Moving abroad changes you - there's no getting around it.
I'm sure that people who haven't moved abroad kind of scoff at a statement like that. It sounds a little bit elitist really, and I would probably do the same if I hadn't A) had first-hand experience or B) watched as my sister-in-law and brother-in-law went through their island-hopping med school experience and the changes that accompanied it. Leaving everyone you love, everything you own, and the only culture you know behind for an extended period of time forces you to look at a lot of things though a completely different lens.
For me, due to my excessive time alone, I've had to take a good, hard look at myself through a different lens as well.
It's not pretty, folks. Nor is it a fun. But it is good.
Sure, I've changed a lot on the surface in our nearly nine months overseas. A lot...
- I now drink my French pressed coffee black. And I drink way less coffee here because the coffee just plain sucks.
- I drink tea. Loads of tea. Like three times a day. With milk and sugar. Whaaaaat? I used to hate tea! (Envision a minion face here...) Seriously. We just bought a box of English Everyday blend with 100 bags because we flew though the English Breakfast blend with only 50 bags.
- My hair has grown to the middle of my back. No exaggeration. Haven't had it cut in nine months. Yikes.
- I've lost some weight in places, and I'm pretty sure I've gained weight in other places. Not sure what's going on there, but whatevs. The point is that my face is skinnier and I'm alright with that.
- I hardly ever wear a full face of makeup. Or jewelry. There's just no need for it here.
- I haven't driven a car since a few days before we left. Nine months of no driving. And now my brain gets really confused as to which side of the car the driver is supposed to sit and on which side of the road the car is supposed to be driven.
- My relationship with jaywalking has forever changed. That's not a thing here. You make your way across the street whenever and wherever the heck you want. And I kind of love it. Rules, shmules. I've seen what freedom looks like and I'm not going back to that kind of oppression!
- I'm a pro at hang-drying laundry inside a teeny tiny bedroom. Not just in a teeny bedroom but one that resides in one of the dampest countries on the planet and has very little sunlight during long winter months. It's a skill, guys.
- My wardrobe. At home, Patrick used to tell me that I need to buy things with color. So I did... and I hardly ever wore them. Here, I have fully embraced my desire to wear black, gray, stripes, and neutrals all the freaking time. Sometimes I'll branch out and wear a muted color. And mixing patterns? And mixing black and brown? Not a problem here. They just don't care, so I've really relaxed on the "I can't wear my floral Toms shoes with my black and white cardigan!" front... thank heaven.
- I use my walking shoes far more than I even think about using my "cute" shoes. Seriously.
- Layers. Always wear layers. Alwaysssssss. You'll regret it if you don't. Which is why I just don't care anymore if I don't match - I'd rather be comfortable than put together. I didn't used to be able to say that. Furthermore, cakes have layers, and I don't mind being comparable to a cake. We'll forget the onion analogy, though.
As you can probably see, I could go on and on about how I've changed on the surface since England became our new home. But, you see, there's been a whole lot of construction going on in my mind and in my heart over the past nine months. Like I said before, much of it hasn't been pretty, but it is essential and, frankly, unavoidable - and long, long overdue.
Back home, I felt smothered, in a way, by those I loved, by how much was requested of me, by how much my presence or my skills were desired or required. To be grossly honest, it gave me a rather large sense of pride and boosted my sense of self much more than is healthy.
I had a job that I loved and that was vastly important - at which I was rather good - to which I gave approximately 60 hours of my time every week; we had two families in the immediate area (Patrick's parents, my mom and brother, plus grandparents and an aunt) and one more family just three hours away (my dad, stepmom, and siblings); we had a church home where we were plugged in and serving - Sunday morning service, Sunday evening volunteering at youth, Wednesday night community group, and disciple group once every week or every other week. And that was the bare minimum of our self-appointed requirements. None of that had anything to do with meeting up with people one-on-one, getting chores and errands accomplished, helping friends and family with things that just come up in life, date night with my husband (whose schedule was even more wacky than mine), or enjoying a simple outing or night in.
The things that were good responsibilities in my life became a burden and a way for me to become selfish and bitter about serving others, about loving others more than myself. I poured out so much of myself that there was nothing leftover to give, but I wasn't filled with anything but myself - I relied on me and only me to do and serve; I didn't rely much at all on the Holy Spirit to fill me with His presence, love, and heart for others. The fruits of the Spirit are definitely a thing and I was lacking them in a serious way.
And that was my sense of purpose and fulfillment gone wrong.
