We all know that hindsight is 20/20. God doesn’t give us a script for each stage of life. John Flavel famously quoted: “The providence of God is like Hebrew words—it can be read only backwards.” We had traveled back and forth between countries for nearly 10 years, and even experienced reverse culture shock, but
I knew moving back to America was going to be unlike anything I had ever experienced. I read many books and articles about re-entry and re-acclimation, but my future was foggy.
So if I could get into a DeLorean with Michael J. Fox, flip the flux capacitor, and travel back one year, here are 7 things I would tell myself:
The first several months is survival mode. Allen, moving your family back to the States will be chaotic (see previous post). From the time you purchase your one-way plane ticket until several months after you land, you will be in for a ride. So don’t have high expectations for your wife and kids. Your only goal is not to kill anybody. If you do that, you’ll be doing great! So don’t make any long term plans. Don’t make a lot a new rules for your kids. Just breathe in. Now, breath out.
Transition back to the States takes much longer than you’ll expected. Allen, you are not going to want to hear this, but you will not be settled for two to three years. Finding a new job and a new home takes time. And even after that, it takes several cycles of going through re-occuring calendar events for it to feel normal again.
Waiting is the name of the game. This is similar to #2, but a bit more spiritual. While you wait, God will reveal many of your idols that you presently cannot see. You will be in a holding pattern until you repent of your idols. Be encouraged for you will literally learn Psalm 23:2 – God will make you rest and lie down in green pastures.
Give lots ofgrace. Allen, give grace to your extended family and friends, for they have no idea what you are going through. Give grace to your immediate family, for none of them have ever gone through anything like this, and they will struggle just like you. And give grace to yourself, for you will walk through a dark valley and hit many walls. What I’m about to tell you is completely un-American: it’s OK to be down and even depressed for a season. It’s a normal part of the transition process.
It’s OK to feel invisible and out of place. When you left for Peru, you were a square. When you lived in Peru, you became a circle. When you move back, you will changed again; you will become a triangle. Because you’ve changed so many times, you’ll face two identity problems: (1) All your American family and friends still think you are a square, and treat you like a square. That’s why they will say things like, “Are you glad to be home?!” You will struggle to answer that question. (2) There is another problem: when you move back, you will still think of yourself as a circle. You will still see yourself as a Peru missionary, but that too will change. You will no longer be a square or a circle; you will become a triangle! In short, everyone will be confused. And that’s completely OK. More than anything, you will rediscover that your true identity is in Christ. This will stabilize you in the midst of your identity crisis.
You will not pick right back up with your former colleagues. This will throw you for a loop. You are tempted to falsely think you can jump right back into relationships that you once had. They will be nice to you, but they honestly will not know what to do with you. You’re no longer working overseas somewhere, but now you’ll be on their turf. Some might even see you as a threat. So slow down, re-learn the terrain, re-build your networks, and don’t over assume good graces with your former peers & colleagues.
Pray for advocates. This is a direct overflow of #5 & 6: because you feel invisible and cannot jump right back into the game, what you need more than ever are advocates. This will become essential for your job search. Most hire people with whom they have a relational connection. So begin to pray that God will rise up advocates who connect you to the right people and the right job.
If you have lived in another country, what would you say to yourself if you could travel back in time? I’d love to know your thoughts!
The transition bridge is a metaphor that has greatly helped our family understand our re-entry back into American life. It has given us perspective on where we are right now. It has allowed us to give each other grace. And helped us pace ourselves as we slowly cross the bridge. For those who have lived in another country or have loved ones who have lived in another country for extended period of time, understanding this bridge is extremely helpful. The Transition Bridge has five stages that you must cross to get to the other side; here they are:
Settled – All is comfortable and familiar. Routines are established. Roles are defined. Relationships are intertwined with others. You feel like you belong. Life is predictable. Cultural clues in daily life are known and accepted. Your feet are planted on solid ground.
Unsettling – You’ve stepped out onto the swinging bridge with fear and excitement. Routines are broken. Roles are quickly changing. Loose ends are everywhere. Goodbyes are never-ending. You and your family express stress in exaggerated ways. Little things about the culture that didn’t bother you start to bother you again like they did in the beginning. You feel like you are in the waiting area at the airport for months.
Chaos! – You’re in the middle of the swinging, suspended bridge without sure-footing. You’re confused, unstable and scared. You’re totally dependent upon others. You have no idea who you are anymore. You feel invisible and misunderstood. You don’t know where you are going. You blow all problems out of proportion. One day you are overcome with joy. The next day you are in a panic about your future. Chaos usually begins right before the move and lasts several months after.
Re-settling – You’re not swinging so much. You’re coming out of the fog a little. You begin to start new routines and rhythms. You begin to process what you just went through. Though you begin to dream again, you also grieve the losses. You feel like you are walking through a dark valley and may enter depression. You begin to make new friends. You try out tentative roles. You rediscover God’s call on your life. For many this is the longest part of the bridge. It can last 1-3 years.
Settled – You’re back on solid ground. You’ve found the new normal. You’re content with your new routines and schedules. You have new eyes: you’ve become much more aware of yourself and other cultures. You’ve learned to embrace the good, bad, and ugly of American culture. You’ve incorporated into your new lifestyle several wonderful things from your former culture. You’re better equipped to endure the hardships, relate to strangers, and live life as a pilgrim on his way to his true home. The sign that you have left the bridge is when you have a new job, a new home, and a new community.
When we first arrived back in the States in April 2014, we were definitely in the Chaos stage. It was exhilarating, scary, and confusing all at the same time. We are presently in the Re-settling stage, eager to get settled again. All we need now is a job, a house, and a new community! In a future post, I’ll share several things I wished I would have known before stepping out onto the bridge.
When we were at the debriefing center last April (DAR), our counselor asked our group (missionaries from all over the world) to collectively describe each stage of the bridge. Here’s is what we came up with…
Here is Adeline’s artistic depiction of the Transition Bridge…
If you’re on the bridge right now, I’d love to know where you are. Also, if you’ve ever crossed this bridge, I’d love to know your experience and the things you learned.