by Frances J. White and Elaine M. Nesbit
Handling conflicting emotions is a difficult task. Yet it is something we all face at one time or another. As we progress through life we inevitably encounter change, separation, and loss.
With mixed feelings of joy and sadness, the missionary family looked through the windows of the Boeing 747 as it slowly began to taxi toward the runway. They were hoping to get a last glimpse of relatives and friends inside the terminal building.
Their furlough in the United States was over. Soon their plane would be flying over a broad, silent ocean on its way to the Orient, returning them once again to the mission field. A variety of emotions began to surface.
The mother was happy and excited that their oldest son had been accepted at a prestigious Midwestern college. Yet she was saddened at leaving him behind. Would he be all right on his own? What if a problem arose and they were unavailable to help him sort through it?
The father had feelings of frustration. The year’s furlough had gone by too quickly. Many of the things he had planned to do never got done. He felt uncomfortable and inadequate, ill-prepared to return to his work on the mission field.
At the same time, their daughter was excited about the prospect of rejoining her friends in the Orient. But even so, a tear came to her eye as she waved good-bye to her grandparents.
The aging grandparents were filled with genuine joy that their daughter and son-in-law were serving the Lord overseas. Yet their health had been deteriorating lately and they wondered if they would be alive to see them again when they returned home in four years.
Happiness, frustration, and sadness were only a few of the intermingled emotions flooding everyone’s minds. There was also an uneasy anxiety about returning to a country they had been away from for a full year. They knew the political climate had changed. What new restrictions and challenges awaited them? Would they find the same satisfaction in their work as they had in the past?
As the plane flew toward its destination on the other side of the world, the missionary family was lulled to sleep by the calming drone of the plane’s engines. Theirs was a common sleep of sadness, contentment, and anxiety.
Handling conflicting emotions is a difficult task. Yet it is something we all face at one time or another. As we progress through life we inevitably encounter change, separation, and loss. In fact, the three words can be used almost interchangably. Change is separation from the past, loss occurs as a result of separation.
TWO BASIC TYPES OF SEPARATION
There are two basic types of change/separation/loss. The first type is developmental, or that which occurs naturally and predictably. These are the physical and mental changes shared in common by most of mankind as we progress from infancy to old age. For example, going through puberty, getting married and raising a family, and encountering old age.
All of these changes involve gains and losses. An adolescent, for example, gives up the security of depending primarily upon parents in order to consolidate his or her own identity. Parents separate from the satisfactions-and frustrations-of raising children to eventually regain some of the pleasures through their grandchildren.
The second type is more traumatic, for example, accidents, natural disasters, and unexpected deaths of friends or relatives. An unexpected missionary evacuation often results in separation from meaningful nationals, loss of personal belongings left behind, possibly changing languages, and facing new schedules and pressures.
Missionaries and their families seem to be vulnerable to an inordinate amount of intense and complex change/ separation/loss. They separate from friends, families, homeland, cultural values, language, eating habits, and even recreational habits. Their children go to and return from boarding school, or perhaps enter a national school with different educational methods and philosophy. The process reverses itself each time the missionary returns to his or her home country.
Interestingly, humans experience common feelings and reactions as a result of separations. Understanding the process permits us to view our responses for what they are-a part of our humanness, the way God created us. What, then, can we expect in the face of change/ separation/loss? And when will we know when we are reacting in an unhealthy manner?
FOUR STAGES OF ANXIETY
The all-inclusive term for change/separation/loss reactions is "anxiety." Anxiety tends to express itself in four stages.
Denial. The distinctive behavior of the first stage is denial, or a way of minimizing losses. Often denial occurs in subtle forms. For example, a missionary who is leaving behind family and friends may make unrealistic promises and plans, such as, "We’ll write several times a week," or "I’ll be home for the big event." If a missionary were to try to carry out all of these well-intentioned promises, little time would be left for the task. Nonetheless, they help cushion the pain of leaving loved ones.
Another form of denial is reflected in missionary responses to a new culture. They may at first spend a great deal of time admiring the scenery, or ambitiously taking photographs of the landscape and people, almost as though they were in a vacation spot rather than a new residence. A feeling of permanence usually sets in, gradually allowing the missionary time to adjust to the tremendous changes.
Anger. The second stage of anxiety is characterized by anger. Like denial, anger protects us from the intense pangs of loss. Often, individuals do not connect their particular way of expressing anger-impatience, gruffness, silence, foot-dragging, criticalness-with the changes taking place. For example, as a missionary passes through the initial phase of being tantalized with a new culture, he or she may become irritated with some of the culture’s nuances, such as material inconveniences or personality differences.
Often, a missionary will act irritably to those with whom he or she has the most meaningful relationships, even before leaving the home country. As a missionary experiences increased tension with family members or mission board personnel, leaving the country becomes easier. A familiar thought is, "It’s good we’re (they’re) leaving next week." Both parties may feel that the separation is timely indeed.
Sometimes, instead of feeling actual anger or frustration, individuals simply distance themselves from others before and after a difficult change or separation. One illustration is the husband who leaves his wife for awhile to go on a project for the mission. When they reunite the husband may be ready for a cozy, romantic evening, but is surprised to find his wife cool and unresponsive. Her behavior is caused by having had to "gird up the loins" of her emotions in order to handle family responsibilities during his absence. In many instances, time is needed to regain closeness after separation.