Once we moved to England, things changed completely for me - it was a 180º turn in a lot of ways. But one of the biggest shifts was that I felt I had no sense of purpose or fulfillment in my every day - no one needing or requesting my presence or skills; I felt so very isolated and deflated in comparison. I went from having too many responsibilities to having no responsibilities; I went from being too needed to not being needed by anyone at all. And I had to grapple with that. Talk about humbling.
As a person who wholeheartedly believes in trying to always be the best version of oneself, I had been removed from everyone and everything that helped me identify what that best version of myself was. I thought it was being productive, being dedicated to my job, making a difference in people's lives... and it is, or it was for me in that place and time. The problem was that I let my priorities get so out of whack that I began focusing on how much I do for everyone else and how I had nothing left to give, so I became a recluse and used my introverted nature as a crutch when I really was just being selfish and unloving. Now, in a foreign land with no family, no friends, no responsibilities, no quick way to find fulfillment and purpose for my life, I've had to completely change my idea of what the best version of myself looked like. I'm still figuring that part out, but it's coming along. So I've changed a lot on that front.
A SOFTENED HEART
Having so much time for introspection left me the most uncomfortable after bouts of loneliness and after conflict with loved ones. I had to do a lot of thinking about why I was upset - the root causes of my hurt or frustration, not simply the exterior of the problem. The sad truth was revealed to me that I can be, in the words of Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey to his very American wife, "curiously unfeeling" toward others... but most intensely toward those who I claim to love.
Part of this revelation lies in the discovery that so much of my frustration with other people comes from expectations - expecting people to behave in a manner in which I dictate, not in the manner in which they are predisposed to act. Why would I become so upset with someone because they didn't keep in contact with me after we moved - especially if their current behavior was exactly reflecting their previous behavior toward our relationship? Expecting other people to change to fit my mold of who they could and should be is absolutely ridiculous, I know, but it's something that I struggle with a lot. Or I used to. I'm getting better at not expecting people to behave in a way that is simply not in their nature.
As for being curiously unfeeling, it took quite a while to begin to see that in myself. A lot of it wasn't even visible to me until coming here, but there were poor character traits in myself that I saw before we ever left... I just didn't expect (or want) to change. Honestly, I don't want to come across as sounding like I am full of myself here, but I've become a much nicer person since we moved. What I mean is that my heart has been softened toward people in ways that are completely foreign to my former self. I realized just how selfish I can be without even trying, especially with my time and my possessions/resources. I realized that I'm a really crappy daughter and an even worse sibling. I realized that I'm horribly judgmental at times. I realized that I let my pride and my desire for justice to get in the way of actually being Christ-like and loving people the way I am supposed to. So the unfeeling parts of my character are going through a bit of a makeover, and after spending some time thinking about it I realized they fall into three different categories: empathy, hospitality, and judgment (to which my pride and sense of justice are stubbornly attached).
Note: This isn't to say that I'm no longer selfish, that I have an abundance of empathy and hospitality, and that I don't struggle with being judgmental and prideful. I'm simply saying that there has been progress in fixing those areas of my heart.
Have you heard of spiritual gifts? Well, in all the "tests" I've taken, one area that I consistently scored on the lower end of the scale was the gift of mercy... which I am firmly convinced is directly tied to empathy.
(For the record, I used to find it humorous and ironic that I scored rather highly on serving but had almost no mercy to speak of. I don't find it that funny anymore. Also, perfect score on administration over here... every time. *eye-roll* Haha.)
So here I was, a so-called servant without the gift of mercy. And in our time abroad, I've clearly seen how that was true in the life I lived back home - most intensely with those I loved. True, it also affected my ability to show empathy toward people who needed love and help, like people with no resources or who were new to the area/church/etc. But to be completely honest, the part that sickens me the most was that my ability to serve my family was completely self-governed and self-serving. It was ugly, and the thought of how little I empathized with the people I claim to love brings me to tears. It hurts to realize that you're ugly on the inside, that you gave so little when people you love need so much.
I'll explain. My brother James is 17 months younger than me, making him 27 at the moment. He is diagnosed with both Bipolar Disorder and Asperger Syndrome - a rare combination, and a complicated one. He is severely mentally ill. He inherited the bipolar thing from my dad, and we believe that being forced onto Ritalin in kindergarten (they thought he had ADHD) screwed him up royally, making his already-present issues much worse. The poor thing has gone through so much. Growing up, it was just the two of us kids and my mom as my parents were separated when I was 4 and divorced by the time I was 5. My mom was now a single mom living and working in Southern California while trying to raise two young children and was often gone at one of her two or three jobs, so it was just me and James. A lot. And when we weren't with a babysitter (in the early years) and my mom wasn't there, it was my job to take care of him, to be in charge of him. While this is a totally normal situation for many, many families, it was a lot to handle sometimes because of his mental illness. I clearly remember being put "in charge" as early as the third grade (I don't remember much before that). He went into a mental hospital for the first time when I was in the fifth grade (he was in fourth). I remember having to fight a kitchen knife away from James in his bedroom sometime in middle school because he wanted to hurt himself and then he wanted to hurt me. I can't count how many times he's been in the hospital for one reason or another (not limited to mental episodes, either... he is a large and gangly body - a solid foot taller than me - and has always been accident-prone... a fun trait which he inherited from my mom and her dad... heh!).
