and the fact that my kids know what it is to live in different places and cultures. Now is not the time to be in awe of my son’s ability to speak Greek, of his thorough investment in another country, another city, another world. Now is not the time to say “but aren’t we lucky?” Now is not the time for others to say “You’ll adjust” or “You can always video chat.”
Now is the time to say goodbye. Now is the time to weep, to say “I will miss you so much.” Now is the time to say “God go with you, God be with you.”
Now is the time of goodbye.
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“I have waited for a book like Pillars all my adult life, a personal book that discovers similarities and honors differences between Christianity and Islam, a book that . . . shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
Marilyn R. Gardner, author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging
I think it was in 2012 when I first “met” Rachel Pieh Jones. We connected online over a mutual love and struggle over lives lived between worlds, over writing, and over a shared connection to Muslim majority countries. Meeting Rachel has been a gift that keeps on giving. Through the years we have shared our hearts and our stories and I have learned much through my friendship with this extraordinary woman.
Today, Rachel’s second book Pillars is released and I cannot tell you how excited I am about this book! I had the honor of reading an advanced copy and feel like I have been waiting for it my entire adult life.
Below is an interview from the press release for Pillars developed by Plough Publishing.
When Rachel Pieh Jones moved from Minnesota to rural Somalia with her husband and twin toddlers eighteen years ago, she was secure in a faith that defined who was right and who was wrong, who was saved and who needed saving. She had been taught that Islam was evil, full of lies and darkness, and that the world would be better without it.
Luckily, locals show compassion for this blundering outsider who can’t keep her headscarf on or her toddlers from tripping over AK47s. After the murder of several foreigners forces them to evacuate, the Joneses resettle in nearby Djibouti.
Is there anything you find daunting about putting your story out like this for the world? Absolutely. Spirituality is deeply personal. Sharing such a personal story makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. I hope to honor my Christian tradition, even as my ideas of what it means to be a Christian have been transformed and I’m not sure how people will respond to some of my conclusions. I also aim to honor Islam as I experience it in the Horn of Africa and it is daunting to present another faith tradition as an outsider. I hope to have done so respectfully.
Why do you choose to do it in spite of those apprehensions? I’m a peace-builder at heart and have learned that peace does not come through avoiding hard conversations, and that peace does not mean homogeneity or agreement. Peace is built right in the middle of complexity as we learn to honor another’s perspective. This is something our communities desperately need. Peace is built through shared experiences of joy, grief, fear, and celebration, through choosing to love people without needing to change them, and through realizing that we are the ones being loved too. That conviction compels me to share this story as one example of what peace-building can look like.
How do you imagine your story will be received by North American evangelical Christians? By the Muslim community? I don’t expect all readers, whether Christian or Muslim, will agree with all the conclusions I come to in Pillars. I even anticipate some pushback because Christians and Muslims have a complicated history that can make it hard to see positive aspects in the other. I hope even in the places that feel uncomfortable, readers will find intriguing possibilities for conversation andfurther exploration. At the same time, I know many Christians and Muslims who have developed meaningful relationships. I hope these readers will feel less alone in their quest to find common ground.
Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation “This is a beautiful story, beautifully told. It’s much more than the memoirs of a Christian American living in Africa and exploring Islam with devoted Muslims; it’s about learning how to be a good neighbor to the people around you, wherever you might be in the world. This is the kind of book we need right now.”
Amy Peterson, author of Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World “Filled with hard-won insights of a mature faith lived in long community with Muslim neighbors, Pillars refuses sentimental calls for the kind of peace that glosses over differences. Instead, Jones finds her faith unraveled and rewoven, stronger for what she’s learned in the Horn of Africa and from her Muslim friends. Anyone whose faith has been challenged by life experiences will find a helpful model for spiritual growth here.”
At the end of my full review I said this, and I leave you with it now:
“Read and savor this book, which shows what can happen when we connect rather than collide.”
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas
You are the bridge builders and the listeners, the ones who understand what it is to live between.
You are the border crossers and the visa holders, the ones who say goodbye to a million friends, and make a million more.
You are the sorters and the packers, putting a world into a suitcase – the ones who know that packing up a suitcase and packing up a life are two different things. Into one you put your belongings, into the other – you pack your heart.
You are the language learners and the mistake makers, the ones who try to sort out grammar and idioms, ruefully accepting the good natured laughs that your language skills provoke.
You are the world news gatherers, catching your breath as you hear about a tragedy across oceans and continents that affect the people and places you love. Praying and hoping as you await news beyond the headlines.
