“Finally, he put his finger on the crack, looked at me, and said softly, “This is where the light comes through.” ~ Rachel Naomi Remen, The Container
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us… Therefore we do not lose heart. ~ II Corinthians 4
Featured artwork: Expansion – a sculpture in bronze by Paige Bradley
I almost titled this post “Coming To The End,” which would have been appropriate on more than one level. It also could have read “The Great Unraveling,” or simply just “Self Deconstruction.”
Yet somehow, this awkwardly-phrased title seemed to fit best. It references a quote, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to Michaelangelo. In response to one bystander’s curious inquiry about how he would bring forth such noble equine glory from the block of marble before him, the great artist replied, “I just chip away all the parts that aren’t horse.”
And so, it seems, it is with God – however painful that chipping may be, however much still remains to be done. In light of this, I would be remiss if I’d spent two years blogging about life and work abroad, and not at least brushed the surface of this profound and painful reality – the reality of our being smoothed and shaped, of having our rough edges knocked off. It’s an inescapable reality for each of us, of course, regardless of where we receive our mail. Yet it’s also one I feel I’ve encountered more acutely during these years away. There’s a sort of profoundly disorienting, unbalancing gravitational force that seems to exert its strongest pull in displacement.
Or, as my friend Ansie put it, “Eventually, Nepal brings us to the end of ourselves.”
I’ve found that for me personally, much of the pummeling and chipping stems from the loss of certain daily, stable, orienting relationships – what’s known in the literature as one’s “reference group.” Whether or not you’re familiar with research out there on this concept, the following excerpt will resonate with anyone who has been through this kind of tumultuous cross-cultural journey:
A central factor in the change in identity is the loss of one’s reference group… Those familiar people who provide both subtle and overt feedback about who we are and how we are perceived suddenly disappear. The people who become new sources of feedback, especially those not from our own culture and language, may give us very different messages about the self. In the early stages of our adaptation, they will likely let us know that we are inadequate in our new cultural setting, our new role…
We had to start fresh in being known to a degree that we could again receive positive feedback about ourselves. This took time. In the meantime, we starved for the kind of affirmation which keeps one emotionally nurtured…
Over time, if one is successfully adapting…one achieves an altered sense of self, a new identity, incorporating some of the old and some of new. This is not easy or quick, as it means letting go of parts of the former self. This is in fact a painful process as we seek to determine which aspects of the self are negotiable and which aspects we cannot change if we are to keep our sense of integrity…
~ excerpt, “Stressed From Core to Cosmos“
In short, I’m discovering an obvious (but unexpectedly difficult) truth: that to move abroad is to suffer a particular loss of identity, to experience an unraveling of one’s sense of self. You find yourself suddenly plucked from one world and transplanted into another, very different one, a world where even your closest friends start out as strangers with foreign cultures of their own. Add to that a brand new language and set of customs in the dominant new culture of your adoption, and you find yourself starting from Square One in every possible sense – “much like a small child,” as one fellow traveler described it. It is an experience fraught with humiliation, insecurity, defensive self-doubt, questioning every turn.
The same publication excerpted above suggests several ways to support those facing the cross-cultural identity crisis I’ve described:
- Affirm the uniqueness and inherent worth of the person, especially from a Biblical perspective of our identity being in Christ – being His workmanship, being His beloved children, being His chosen. Nurture the wounded person, because experiencing God’s love and acceptance through the counselor becomes a key source of energy and motivation for regaining equilibrium.
- Help the person identify key aspects of the self, to sort out what is negotiable for change and what must remain relatively stable in order to maintain integrity of the self. This involves traits, qualities, values, habits, ways of relating.
- Affirm the adaptive ability the person already manifests, as evidenced by the levels of stress already endured and the amount of change already achieved.
- Educate regarding the energy demanded for adaptation and affirm the reality and difficulty of maintaining a good sense of self given all the layers of change required by cross-cultural ministry.
- Normalize the stress experienced. Anyone having to adapt to so much would experience a shaking of their foundations.
These tips are helpful, to be sure. But honestly, at the end of the day I have no easy answers. Far from it, in fact; I’m still very much in the throes of this struggle myself, with barely even the words to express it.
Yet there remains one anchor – a strong Hand holding me fast even when my own grasp threatens to loosen. It is the hand of another, greater Artist, the powerful, constant, tender hand of One who binds all things together, even as He continues to relentlessly chip away at all the parts “that aren’t horse.”
Whoe’er I am, You know me
O God; You know I am Yours.
Bonhoeffer put it beautifully in “Wer Bin Ich,” his famous poem that wrestles with similar questions – though under far greater stresses than any I’ve ever had to face: