Safety Was Never Part of the Promise

If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.

Madeleine L’Engle in And It Was Good

The first conversation in the United States about safety that I remember came after 9/11. Suddenly “the enemy” had come to our soil and we were no longer safe. Money, big houses, security systems, fat retirement accounts, and good jobs were not enough. Most of those killed in 9/11 had those and more but it did not save them.

The solution was war. No matter what lawmakers and politicians say now, the general consensus made by the powerful of the land in the United States was that war was warranted, war was justified. And so we went to war.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

“The enemy” moved closer. The enemy was now at our borders. Those who would take our jobs and bring in drugs must be stopped. Those who would bring their ideology to disrupt our “way of life” had to be kept out. So we proposed walls and fences, bans and limited entry.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

ISIS emerged, a real threat to people living in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, but arguably not so much to those watching the nightly news on their plush, comfortable couches. There was more fear. The world was a scary, scary place. A formation of a broad international coalition was designed to defeat the Islamic State and ISIS went undercover to emerge only randomly.

But it did not take away the fear.

As my husband and I periodically went to the Middle East to work with humanitarian aid groups on the ground the number one question people would ask us is “Is it safe?”

I never knew how to respond. In the essay “The Proper Weight of Fear,” my friend Rachel Pieh Jones writes what is a fitting response to that question:

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.“

Rachel Pieh Jones in The Proper Weight of Fear

And then came 2020. Suddenly “the enemy” was no longer over there, far away from our homes and our television screens. The enemy couldn’t be kept out through a wall or closed borders. Instead, the enemy was everywhere. It was a virus, a virus that could be anywhere at anytime, floating through the air, ready to randomly attack. But it was more than a virus. The enemy was our neighbor. It was anyone who was not wearing a mask. It was the spring break revelers and covid partiers. It was the people who didn’t take the virus seriously. It was the person passing us who coughed. The enemy was the person who shopped at our grocery store and chose to go the wrong direction, defying loud orange arrows. Danger was everywhere and our fear was out of control.

But even when we wore masks and did all the right things, people were still afraid. Afraid and deeply angry at those who did not do the right things.

It turned out that no one was safe. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts, random strangers…they were all potential carriers of this virus that rocked the world.

We learned that no place and no one was safe. As much as we wanted to carve out our little utopias where everyone was safe, where the enemy was far away, and fear was nowhere to be found, it was not possible. Instead, everywhere we looked there was danger. It didn’t matter how big our houses were or how much we scrubbed our groceries, we were not safe. We couldn’t build walls to keep people out. We couldn’t create wars to send a message. Our own families became our enemies. We were victims of a virus much smarter than us.

So we created vaccines. The vaccines would solve the crisis were the words from the leaders. We would all be safe. We could begin living.

Vaccines were created – But they did not take away our fear.

Some chose not to get vaccinated and they became the enemy. And then “the Omicron” came. And even if we were vaccinated, even if we were boosted, Omicron invaded our households and took hold of our news sources. An insidious enemy, you didn’t know where it was and you didn’t know how to avoid it. Locking doors didn’t help. Cleaning didn’t help. Isolating didn’t help. Even the vaccine couldn’t keep us safe from the virus. We needed boosters. And more boosters. And still more.

The saviour vaccine had failed us and it did not take away our fear.

Could it be that we have safety all wrong, that we will never be truly safe as long as we live on this earth? Could it be that safety was never promised, that the nature of being human is one of risk, one that will ultimately lead to death on this earth for everyone?

What do we do in a dangerous world when we crave and long for safety? What do we do in a world that demands risk-taking just by existing?

We keep on going. We keep getting up, even when it’s difficult, oh so difficult, and we dread the day. We keep on loving, even when it hurts so much. We keep on taking risks, because life itself is a risk and trying to live risk free is a terrible and impossible life to live. We keep on going from strength to strength, because really – the only truly safe option is recognizing that we are not safe.

If we strive to be safe, we will never, ever win. That’s the reality of life. We were never promised safety, we were never promised a life without difficulty. We were promised God’s presence.

And in his presence today, I slowly learn to rest.

[Photo by Bill Nino on Unsplash]

Before the Crisis, There was a Crisis

South Lebanon January 2016 working with Syrian Refugees

Afghanistan. The land that has mystified and defeated would-be colonizers and conquerers for centuries, now on every social media account known to our current world. Suddenly, everyone has a friend in Afghanistan. It’s uncanny and a bit unnerving. They join others who have a friend of a friend of a friend in Afghanistan, creating an outraged public calling for compassion, open borders, and funding. Memes slap us in the face with their “Let all who want to leave, leave!” “Make room for all!” One does not need to ponder long the impossibility of that idea, yet I’ve not seen many challenge publicly the impossibility of it.