Fast forward to 2016. He's 27 years old. We prayed that he would make it to 18, and here he is at 27. James is married, has an apartment, and has lived on his own for quite a few years. But it's a major struggle most of the time. He is supported by Social Security. Because of his disabilities, he can't hold onto a job for the life of him. It kills me knowing that, when he does try, he is rejected and rejected and rejected and still tries to go out there and make some money. He's also restricted to walking or taking public transportation - he is not allowed to drive per doctor's orders. When it comes to getting a job, that puts a major limit on where he can apply. I knew that it was a struggle for him when we lived in OKC because I realized how crappy our public transportation system is, but I never fully grasped how awful and frustrating it would be to live in OKC without the ability to drive, having to rely on others or your own two feet to go anywhere.
After living in Birmingham's city centre without a car, a city where public transit is expensive and isn't the best (but it's far better than anything we have in OKC) and we had to walk everywhere, we began to reflect on how crappy it would be to live back home without a way to get around. In Brum, everything you absolutely need is super close by; it takes 15 minutes to walk to the big Tesco (think a smaller version of a super Walmart) and there are sidewalks everywhere. And the weather is quite temperate so it's easy to walk around without freezing or melting to death. So we walk everywhere and carry everything home by hand. Sometimes it's a major pain in the butt, especially in the rain, but it's doable. In OKC, everything is extremely spread out. It took us 15 minutes of walking just to get out of our neighborhood, let alone to anywhere important, and there were hardly any sidewalks to speak of. We lived caddy-corner to Penn Square Mall, but there were no sidewalks and no crosswalks; because that area of Northwest Expressway is exceptionally busy, we could never feel comfortable walking to the mall... and it was so close to us! And then you have the weather... not even close to temperate. In the winter we can be well-below the freezing point, and in the summer we are super friendly with 90-100 degrees plus humidity. It's miserable. And walking for 30 minutes while carrying a bundle of groceries in those conditions is ridiculously far from ideal. While I understand that it's doable if you have to, I can only imagine that it's far from enjoyable.
Loneliness also hit us hard after we moved, me especially. It's crappy not having any friends to talk to, to rely on, to hang out with. Really crappy. My sweet brother is one of those types of people who others tend to use and walk all over. It's happened to him his whole life. I can't tell you how many tearful conversations filled with hurt and frustration were had over people who were just so mean and hurtful toward him, and they were those who claimed to be his friends. James has such a sweet spirit when he is stable, and he will give you every possession he has to help you (much to the dismay of his family members at times). And then they use him and leave him to pick up the pieces they left behind. And it sucks. It wasn't until we moved here, though, and had no one to rely on, no one to talk to, no one to hang out with that I began to have a sense of empathy for my brother on this front. It never even occurred to me how lonely he might be, yet he trudges on.
Even typing this out, I am overwhelmed with a sense of guilt. I was such a crappy sister. My mom would ask for help with James, would ask me to take him to the store or to pick him up on my way to meet the family for dinner, and I would throw an ever-loving fit about doing it. Sure, I'd pick him up, but I'd make her feel really bad for asking me. She eventually stopped asking me for help in taking him to the grocery store because I just wouldn't do it; I was too busy. I was extremely busy and overtired, yes, but Walmart is open 24/7 and all I had to do was sit in the car if I wanted to. I never, ever hung out with him one-on-one because we kind of get on each other's nerves (siblings know how to push your buttons quickly, don't they?). To be honest, it can be exhausting to be together sometimes. But the fact of the matter is that I made excuses to avoid helping and befriending my brother, my closest of kin, the only person who knows what it was like growing up the way we did, the only person who shared the same childhood experiences as me, the person who needs the most help of us all. I excused away my brother's needs. I was extremely selfish and unloving. He needs help and he needs people to love him. Isn't that what we all need when it boils down to it? And I denied him for the love of myself. It makes me sick to think about.
