Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moving On: Loneliness, Long-Distance, and Life after Graduation

I've always been somewhat proud of my ability to move on quickly. As I moved house numerous times while I was growing up, I became increasingly adept at putting the past behind me. I faced a new situation with steely reserve and a poker face that over time transformed from a mere fa├žade to a real internal stoicism. Never mind impractical emotions; move on and embrace the new. I was good at change.

That's why I was so surprised at how emotionally difficult I found the transition from my college lifestyle to life after graduation.

When I arrived back in the UK, I was excited to see old friends, but at the same time I honestly didn't feel like I had the energy to genuinely reconnect with anyone or to open myself up to new people. I didn't feel like I had the energy to invest myself in anyone again. Life had moved on since I was last in England, and I wasn't confident of my place in the new social scene. I missed my college circle. I missed having people around who already knew me, my stories, my quirks, my likes and dislikes.

(In spite of how I felt, I did my best to invest in friendships again, even though I still had a hedge around my heart at times, and I'm so thankful I did. My local friend circle is pretty amazing, and I'm much happier now than I was a few months ago. But it took more time than I was anticipating.)

I was surprised at how lonely I felt in spite of new friendships. I wasn't very busy during the summer, and when those balmy summer nights became cool September days and my friends went back to work, I had a lot more time to wander around by myself and miss my old life.

I missed the real sense of community and camaraderie I had in college. I missed having people popping over regularly, even if they were just going to sit at the kitchen table and do homework. I missed being busy (I wasn't in grad school then). I even missed having a room mate, which had been one of the biggest initial "culture shocks" of American college life!

I've always been proud of being a great long-distance friend (also a result of all the moving around as a kid). I love letter writing and there are a few people I'm still close to in spite of seeing extremely rarely. However, over the past couple of years, I've noticed how difficult it is to maintain a genuine connection with friends when you move away. People do move on; everyone is busy with new jobs, new friends, new relationships and marriages, new babies, new priorities, new chapters in their lives. It's normal for relationships to change, but as I experienced that reality after graduation, although my mind understood, this time my heart was slower to catch up. In my heart, it really felt like I was losing friends.

Some nights I would scroll mindlessly through Facebook for much longer than was necessary, trying to feel that elusive sense of connection with the people from my old life, wishing that somebody would message me. I allowed myself a few moments of bitterness: Why was I so often the one to initiate contact? Why weren't other people making the same effort? Sometimes people did message me -- a titbit of news, or a funny cartoon or video. I was glad they were thinking of me, but I ached to meaningfully connect. "Tell me what's happening in your life, tell me about your heart, and ask about mine!" I wrote in my journal one night when I was particularly frustrated.

I missed a sense of genuine, deep human connection.

Adjusting to life after graduation was indeed harder than I had anticipated. It takes a lot more effort and intentionality to build a good friendship circle in the "real world" than in college, and to sculpt your own life instead of letting it be structured by your class schedule. But that effort really is worth it...even if you're emotionally exhausted just thinking about it at first.

I'm thankful to have been reminded of a couple of things in the past six months:

  • It really does get better in time.
  • Nothing can replace genuine human connection. Not Facebook, not Instagram, not Snapchat. Useful as they are (and I am grateful for technology that makes the possibility of staying in touch easier), newsfeeds are no substitute for real, meaningful communication. 

Invest in your relationships, local and long-distance. Be present.

I am moving on. I'm engaging with the next phase of my life. I'm surrounded by delightful people. I'm constantly but happily busy with grad school. I'm much more satisfied and settled than I used to be. Life after graduation is going to be OK.

A piece of advice, first given to Ruth Van Reken and passed on in her book about third culture kids, often plays on my mind. It's applicable as I get used to building this new stage of my life, and, I believe, it can apply to every stage of life that requires embracing change and moving on.

"Wherever you go in life, unpack your bags--physically and mentally--and plant your trees. Too many people never live in the now because they assume the time is too short to settle in. They don't plant trees because they expect to be gone before the trees bear fruit. But if you keep thinking about the next move, you'll never live fully where you are. When it's time to go, then it's time to go, but you won't have missed what this experience was about." 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Confession of a Recovering Christian Atheist

I've always loved perusing other people's bookshelves. One of my college room-mates had a book on her desk with a title that fascinated and disturbed me: The Christian Atheist. I haven't yet read the whole book, but my pastor often quoted it in his sermon series of the time, and I thought a lot about the title. Did I believe in God but live as though he didn't exist?

Yes, I often did.