I’d like to spend a bit of time getting a perspective on all of this. Please hear at the outset that I am deeply sad and angry about the current situation in Afghanistan. From friendships with Afghans and those who have spent years living and working with Afghans (yes- I too am guilty of mentioning this…) to memories of vacations and school trips, Afghanistan has long been on my heart. After 20 years, one could argue that we should have known it was always going to be a messy leave taking. The question then becomes: “Did it have to be this messy?” But discussing our complicated foreign policy in Afghanistan is not my area of expertise. In addition, writing about the messiness feels singulary disrespectful to those remarkable people who have risked and lost their lives, and the many who have worked tirelessly to bring people to safety. For them alone I daren’t comment publicly. They are true heroes and know a courage of which I have little understanding. What I want to do is to give some perspective, something I work toward every day, so that is my desire here.

Perspective

There has been an Afghan refugee crisis for many years with little attention paid to the problem, and even less accomplished in finding sustainable solutions. There is also a Venezuelan refugee crisis, a Syrian refugee crisis, and a Myanmar Crisis. Before the crisis, there was a crisis, and before that crisis, there was a crisis. It brings to mind the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This applies to Haiti and Afghanistan equally well, both nations crippled in crisis after crisis, both desperately needing stability and peace. This does not mean we should not pay attention – we should. And we should also recognize that this makes an already difficult crisis even worse.

As of June of this year, over 82.4 million people in the world had to flee their homes because of conflict and violence. Of those 82.4 million, 26.4 are refugees. Half of them are under 18 years old. In addition, there are millions of stateless people with no nationality, no border security, and no rights. When I say no rights, I mean no freedom to move, no access to healthcare or education, and no legal employment.

1 out of every 95 people has had to flee their home.

68% of refugees orginate from five countries: Syria – 6.7 million; Venezuela – 4 million; Afghanistan – 2.6 million; South Sudan – 2.2 million; Myanmar – 1.1 million. There are five countries who have been the major hosts of refugees: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. Geographically this makes sense – these are bordering countries and borders become more porous during major conflicts and disruptions. The majority of the world’s refugees (86%) are hosted in developing countries. Only 14% are hosted in developed countries. It really makes one question the words developing and developed, doesn’t it? If developed means decreased hospitality, inflated sense of self, and living out of scarcity instead of abundance, no wonder so many of us find the developing world so attractive.

So what of all this? Prior to all of this, those who work with refugees and displaced people were already working hard to serve and care for people. Resources have been limited for a long time and sustainable solutions were already difficult to come by. This current crisis will soon die down for most of us and a new season of outrage will be upon us, begging us to do our our part in performing for the crowd. But there are many who do this work year in and out, with limited funds and a lot of heart.

There are a couple thoughts I have on what we can do:

  • We can give. Many of us have the ability to give, if even a small amount. I will list some organizations at the end of this post for you to check out. Remember to weigh all of them through Charity Navigator to ensure accountability. As wonderful as your friend’s gofundme may seem – it is likely not a sustainable solution. So give to the gofundme, but also find a place where you can give regularly to a program that is ongoing.
  • We can write our elected officials. America is quite simply not doing enough to help in the current crisis. Both the last administration and the current administration err on the side of doing too little, too late. Those of us who are lay people can make noise through an email or a letter. The time is perfect as every September the President sets the number of refugees that are allowed entrance for the next fiscal year. Click here to send an email or call your representative.
  • We can pray. This high form of empathy helps us to recognize that we are small, and God is big. Through prayer we can discern our part in an ongoing crisis.
  • We can volunteer. This is tricky during a pandemic that continues to stretch on. But check out the organizations I have listed as most of them can use volunteers.
  • We can educate ourselves. It is not helpful to pass on incorrect information. It is not helpful to make situations worse than they are for the sake of sensation. What is helpful is to find good sources and recognize that even good sources have their limits. What is helpful is to remain humble as we learn. The refugee crisis is ever changing and what is true today may have changed by tomorrow. There is no quick answer and there is no simple answer. Refugee and immigration issues are complicated. But there are sources and places where you can find out more. I’ve linked some at the end.
  • We can remove ourselves from outrage and ground ourselves in facts and truth. Outrage limits our ability to function. Outrage creates massive inner conflict. Outrage does not and cannot last. Grounding ourselves in facts and truth helps us discern the voices that reflect the same.
  • We can be part of the chain of goodness that makes a difference for all those around us.

As I have thought about all of this in the last few weeks, the words of the prophet Micah have often come to mind. Micah was one of the original and true social justice champions, a prophet who cared about oppression, who cared about injustice to the poor, who cared about women and children cast out of homes. His was not an activism of social media, but a true heart for those who were hurt by false righteousness. He had harsh words of judgment, but those harsh words were always followed by faith that was practical and down to earth, by faith that invoked the beauty of a God of mercy. The people and the world Micah wrote to and about are not so different from the one we face every day. It is Micah that writes words that are heard through the centuries:

He has shown you O Man, what is good, but what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

And that, my friends is perspective. May we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God – only then will we have the wisdom to respond to any crisis, be it a refugee crisis or another that comes our way. Amen and Amen.

To make it easier to see the magnitude of this problem, I’m including a series of photographs.

Note: Primary source for all statistics is as stated on photographs – UNHCR

A Global Pandemic & Ambiguous Loss

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. 

Pauline Boss

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.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

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

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/