But if we had never moved abroad, I probably wouldn't have this new sensation, this sense of empathy toward my brother. I could see how crappy I was being, but seeing it wasn't enough to change my actions or my heart. I had to experience it for myself, which is the only real way to gain true empathy for others. I've also gained a sense of empathy for people from foreign countries who have moved to a completely new culture. I don't know quite how this will flesh itself out when we get back home, but I really hope that my ability to understand just how confusing and frustrating moving to a new country can be isn't wasted. The little things that you so take for granted in your own culture pile up and even the smallest tasks can seem overwhelming; I had no idea just how much until we experienced it for ourselves.
Riding the tail-winds of that previous statement comes hospitality. To put it plainly, most Americans super suck at it. It'll probably seem either offensive, false, or exaggerated to most Americans reading this, but it's true.
Disclaimer: Of course this is only according to my own experiences in certain parts of our vast and complicated culture, but there is also an undertone of limiting our hospitality or giving "favors" that will eventually be returned that rides through the major veins of our culture as a whole. Some people, some small towns, some cities can be hospitable, absolutely. I'm simply saying that hospitality as a lifestyle and worldview is something we don't possess on the same level as some other cultures.
Hospitality isn't just being polite, inviting people over for dinner, and making them feel at home. There's an element of generosity that goes with it, and that's something we as Americans lack. It's just counter-cultural for us. American culture is so intensely focused on working hard so we can gain things for ourselves; when we get those things, we've earned them and deserve them, so we don't share with or simply give to other people in the way that other cultures do.
You've fallen on hard times? Aw, that must be tough. Let me sign up to bring you one meal. You've lost your job and have no way to pay the bills? Oh man, that's terrible. I'll pray for you. And I'll keep an eye out for job openings. You don't have a car and have to walk to the grocery store? Man, I would hate that! How do you do it?
Guys. Just typing that makes me cringe. It sounds a bit harsh and unrealistic, but at the core it's true. So so so so so true of our American culture. We do so little to help and serve others in our own community when we have been given so very much. And that picture is so drastically different from the culture of hospitality we've experienced here.
We have experienced English and Scottish cultures first-hand and rather intimately, especially in the case of the English, and it has been incredible seeing just how welcoming these people are. It comes as second nature to most of them. It's just a part of their culture that we don't really have as Americans. The English are a bit cold or reserved at first, especially compared to the Scots, but the hospitality they have shown us on innumerable occasions has blown us away. Once they've taken you in, they'll do just about anything for you.
I used to be so possessive of my possessions, my home, and my time, but I have now lived in a culture where people open up their homes freely and offer not only their time but their resources as well - over and over and over again. I can't tell you how many times we've been offered a lift to the grocery store (knowing that we don't have a car) or to stay at someone else's flat for the weekend or a few weeks or a few months (knowing that there are 5 people living in a 2 bedroom flat). They have much smaller spaces than many of our friends and family back home, yet they are willing to house us for free without a trace of hesitation or sense of guilt. Not because we have nowhere to stay, mind you. They're just that hospitable. We have a roof over our heads and they still offer their homes to us because that's who they are. We were asked to housesit for our pastor and his wife for a week - they asked us because they knew having a space to ourselves would be a nice break for us. They don't have anything that needs "taken care of" when it comes to house-sitting: no pets and just a couple of hardy plants. So they just asked us to stay in their house so we could be blessed. Seriously? And before they left, Jonny looked at Patrick and said, "If something breaks, or something floods, or the house catches on fire, don't worry about it. It's not a big deal." Um, excuse me? Wow. Just wow.
On that same note, in our travels to Scotland, we used AirBnB exclusively; I was shocked at not only how warm and welcoming they were to these foreign strangers but at how frequently they let us stay in their homes when they went off to work. I would never have let strangers stay in my house without me being there - ever! But it wasn't a big deal to them in the least. They're so much more trusting than we Americans can be. They bent over backward to try to help us and make our holiday enjoyable (our first host even picked us up from the train station and drove us to their house), and they genuinely wanted to make sure we were happy and felt welcome in their homes. I'm not sure of many Americans who would behave in such a manner toward strangers. Sure, they got paid for us staying with them, but they're paid for the service of their house. Going above and beyond doesn't get them any extra money; it's just how they are. And golly, was it refreshing to be surrounded by that way of life!
I've decided that when we get back home and are able to afford a place of our own again, I want to have lots and lots of room. That's partially a selfish reaction to being confined to a bedroom in the middle of city centre, but it's also because I want the ability to house people if they need/want to stay with us. I want them to feel welcome in our home and not subject them to sleeping on a pullout couch in the living room. I want them to have their own space and a place to relax without being always in front of people (can you tell I'm an introvert?). I want to have a place where friends and family can stay for long-term visits. I want to be able to truly offer my home to people and allow them to feel as if it were their own.
