Lessons in flexibility—learned the hard way
I sit at my computer in a city in China, fuming. The internet has once again played havoc with my day. There are “big meetings” going on in the city at a national level, and all the VPNs are blocked for at least two weeks. There goes easy access to family and friends. There goes hopping on Facebook to see what is up with the world out there. More seriously, there goes my ability to do research online for lectures I am presenting this month. Down. The. Drain.
Welcome to life in a different country.
Then I remember how far I have come in technology, and that I have survived the journey. I remember the wide-open duplex where we lived in Manila—with no internet and no telephone. I remember the excitement we shared with our owners in the other half of the duplex when, after waiting almost ten years, they got a PHONE. They punched a hole through the wall (literally) and put a telephone on our side as well as theirs. When it rang, if the wrong family answered, we would simply open the window and yell the other family’s name. All was well. We (plural) had a phone!
I also remember the thrill of a fax machine in our little apartment in Hong Kong. I could write all day and then fax a copy of what I had written to my co-workers on the other side of the world. When we awoke the next morning, we would have their edits spilling out of the fax onto my kitchen counter. We had a FAX, and it was like magic.
One of my young friends lives in a huge Central American city. She says that big cities are convenient in that things are available (she has access to Costco and Walmart), but getting anywhere requires time—buckets of time. Driving there is better than in many countries and cities, but it is still a hassle. A trip back and forth to the children’s school, which is almost visible from the windows of their high rise but is impossible to get to on foot, takes a half-hour-minimum drive each direction. There are no quick trips, and navigating traffic requires tenacity and perseverance.
Each summer I lead large teams of teachers who come into China from around the world. Flexibility is a much-needed character trait, because so many things happen or change without notice and without explanation. How does one train workers to be flexible?
Flexibility is something we need in all areas, but some are easier than others. We can adjust to grocery shopping every-other day for fresh things rather than stocking up once a week as we did in the USA, but there are other pieces of life that we are not convinced we should change, and that is where the rub is. That is where we live our lives.
Is it wrong to keep an early bedtime for your young elementary kids when the rest of the neighborhood is out playing after ten at night? You know your kids have to be up for school the next morning, but going to bed means missing neighborhood relationships. How far do you flex?
How about living without a car? What happens when you realize that every single trip on public transportation will take at least an hour each direction, and that life has to flex around those extra hours? Living without a car means carrying everything with you. One worker says, “If I go to a friend’s place, everything comes with me. Swimming? Bring the swim gear. Playing outside? Bring a change of clothes. Need snacks? Bring them in a cooler because it is so hot. Want scooters? Wheel them with you. Bring a book or a toy because you will be on the train for 30–45 minutes. And water—always carry water. My kids are big enough now they each get a bag on excursions, but when we arrived, we had a stroller that had to be folded and unfolded every time we got on and off a bus. Without a car, you must constantly think, Do I really need this? or you look at something you want to buy and think, I will be carrying that with me for the next four hours, do I want to do that?”
These examples barely scratch the surface of the flexing that is needed to live in another country. There is so much more—emotional, gut-wrenching flexing that drains us daily.
After a long life of ministry, you have flexed so often that it becomes habitual, and with each new advancement the former life is forgotten as if it never existed. But human nature being what it is, we still sometimes fume.
I find it interesting that, while flexibility is typically considered a character trait of the young, older workers seem to flex better than younger ones. Maybe life has taught them lessons that they can pull out and repurpose. They, like me, remember when it was different, and they can pull rabbits-of-the-past out of their proverbial hats.
Technology is always a challenge for me—and it possibly is for you—but in reality, our flexibility issues have nothing to do with technology or the other many challenges we may face. I will confess, though, that I get impatient when things do not go as I planned. I fume—but fuming gets me nowhere. It just gives me knots in my stomach.
Committing my way to the Lord is the answer, but it needs to be a daily discipline. Many times I have to stop, pray about my attitude, and reflect to get a sense of balance. I would like to say this is always my first response, but the truth is, fuming usually comes first.
Digging into God’s Word is key to my ongoing attitude when nothing seems to go as planned. The last few days I have been reading in my study Bible how Joshua, in his 100-plus years, seldom saw an uneventful day. When I think of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness, finally crossing the Jordan, expelling the Canaanites, and then setting up life in a land totally new to them, I realize I have no excuse for being inflexible. Can you imagine what it was like for Moses and Joshua to command hundreds of thousands of people (and their livestock) through that adventure—a people who fumed (and grumbled) much of the time?
Joshua, nevertheless, came to the end of his life—a very old man—still believing that God was in charge. He had seen it all. Just before his death he reminded his people of all that God had done to give them the land, and that they were responsible to follow hard after Him if they wanted to live well. He knew that was the only way to face a life full of change and unexpected surprises.
Maybe he knew what Habakkuk would say centuries later: Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, and the produce of the olive fail, and the fields fail to yield … yet I will rejoice in the Lord (Habakkuk 3:17–18).
God is good—even when the internet is down.
Questions to consider: How does one train workers to be flexible? How far do you flex? How do you stop fuming?