You are the challengers of stereotypes, knowing that “No one is a single story.”*
You are the defender of accents, the one who knows that limited language ability does not mean limited intellectual ability; the one who knows that accents are the badges of honor in a world that needs connecting.
You are the ones who know the strength of ‘saudade’ and have cried tears of longing for what no longer exists.
You are the ones who can bargain for the best produce in five languages yet get paralyzed in the cereal aisle of your passport country.
You are the holder of stories and hidden experiences, the lover of all things travel, the one who knows what it is to be lonely on a Sunday night in an international or domestic airport.
You are the ones who know what it is to be displaced and culturally confused, the ones who long to end the refugee crisis and closed borders, the ones who speak out against policies that hurt people and shut them out.
You are the ones who feel the pain of closed borders and the sadness of unused tickets, the ones who are forever separated from so many places and people you love.
You are my fellow travelers and global souls, you are my friends and my family, you are my tribe. May you take comfort in your stories and your memories, your sacred objects and your soul friends.
May your life of movement help you to love more, judge less, and reach across the boundaries that divide knowing that all is not lost.
“Let waiting be our work, as it is His. And, if His waiting is nothing but goodness and graciousness, let ours be nothing but a rejoicing in that goodness, and a confident expectancy of that grace. And, let every thought of waiting become to us the simple expression of unmingled and unutterable blessedness, because it brings us to a God who waits that He may make Himself known to us perfectly as the gracious One. My soul, wait thou only upon God!”- Andrew Murray
My first child was late. Due around Labor Day, she made her appearance into the world on September 11, about ten days late.
During the time between her due date and her actual arrival my husband got into the practice of answering the phone by shouting into it “No! We haven’t had the baby yet! Quit asking.” It all worked fine until his mother-in-law (yes – that would be my mother) called.
Any couple or individual who has gone through waiting for a baby’s arrival know that waiting is work.
I know well the waiting of babies.
I also know well the waiting that is an inevitable part of a life movement. Below is an essay I wrote for my book Between Worlds. During this season of worldwide waiting it felt right to post it. May it in someway comfort you in the waiting.
It’s 2am in the Mumbai Airport. I am in the domestic terminal and the airport is quiet. Outside the sky is dark and the open doors reveal small restaurants, some closed, others open with minimal food and one lone employee to serve customers who happen by at that hour.
We arrived here at midnight. It’s still three hours before our flight to Goa. We don’t yet know that we will miss that flight.
At the door the guard’s sleepy eyes belie his quick response. Some people in our group have already tested his reflexes. His high turban is immaculate, and a thick silver Sikh bracelet falls heavy on his arm.
Other passengers are scattered in the two seating areas, either in semi-sleep or randomly observing their surroundings with the resigned expressions of travelers in transit, travelers who are between worlds, in the limbo of the ‘not yet arrived.’
A group from the Emirates walks across the terminal, a gaggle of children lagging behind, weary with the weight traveling and the weight of bags, hanging heavy off their backs, luggage tags bearing the characteristic red and white emblem of the airline. Their moms are ahead of them, slender and tall in abayas, only their eyes showing through black niqabs.
I sit back and look around, fully at home. This waiting in terminals is a world I know well. I’ve never counted up the hours I have spent like this, just waiting, but they are many. It’s amazing how much waiting there is in a life of movement.
Surrounded by luggage, tired from crossing time zones, we just sit. We wait. We wait in transit, in the in-between, not always sure of the next piece of the journey. We wait for buses. We wait at train stations. We wait at airports.
And there’s another kind of waiting. We wait for visas, that legal stamp of permission to enter a country as a guest or live there as a resident. We wait for donors to fund projects. We wait for decisions over which we have no control. We wait for a doctor’s approval to continue this life overseas.
Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity. For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.
In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters.’
He doesn’t assure us that we will learn why we wait. He gives no false promises. What he does is perhaps better – he assures us of his goodness.
And so I wait at two am in the Mumbai airport, thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love; a God who asks us to wait. I give thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable within the waiting; a God who knows all about the work if waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.
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The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives.
Like many of you, I have thought a lot in these past weeks about race and racism. Also like many of you I have posted, reacted, posted again, thought again, reacted again, and finally stopped to catch my breath. It’s only as I’ve stopped to catch my breath and pray that I have felt a measure of peace in moving forward.