Sadness. The third phase of anxiety is sadness, or a feeling of being "down." This feeling often surfaces when a person begins to come to grips with the reality and significance of a loss. The length of time that the sadness lasts is different for each person and situation. Usually if the loss is significant, feelings of sadness will linger, occurring occasionally long after the person has recovered from the loss.
Resolution. Resolution is the final stage of anxiety. Resolution involves acceptance and a growing ability to adjust to the new culture or situation positively. Accepting the loss is what allows people to integrate the new situation into their lives and to live in the present.
Resolution frees people to make new commitments. However, acceptance of the present does not mean that what has been left behind is forgotten. Rather, resolution involves taking a part of what was formerly appreciated and incorporating its traits into the new situation. Therefore, those who undergo change/separation/loss become richer individuals because they now have more to offer to others.
Reactions to change/separation/loss tend to vary according to the situation and the individual. Neither can it be assumed that the stages follow a neat, sequential pattern for all individuals. Indications that the anxiety syndrome is being resolved include a diminishing of the intensity of feelings, increased response to the feelings of others, reactions that are more widely spaced, and a sense of comfort with the new.
However, the intensity of the reaction will increase in direct proportion to the significance or importance of what was left behind. In addition, extreme dissimilarity between the old and new usually causes a more pronounced reaction. When there are many similarities, reaction may be delayed. For example, missionaries who serve in a country whose language and dress are similar to their home country, may experience a delayed response to the change because the deeper cultural differences are masked and become visible only after some time. Finally, the more sudden the change, the more marked will be the response to it.
The common feelings that have just been described are both normal and healthy reactions to change/separation/loss. What then constitutes a negative or unhealthy reaction?
One unhealthy reaction is suppressing emotions. This can lead to relationships that develop slowly or develop only at a superficial level. These friendships lack the openness and honesty that results when feelings are shared. By ignoring or pushing away strong feelings we can also become expressionless and aloof. Parents must be particularly careful, because these suppressed emotions can easily affect the emotional growth of their children.
Remaining "stuck" in some phase of the process is also an unhealthy response. To continue to deny feelings or to hold anger for prolonged periods of time are typical examples of being "stuck." Perhaps a missionary is still afraid to leave the house, although he or she has been on the field for over a year. There is no set amount of time for recovering from separation or loss. However, if a response continues to interfere with a ministry or lifestyle, perhaps professional counseling should be considered.
An inability to form new and deep relationships, or a hesitancy to make commitments, can also be a signal that a change or loss has not been resolved. This may appear as an attitude of aloofness in a new situation. A missionary may be working in a foreign country, yet mentally still be living at home.
It is evident that the way we respond to change affects our lives and our ministry. Depriving ourselves of new and meaningful relationships deprives us of all that the Lord intends us to be and interferes with the task he has set before us. Unhealthy reactions are also witnessed by children, who are themselves struggling to reattach to new people and a new environment.
HOW TO PROMOTE HEALTHY ATTITUDES
How then do we promote a healthy attitude toward change/separation/loss? Here are a few practical suggestions that may be helpful during those trying times of change or loss:
1. Take time to be aware of your particular reactions to change. Take a few moments from your schedule to analyze your emotions and feelings.
2. Talk about your feelings with others. This may be difficult at first, but it is probably the most valuable and effective way of dealing with anxiety.
3. Listen carefully to family members. Be especially alert to your children. Try to read behind their words. They may express their anxiety in behavior rather than words. Common signs are increased clingingness, irritability, combativeness, defiance, or even a return to more infantile behavior such as bed-wetting. Letting them know you understand what they are going through assures them that they have been heard and understood.
4. Make allowances for one another to experience the various stages at different times and in a different order. Reactions are not entirely predictable, nor are they the same for everyone.
5. Hold gatherings such as farewell or welcome parties. They can be very helpful during transition periods because they tend to give a feeling of reality to the change. They also help to emphasize the positive aspects. In addition, they provide a time to appropriately express the sadness that people feel.
6. Allow yourself and others to be happy in the new situation or environment. Don’t be afraid to form new attachments and make new commitments.
7. Allow time to "defrost" after a separation or loss has occurred. Avoid initially overwhelming one another with affection. Sometimes we need to warm up gradually. When children return from school be careful about smothering them with hugs and kisses before they’re ready for it.
8. When returning for furlough, take your time in coming back. Avoid the sudden change of foreign country to home church and family. If possible, take a detour to permit a more gradual adjustment to the change.
9. Create as much sameness and predictability as possible within the family as it adapts to the new. This is a time when family togetherness is particularly important. It is a time when single missionaries should find or create an opportunity to fellowship with others in a close, personal way.
10. Should your children be returning home, don’t panic if they don’t immediately like the schools, or feel they don’t fit in. Allow them time to express negative feelings. Again, show understanding by restating what they say in their own words, verbalizing the feelings they seem to be experiencing.
11. Remember, change of any kind always involves some form of change/separation/loss. As we recognize this we can more fully accept the normal emotions that we encounter in our day-to-day living. As missionaries begin to better understand the changes they undergo, they will learn to live richer and fuller lives that are more meaningful not only to themselves, but to those they come in contact with.
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