I also want to be able to host and host often - to have the space to welcome people, even groups of people, into my home time and time again. We used to host community group or small parties every so often back home, and I didn't realize how much I would miss it until I no longer had the opportunity to host anyone ever (unless roommates were gone). Because one of our roommates lives in the living room, we can't even invite people over for dinner because there's nowhere to sit aside from our bed. And that just doesn't lend itself to growing relationships and sharing your space with others.
It all boils down to this: we've experienced the culture of hospitality on a whole new level here, and we're determined to bring a bit of that back home with us.
JUDGMENT / PRIDE & JUSTICE
This one's a bit difficult to talk about mostly because it's the area in which I still have the most room for growth. I kid you not, I just let out an audible sighhhhh without even thinking about it because I just don't even know where to start on this ugly and uncomfortable topic.
It doesn't really have much to do with moving abroad, I'll admit, but I include it because I surely wouldn't have gone through these changes without being on this journey. My heart had to be softened in order to begin working on this area of my life, and that was a direct effect of moving here.
I judge people. Hard. And I'm really prideful when it comes to offenses made against me. And I have the strong desire to see justice served when people hurt others... especially when they hurt me.
One of the definitions for judgmental is "having or displaying an overly critical point of view" and that just about sums it up perfectly. Because I have such high standards for myself and for other people, one of my major weaknesses is being far too critical of people. And - surprise, surprise - it is my family who often suffer the most from my critical eye. I'm harshest when it comes to their behavior and how they treat others - and, if I'm being completely honest, how they treat me. When people criticize me or make little of my opinions or feelings, I turn into a really nasty person on the inside. It's then that I begin tearing other people to pieces in my mind, pointing out all their flaws and why they're horrible. If they did me wrong, I wouldn't be content until I got the sense that they were sorry for what they had done and had admitted it to me - justice had been served.
Me, me, me, me. So it goes hand-in-hand: my judgement of others stems from my hurt pride and sense of justice that must be served. Because I'm the bigger person and even if I was in the wrong I owned up to it or apologized for it, and the world won't be set right until they do... ugh. Not okay. So not okay.
Yes, it's okay to desire an apology and to want to make things right, but it's not okay for me to withhold my grace and love from them until they do. Because it might never happen, and I'm called to love them even if it doesn't.
The reason this is a section of its own and is actually included in how I've changed is because, despite how often I still fall into this trap of my own sinful heart, I have changed. My heart has been softened and my eyes have seen generosity and grace given to me when I don't deserve it one bit. While I still struggle with this whole notion of not being overly critical and prideful, it's getting better, and my need for justice to be served has significantly decreased. And honestly, that last part helps a whole lot with the other stuff. I'm not nearly as puffed up and prideful if I'm not expecting to be apologized to or whatever my silly head deems necessary for the situation. Sure, it would be nice, but even if someone hurts me it doesn't mean I should expect them to grovel on their knees and ask for forgiveness. In all actuality, I'm supposed to forgive them and not fight back, not ride my high and mighty horse and call for war. I'm supposed to love them and keep the peace. Sometimes that looks like having a conversation and addressing the issue, but sometimes it means that I'm supposed to let it slide, even turn my cheek and offer them the other to slap. That's completely counter-cultural and counter-human-nature, but loving others more than I love myself means that I need to stop gazing at down at them from my tower of righteousness and show them the love and grace I've been shown. Christ died on the cross for a world of people who sin against him, disobey him, slander his name, abandon him, and deny him. And I withhold my affections and grace from someone who hurt my feelings? For shame.
Sigh. Yikes. That was a lot. And if I'm being for real with you, it's really kind of scary putting all of that out there. But there you have it.
While it has only been nine months of living in abroad (only nine months... ha!), it has definitely been eye-opening on so many levels, much more so than I've included here (hard to believe, I know). Despite how much I've changed on the surface and in my heart, I'm positive that the changes won't stop here. Not only will I change more, but I'll become aware of the parts of me that need changing as well. And I'm alright with that. I think. No, no, I am... really. It's just a bit scary to say that because change is often times quite painful, especially if it's going on within your heart and mind. However, the far more tragic event would be if I didn't allow our time abroad to change me at all.
So here's to change and becoming the best version of ourselves as we can be. To letting the love of Christ and the will of God for our lives transform us to be more like Him. Cheers!