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/

Longing for Permanence 

“The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life”

Laura Merzig Fabrycky

Recently I have been longing to purchase a home. For a long time we did own, first in a small town in Massachusetts, then in the city of Phoenix. I loved those homes. They were our spaces, places where  we could share our lives. One was an old Victorian home with 36 windows, five bedrooms, and a side porch with a doll house and wicker furniture. Our children climbed the trees in the side yard in the summer and fall and sled down a small hill in the back yard in the winter. We would order and stack chopped wood each fall to use in the wood stove in the living room, where we would gather each evening after homework to drink tea and talk.

The other was a much younger southwest home with archways and tile, cool stucco and high ceilings. Fans whirred most of the year and the diving pool was in constant use. A large back yard faced the desert and the famous Phoenix sunsets brought on quiet beauty and longing almost daily. We created a large patio at the far corner of the yard, and spent hours sitting, talking, and listening to our teenagers hone their guitar skills. In those completely different venues, we created space and place so that any guest or stranger would know the space was undeniably ours.

Growing up we never owned a house. We went from mission house to mission house and each one I loved. There were similarities in all of them – ceilings taller than 20 feet, archways, small windows just below the high ceilings called roshandons, often made of stained glass that helped to circulate air, and fans hanging from the ceilings with 12 foot thick wire. Salts crept up the walls causing them to bubble and crumble, but they were home. Courtyards with dusty Bouganvillea and Hibiscus grew wild with brilliant color, a sharp contrast to the dust of the ground and walls. The flat roofs allowed us to look across houses and trees, mosques and shops giving us a birdseye view of whatever city we lived in. They were all home. They were, above all, safe.

As an adult I’ve called four countries home and always welcomed the challenge of creating beauty out of odd colors and spaces, of transforming kitchens and living rooms into places we could call home. With all their warts and impermanence, we still called them home.

We’ve rented now for many years. I don’t think we set out to rent. I think we didn’t think about it, and the next thing we knew, prices around us had risen and owning was far out of our affordability. This worked out well when a dream of being back in the Middle East became a reality and we rid ourselves of seventy five percent of our posessions, taking on a journey that would have us fall in love with a place and people more than we’d ever imagine.

But, as those who read my writing know, that ended and we found ourselves back in the Boston area rebuilding what we had left, grieving even as we moved forward. Six months into our move, the world stopped, borders closed, and we experienced limited movement like we’ve never had before. It was soon into this closure that a longing for a house began in me. While we have our beautiful cottage in Rockport, it is too small to host our kids and our guests, and I long for something that can create memories for this next stage of life.

In recent weeks, its reached a feverish level of longing. Almost before my prayers in the morning I look at my realestate app. I try to imagine living in places that I don’t even like, and then shake my head in frustration. Why has it reached this sort of longing? Why is my heart so aching for place?

I’ve written a lot about place. And indeed, I want my next book to be about place. From Paul Tournier’s A Place for You to Wendell Berry’s Port William series, I read words that remind me place is important. We are created for place. Our longing is not misplaced so much as it is affected by our limited vision of what place is and where it fits in our spiritual and physical journey.

I don’t know what will happen with this longing. I don’t know if it will be fulfilled. Even as I write this, I know how incredibly fortunate I am, how I do not wonder where my next meal will come from or where I will sleep tonight. I am warm. I am safe. I have place even as I long for place. This longing is real to be sure, but it is not like the longing for a child, an empty womb and hands a continual sword in the heart. Or like the longing for a close one who has died. But longing is longing, and telling myself it’s minor is like slapping myself.

That God meets us in our longing is something I know in my bones, but even as he meets us, we are flesh and blood. We ache and long for permanence in the impermanent; in a world that can’t possibly deliver. As I wrote several years ago: We are tethered to earth with hearts made for Eternity. Surely Christ, who experienced the impermanence of place and a human body on this earth knows this. In the quiet of my heart I sometimes feel his whisper of the permanence that awaits me, more glorious than I could imagine, but seemingly so very far off.

In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, he writes poignantly of place. And whether place is rented or owned, there is something in the keeping of it that matters. I grab onto this on this day, a day when I looked yet again at the real estate app, desperately searching for something. As I grab hold, the words settle into my spirit. I sigh, close the app, and bake a lemon blueberry cake. It is enough for this moment.

There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

When Siblings Rescue

During my junior year of high school I took Physics. Knowing that I wanted to be a nurse, I poured through the catalog of the school that I wanted to attend after high school and looked at the courses that were recommended. Chemistry was required; Physics just recommended. Intent on making sure I was accepted to the program, I decided I would take Physics and Chemistry. I’m normally not an overachiever, but call it delusions of grandeur or healthy self esteem, at the time I secretly fancied myself a brilliant scientist or, if not a scientist, than definitely a brilliant nurse.

Our school building was an old British church that had been repurposed as a school with a huge auditorium in the center and classrooms along the sides and upstairs. Physics class was held in the science lab, located at the back of the auditorium, up steep stairs, in the highest spot in the building. We sat on stools around large, rectangular tables surrounded by science in the form of long tables, beakers, formulas, posters and pictures. A sign saying “A Physics student took a drink, but he shall drink no more. For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4” served as a warning to all of us of the violent death we would undergo if we did not pay attention. Bunsen burners, beakers, pipets, droppers, and funnels became familiar equipment and goggles were a necessity.

Like most classes in Murree, the class size was small. There were perhaps 12 of us and a mixture of juniors and seniors. Importantly, I was the only girl in the class.