One of the biggest ways that "Christian Atheism" worked out in my life was in how anxious I was about the future when it was out of my control--in fact, how I worried about anything that was out of my control. I liked playing God for myself, but of course that didn't always work out so great!

"When we live by faith, we believe that God has everything under control. But if we start to worry, how we live says the opposite." (Craig Groeschel, The Christian Atheist)
God has been bringing my mistrustful tendencies to my attention many times over the past months, and I'm glad of it. I'm tired of worry stealing my joy.

I was flicking through an old journal when something I wrote jumped out at me, something that God impressed on my heart at the time and that is still so relevant to me today. It is written from God's perspective, and I've shared it on this blog before, but I thought it merited sharing again:
"I have not called you to freak out about the future. Your freaking out will not alter My good plan, but it will rob you of today's joy. I have called you to walk with me today, to give yourself to today, to trust Me today. How long until you learn, my child? I am not against you. I am able to do more than you can ask or imagine. Stop doubting and believe."
The problems and heartache that provided the context for that journal entry were indeed soothed and solved; it amazes me how quick I am to forget.  

I'm trying to be more intentional about taking God at his word.

I am learning to believe that he means what he says when he tells me, "Do not worry." I am choosing to believe that he will take care of my needs. I am choosing to believe that he really does work all things out for the good of those who love him.

It is easier to trust someone that you know--someone that you love--someone that you know loves you. I guess that's what it comes down to with God-- knowing him not as some distant abstract being, but as a real, loving, active presence in your life.

How would my life be different if I knew God more deeply and if I really believed that he loves me? How would your life be different?

I am thankful that God wants to be known and that he doesn't give up on me while I'm learning to trust him. (Jer 29:11-13, Acts 17:27, Psalm 37:23, 24.)

"Imagine how a [wo]man's life would be if [s]he trusted that [s]he was loved by God." (Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What)

Friday, September 11, 2015

If I ignore it, will it go away?

I’ve always had a soft spot for superhero movies, spy adventures, and true-story-inspired war epics—The Avengers, The Great Escape, James Bond, and so on. As the movie’s background music would build to its heart-stopping crescendo, I would relish the excitement of the hero saving the world against all the odds, the agent’s narrow escape, or the soldier’s bravery. 

As a child (and sometimes as an adult, I admit), I would replay the films in my imagination and put myself in a starring role. I imagined myself to be as tenacious, cunning, courageous, and self-sacrificing (not to mention superpower-full) as the on-screen characters. Real life could seem quite unremarkable after thrilling to those stories of war. 

The truth is, though, that I do live in a war. I just don’t tend to think about it. 

“This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.”

As a Christian, my worldview embraces the Great Controversy—the story of a war in heaven that spilled out onto earth, that great cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, Christ and Satan. When I lived in Asia, the spirit realm was a day-to-day reality; I knew people who had communication and tangible experiences with the spirits. I had some dubious encounters myself. However, in the comfortable, scientific culture of the West, it’s easy to forget that there’s more to life than what we see and that spiritual warfare is a reality. 

I do believe that I am part of the great battle between Good and Evil… yet I rarely live mindfully, as though I really do acknowledge my part in the controversy. Why?

After some honest reflection, I realized: I don’t want to be in a war. It’s too much bother.

If I ignore it, will it go away?

I don’t want to think twice about whether what I do, what I say, and the way I live is doing more for the side of Evil or for the side of Good. Whether I’m playing into the hands of the Enemy or being used by the hands of my God. Whether I’m under assault or unwittingly dispersing “friendly fire.”

Really, I just want to think about me. I want to skip through life comfortably and. . . blindly. It’s easier that way.

As a citizen of Earth, I don’t have a choice about whether I’m in a war or not, though. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality—a tragic reality that plays out on our TV screens and infiltrates our daily lives. Ultimately, I do have to choose which side to be on. How am I going to make a difference? 

Thank God that He is patiently, slowly changing the selfish tendencies of my heart. He doesn’t give up on me, even during the times when to the universe, I may look more like I’m playing the damaging role of a double agent rather than being faithful to the side I claim to have chosen.

I want to keep my heart awake and my eyes open to the meaningful part I can have in the unfolding plot of Good versus Evil. Looking at the world today, it feels more and more like we’re in the last chapter of the story.
"Be prepared. You're up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon that God has issued, so that when it's all over but the shouting you'll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You'll need them throughout your life. God's Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other's spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out."
Quotes take from Ephesians 6, The Message

Plot Twist!

I needed a change. After seven years of teaching, on and off, I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue. Perhaps it was a temporary di...