As I look at the purpose of Communicating Across Boundaries, it is not surprising that there have been many posts by myself and others around racism, immigrants, refugees, and loving the one who is other. It is the “what”at the heart of what I do. It is the “why” at the heart of what I believe, for if a gospel cannot transform me and our world from the inside out, what good is it? Why does it matter?
This time I post with even more care than usual. We have a huge portion of the population of the United States who are in pain over injustice and racism. It is a callous person indeed that doesn’t recognize this and respond with deep love and care.
As a third culture kid growing up in the developing world, I had my own unconscious privilege to reckon with, and once made aware, to answer for. This privilege took different forms. From thinking “they” weren’t as smart as me to happily enjoying a life that would have been far more difficult if I had been born a different color or had a different passport.
A reckoning is, by dictionary definition, a “settling of accounts.” So what does that mean for me, as a privileged, little white girl growing up in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin? What does that mean to someone who is a guest in a country that had a recent history of colonization by the British Empire? For me, this primarily means being honest.
It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. I walked through the world with different skin on, and skin made a huge difference.
As I moved on to writing Worlds Apart, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.
To give context, a delightful activity for me as a child was “high tea” at a hotel near my boarding school. During the summer months, my mom would take us to a hotel that served mini pastries and savory snacks on three-tiered China platters. Tea was served in a pot and each of us had a separate pot of tea. There were waiters dressed in turbans and starched white coats, attentive to every need. They treated me like the princess I thought I was. I loved it so much. It was later that I realized there was another side to my experience.
“There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted.
Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”
Children grow up to be adults, and as an adult I’ve had to take responsibility for learning and growing in areas where I had a lot of pride and a lot of ignorance. That pride and ignorance led to wrong thinking and distorted theology.
Recently, I’ve focused more on the listening part of learning. My friend Caroline is one of the people I listen to. We became friends one cold, snowy evening as my husband and I made our way into a large room in New Hampshire for a church retreat. Caroline and her husband were helping to register us. It was pretty much love and friendhsip at first meeting. Caroline and I share a third culture kid background. She is ethnically South Asian, raised in several places in the world and a brilliant speaker and thinker. She said this in a sermon given in Wheaton, Illinois this past weekend:
Be on guard against cheap diversity! Cheap diversity settles for representation, cheap diversity is satisfied when the room looks colorful, Be on guard against cheap diversity. Representation is satisfied with people being present, justice says “I care about this person inside this room and outside of it.” Justice says “We see and do not stand for the way that our society and our culture upholds oppression and racial violence.” Justice says “I won’t quit until all are seen as image bearers.” The kingdom cares about life and shalom and flourishing here and now. If one of us is in pain or grieving, we ALL are in pain and grieving. If one is experiencing injustice, then all are experiencing injustice.”
She then gives action steps to her listeners. With her permission I am sharing them here:
Get in proximity: how can you be in community or learn from a community different than your own?
What are your spheres of power or influence? How are you bearing the fruit of justice in those spaces? How can you distribute power, access, money, etc. to steward power and influence well?
Educate yourself about injustice in both your passport country and your host country. Don’t walk through the world oblivious.
If you are a Christian, choose a passage or a verse that anchors you in God’s heart for justice. Memorize it and meditate on it daily.
I will be on this long journey in the right direction for the rest of my life. Why? Because this is a journey directly related to who I am as a Christian. God cares about oppression. God cares about justice. God cares about hurting communities. God cares about color – he cared enough to create us in different skin tones with different hair textures.
Here are some things that continue to be a part of my long journey:
Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard, but in searching my soul I have realized that this sin is against God and fellow man.
Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
Develop real friendships with those who don’t physically look like we do. We walk through the world with skin on. That skin is perceived differently depending on its color. I walk through the world as a white woman. I have many friends who walk through the world as Arabic speaking, Kurdish speaking, and Urdu speaking brown women and men. I have other friends who walk through the world as black, English speaking women and men. Jesus himself walked through the world as an Aramaic-speaking brown man. Tamika in a recent post on Taking Route says this about color “If you say you don’t see color, then it means there is something about me that you can’t acknowledge.” Developing real friendships and relationships with people that don’t look like us challenges us and changes us.
Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn from people who look different than we do.
Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
We will get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.
In my journey I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God.
I first heard the term “earned fact” from Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As an immersive journalist, she talks about being able to write, not because she saw something, or read something, but because she lived something. In order to write the book, Boo immersed herself in the lives of people in a slum in Mumbai. Daily, she went to the slum, sat with people, recorded stories, observed, and asked questions. She did this for three years. When she wrote about the slum, she described the people, the smells, the garbage and even the air as one who had experienced this world.