The year started out okay, but as summer turned into Autumn, I began to despise Physics class. From what I wore to what I weighed, I was fair game for intolerable teasing from every single guy, egged on by the teacher. I laughed right along with all of them until one spring day when I didn’t laugh anymore. I left class sobbing like my heart had broken in a million fractals. It was my brother Stan who saw me leave the school building sobbing. Though he had graduated a couple of years before, he was back for a short time working at the school. He heard my cry, hugged away my tears, and marched up to that Physics Lab in a full-blown rage.

I don’t know what Stan said, but I know his righteous anger burst forth like a canon. Physics class got better for me. Though I still could not wait for it to end, at least a certain measure of respect developed. Never again did I leave Physics class in tears. Stan had done what I could never have done. He had marched in there, and in righteous love had demanded that the bad behavior stop. It was an early lesson in advocacy, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

A few months later, my brilliant brother Tom arrived from the United States. Patiently he sat with me each evening, teaching me what the teacher could not because I was so wounded by the class. He coached me to the Physics finish line and I ended up the class with a B+. This was a miracle. It was an early lesson of sibling patience, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

That’s the thing with siblings. They just are. While others have to earn a place, siblings have it and you don’t really pay attention to them. Except when you think back on a childhood and the role they played, the times they teased you mercilessly always trumped by the times they stood up for you with rage or coached you with patience. You may be able to count the deep talks you had with siblings on one hand, but that’s okay. Because beyond the deep talks is the deeper understanding of what it is to grow up in the same places, to experience the same household with its strengths and weaknesses, to face life’s challenges together.

It’s been a year to the day since my brother Stan died. A year to the day since we received those awful text messages through the large family Whatsapp. A year to the day when the wretching sobs made me throw up and scream in a silent house. A year to the day that marked my waking up thinking daily about my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. Anyone who has siblings will go through this at some point. Last February was our turn. It came too quick. It was too tragic. It shouldn’t have happened are all places I can’t go yet I go there anyway.

The week following his death was filled with some of the most remarkable love I have ever experienced in my lifetime, as a handful of us gathered in Thailand. We cried, talked, laughed, and comforted each other in that sacred space of grief. We drank mango smoothies and ate Thai curries, walked in gardens and basked in warmth while the Northeast I had left froze over. We did not know that a few weeks later a pandemic would upend the world and our grief would be eclipsed and upstaged by a worldwide crisis.

But it was, and so our grief was put on hold to make room for an angry public that enjoyed outrage so much that they were of no use to the truly grieving.

And now it has been a year. I do not have more words, but I do have more understanding of grief, more understanding of grace, more compassion, and more need for God. And I know, that Christ, who redeems all, is in every moment of this day.

O Christ, redeem this day.
I do not ask that these lingerings
of grief be erased, but that
the fingers of your grace
would work this memory as a baker
kneads a dough, till the leaven
of rising hope transforms it
from within,

into a form holding now in
that same sorrow the surety
of your presence, so that
when I look again at that loss,
I see you in the deepest gloom
of it, weeping with me,
even as I hear you whispering
that this is not the end, but only the still
grey of the dawn before the world begins.

And if that is so, then let that which
broke me upon this day in
a past year, now be seen
as the beginning of my remaking
into a Christ-follower more sympathetic,

more compassionate, and more conscious
of my frailty and of my daily
dependence upon you….”*

*Excerpt from Liturgy for the Anniversary of a Loss © 2017 Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey

Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

For the Global Souls

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.


*Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story”

And So We Gather

It is late afternoon as I sit on the beach, watching the waves creep closer and closer to where we are resting. I hear sounds from others enjoying the ocean – a father calling his daughter, a grandmother telling her granddaughter not to swim too far, and other quieter voices but none interrupt my deep sense of peace and rest.

It will soon be high tide and the beach area will almost disappear. The tides in our area are pronounced, going out as far as a quarter mile on some beaches. It is amazing to all of us, but particularly to the first time visitor.

We have gathered with family, making sure all are well and virus free. While gathering with family at any time is special, given the loss, stress and sadness of the last months this feels like the best of gifts.

Perhaps this is the biggest lesson or gift of the pandemic. That which we thought was certain is no longer so. That which we thought was negotiable, available, or practical has all changed. We have developed a heightened awareness of what is a right and what is a gift. Most things, I have learned, are not rights.

Perhaps too, we have exchanged expectation for hope – a good and necessary exchange.

On the one hand, gathering as a group may seem foolish in these times. We are, after all, in a world wide season of uncertainty. But perhaps that is exactly why it feels even more important to gather.

A few years ago during my first visit to Iraq, I remember talking to an Iraqi woman who had to flee her home during the time of ISIS. I remember saying “How did you survive?” – one of those foolish things that Westerners sometimes say to those who have endured more than they can imagine. I remember her looking at me and saying “You keep on living, because the alternative is not an option, and it surprised even us how strong we were!”

The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.

Wendell Berry

And so we gather with good food, the occasional and expected small frustrations, laughter, good conversation and games, ever understanding that we must all keep on living, perhaps the act of resistance and love that is most needed during times of uncertainty.

Race Reckoning and a White Third Culture Kid

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.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

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.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

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.”

Caroline Lancaster

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
  6. Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
  7. 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.

This is my long and important reckoning.


Note: Other voices that I’ve been listening to include:  Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, Osheta Moore, Black Coffee with White Friends, Caroline Lancaster, Eugene ChoArchbishop Sebastia TheodosiosElias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah.  They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I hear and read perspectives outside of my own sphere.

[Picture Credit: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/children-road-distant-supportive-1149671/