In the Winter, 1998 issue of Women of the Harvest, Dr. Dodds looked at the stress of changing one’s identify and the assaults to self-esteem which occur because of cross-cultural ministry. This second article focuses on external causes of stress.
We hiked in the French and Swiss Alps last summer–a dream come true. The beauty, peace and quietness brought rest to our souls. We felt welcome and at ease exchanging cheerful greetings with total strangers on the path. It was a joy. It reminded me that I have to drink in beauty and dine on silence once in a while. Otherwise the clamor of cities, the ugliness of garbage-filled streets and the awareness of physical danger becomes paralyzing to me. These are as corrosive to my sensibilities and spirit as acid is to my skin. Living in such stressful conditions takes its toll. I think this is especially true of women, for we often interact more directly with garbage, ugliness, stenches, violence, and cruelty in our balancing acts of caring for families, creating homes, and ministering to suffering people.
In cross-cultural ministry this external world between the self and the cosmos, or spiritual world, forces us to change, often in ways we don’t like. Here we look at five external stressors, though many more actually affect us.
- Personal safety and security: Especially if you minister in the inner city or in a third-world country, you may live with constant threats to your safety and well-being. I remember our home church missionary telling us her shock when soldiers removed dozens of land mines from the field where her children had been playing. She had thought they had this one little refuge in the midst of war, but it hd been loaded with danger!
- Severe losses, even catastrophes: Forces far beyond your control may often threaten or destroy your ministry, perhaps a whole lifetime of work. People everywhere face the threats of natural disasters, but in our first and second world nations, there are enormous resources to assist in such devastating events. In most mission settings, the social and governmental resources are totally inadequate to the enormity of loss and catastrophe.
Another major stressful event that could happen to you or a friend is displacement. It too brings multiple severe losses. A couple we know were evacuated instantly, for the second time, from their home and ministry in South America. When a colleague was kidnapped, the mission withdrew everyone else within hours. They were suddenly catapulted back to suburban USA, with no support to work through the enormous losses involved.
- The “Ugliness factor”: Certain factors which may accompany cross-cultural ministry contribute to perpetual stress and take a huge toll, even though they may not be so obviously stressful. We include these in the “ugliness factor.” They eat away at well-being and diminish or cancel out your sense of accomplishment. They represent such enormous human need that all ministry efforts combined may seem only a drop in a sea of dross. These include such factors as the noise and crowding of city life. Pollution, traffic snarls, stand stills and noise exhaust you. We see first hand the stresses of human over-crowding, accompanied by filth, ugliness, repugnant and lamentable conditions.
We are also distressed by continual and unforgettable hopelessness of dreary lives, of people struggling against all odds for some scrap of betterment. Being in the midst of extreme poverty and all that accompanies it is overwhelming for you. These constant demands for giving are exhausting. If we become self-protective, we harden our hearts. But to remain sensitive to all needs is like living with a bleeding, open wound which never heals.
- Living on the edge financially: For many of us who are cross-cultural workers, another perpetual stress in the external or material environment is the strain of inadequate finances. Glaring discrepancies between our home and national cultures – either up or down – create real stresses. So too discrepancies between the income of workers in the same context or agency, and the instability of national currencies which often inflate by thousands of percent. Most life-style issues relate to money. You have to find a balance between personal and family care and the needs of others. Even a simple purchase has many implications. Every dollar you spend represents crucial choices. Can you not help a neighbor when an egg a day can mean the difference between mental retardation and normal development for his children?
My husband and I found that making decisions about long term needs such as college and retirement were equally disconcerting. Was it right to save when surrounded by such overwhelming current needs? Such issues are linked to faith and our concepts of God. How is the life of faith to be lived out?
- The stress never stops!: This fifth factor includes the previous ones, but I want to underscore it’s significance. Our research over 20 years on the levels of stress in cross-cultural work is revealing. First of all, most missionaries DO adapt and work effectively in spite of killing levels of stress. Secondly, most cross-cultural workers adapt and cope, becoming used to and remaining effective under loads of stress that would land most “regular” people in the hospital.
Let’s look at other stressors which contribute to the cumulative load: poor health systems (water, sewage treatment, food supply, medical services) contribute to frequent illness, putting strain on health and emotional life. In sufficient quantity and rate, such perpetual stress can result in culture shock or fatigue. I believe we women, especially as moms, bear the brunt of adjustment and stress for the family because we are responsible for so many aspects of daily life.
Here’s how you can help yourself or a friend: You can help by offering affirmation. You can educate about stress.
- Tell yourself or your friend you ARE coping and are resilient. If not, you wouldn’t now be where you are! Only hardy people make it as far as you have in the cross-cultural process. You have already weathered much change. The fact that you seek help in adapting further is honorable. It’s not a sign of weakness!
- Talk out your experiences, especially traumatic or troublesome ones. “Talking out” relieves emotional distress and gives insight. Silence is NOT the best approach! (Key concept: Talk about your own suffering, not about other people or their role in it!)
- Educate yourself and friends about the normal grief process. (Stages include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, adjustment to loss, resolution.)
- Remember that any normal person who experiences abnormal events will have symptoms of stress, such as trouble with thinking, intrusive thoughts, emotional upsets, stomach pain, and so on. This doesn’t mean you are “going crazy.” To feel devastated, frightened or off balance is not sin. Teach about how to cope in positive ways.
- You can comfort, encourage, and restore HOPE.
- When the struggles are financial, remember the path of faith you have chosen. Identify genuine needs and then look for positive ways to meet them. Be creative. Dollars are not the only ways to find the resources you need.
- Remind yourself and each other that ugliness takes its toll. You need beauty, music, and quiet. These may seem like selfish luxuries, but they are essential ways to keep your balance when surrounded by unrelenting human need. You can give “permission” for such renewal. A friend who lives in a mega-city full of clamor escapes for tea and cake once a week into a luxury hotel. She reads her book or writes for a couple of hours, soaks up the quiet, absorbs the beauty, all for a couple of dollars. We discovered we could trade houses, flying for $15 from our jungle mission center to an isolated home of the pilot of another mission. We got solitude and they had several hundred people to socialize with by just changing houses!
- Keep in mind that when people you know behave really badly or sinfully they may be overwhelmed by stress. Cracks in personality or key relationships may become chasms once a person surpasses his or her threshold of what is bearable.
- You can offer a Biblical perspective for handling losses, threats, dangers, and other stresses. Here are five of God’s promises to us:
- He will bring ultimate good out of all our loss and suffering (Romans 8:28).
- Our pain need never be wasted, for God can redeem it for our growth and the blessing of other people. Our choice in each situation determines whether we regress or progress.
- Suffering produces growth in us if we cling to God in the midst of it, rather than turning away from Him because we can not trust Him.
- We also know that our suffering will not go on for ever (I Peter 5:10). God will bring it to an end after we have suffered “a little while.”
- God is with us in all our suffering. He is distressed with us, and He sends the angel of His presence as a tangible comfort (Isaiah 63:9).
As God’s beloved children, filled with the Holy Spirit, you and I have the ultimate tools and resources for coping with stress. He is with us always, to comfort, to encourage, to teach, to counsel, and to protect. “If I take the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your hand will hold me fast,” the psalmist wrote. No matter what mankind or the forces of evil do to us or against us, we are not beyond His love.