But the book itself is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I am interested in this idea of “earned fact” and how it relates to the third culture kid conversation. I’m interested because many of the third culture kids I know, myself included, become weary of feeling like we have to somehow justify our experience through education or research. The reality is that we have something that education and research can never give anyone – we have earned fact. We have lived something extraordinary and our words and stories come from that place.
Our earned fact often begins at birth, where the first words we hear are not from our mother tongue. Instead, they are words said over us by a midwife, nurse, or doctor who speak Urdu, Tagalog, or any other of a number of languages. We don’t come into our lives as third culture kids with already formed world views. Instead, our world views are formed by living between. Our identity is shaped through interacting with our parents and their dominant culture and the dominant culture surrounding us. Research on identity formation does not apply in the same way. Instead, we move back and forth as little people whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).
The earned fact continues through childhoods lived on the edge and in between, picnicking in places that are far from our passport countries and participating in events that don’t make sense to peers in our passport countries. What is normal to us is considered ‘exotic’ by some, ‘extraordinary’ by others; ‘reckless’ by more than a handful. In the words of Liz Rice, in her memoir Rituals of Separation, one thousand things begin to separate us from the people we are related to by blood or by legal definition.
From the moment my life in Korea started, one thousand things began to separate me from the people of my bloodline and the country of my passport. My umbilical cord of identity stretched out to the city and the people in front of me.
“Closing one life door had opened up another. I was becoming part of a new family, not bound by blood or nationality, but created out of calling and circumstance, and the simple fact of what happens when a little girl’s parents decide to make a home in a new land.
Nothing about that life or my identity felt particularly remarkable until I came to the U.S. Nothing about my place in-between cultures and communities, between fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, seemed like something I needed to reconcile until the day we left Korea behind. I only look back now and try to analyze this time, to pick it apart, to understand the people and places that were forming me, to remember the ways of those who were teaching me how to greet and grieve.”
This earned fact is not easily described. When I talk about negotiating across cultural differences, I don’t just have a theoretical understanding. I have experiences that began when I was very young. When I speak on culturally responsive care, and understanding the impact of culture on all aspects of life, it is part of my bones. I have sat on the sidelines of many conversations or discussions on culture. Because I have fair skin, and my features resemble many in the area where I live, it’s assumed that I have only lived here, that my experience does not include anything beyond the borders of Massachusetts. It’s a hard and discouraging assumption to fight. I have a notebook of things that have been said to me that dismiss my invisible experience – invisible until I tell stories that go beyond my skin color and show a life lived in places and cultures far different than the one where I now reside.
There is a skepticism of the term “Third Culture Kid.” Third culture adults don’t necessarily like it, and third culture kids don’t buy into it. It separates them. It is irritating and divisive. I hear that and I respect the sentiment behind it. We have enough in the world to divide us into the next millenium and beyond. But for some of us, this term has encouraged us to connect. It has given us a foundation from which to engage. It has given us hope that we are not alone.
Because here’s the thing – There was a time when we didn’t have a name. When we were forever told to pull up our boot straps and get on with life.
There was a time when we thought we were the only ones, traveling solo in our passport countries, not knowing how to put words to our longings, how to verbalize our pain.
There was a time when reentry seminars were non-existent and it was assumed that we would arrive in our passport countries without incident, when folks said to us “Aren’t you glad to be back home” and we nodded assent, but a part of us shriveled inside. We would assimilate and no one would ever know that part of us that shaped and molded us from birth.
There was a time when we over spiritualized and downplayed ‘place’ and ‘home’, convincing ourselves that since our real home was in Heaven, earth really didn’t matter too much. But ah….when we got to Heaven, that would all change. Except that we were young and Heaven seemed oh so far away.
There was a time when we laughed at the thought that we had losses, we brushed away any grief. “That’s ridiculous” we sniffed! Other’s have far more losses. Others are far worse off. But then we faced one too many moves and in the back of our minds the whisper of losses began to shout.*
So, to those that don’t need the term “Third Culture Kid” – I hear you and I honor and respect that. But to those of us who do feel like the term has helped? Make no mistake that we, that you, have an earned fact and some of that earned fact can be represented in the phrase “Third Culture Kid” or “Third Culture Adult.”
As my friend Robynn so beautifully states, we are from this third culture, this nebulous nomadic space. Whether we are 13 or 50, we have these common traits and can proudly own our earned fact. And we can, if we choose, use the term Third Culture Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. It’s our choice.