Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Missionaries and Stress

1. Fellowship in Print

It's true, I've been reading a lot. Forty books, I realized, these last three months - including the last two-thirds of the Bible. Most of the books were shorter, though - one-day reads.

I think a big reason I read is to know I'm not alone. Of course, I still like people better than books and imagine I always will. But without as much people time, the books have been great.

Last time I was on sabbatical I was overseas and had quite limited access to things written in English. The up-side of that was that it created pressure to really work on the language learning. After a few months of Uzbek I could tell stories and make people laugh. That was a huge turning point in feeling at home. I never got to the point where I could sit and talk to people without their willingness to work at understanding what I was saying, but God in his grace gave me people who would make that commitment for my sake. And maybe for their own too.

This time it's different; I'm surrounded by English speakers. Yet choosing to live a quieter, simpler life has been good for me. I'm hopeful it will make a difference when I get back into the working world again.

2. Reading Marjory Foyle
"Everyone is made differently, especially in personality structure and physique. Everyone has different gifts, and these differences create broad spectrum of Christian usefulness. As a general rule, God plans to put square pegs in square holes." (p. 44)
I just finished reading Overcoming Missionary Stress, by Marjory Foyle. Somehow I ended up with a first edition (1987). Poking around I see it's been updated several times since then, under the title Honorably Wounded. The latest version came out just a few months ago. That may explain how my copy ended up on someone's giveaway pile. I rather like the quaint, old-fashioned feeling of this copy and will not go out of my way to get the new one, though since the field of member care in missions has grown a great deal the newer editions would no doubt cover useful additional material.

The author served as a medical missionary for more than 30 years, retired shortly before writing this book and began an itinerant consulting ministry, based out of London. As the cover copy has it, "In this eminently practical book, Dr. Marjory Foyle, an experienced psychiatrist with a worldwide practice, explains what stress is, why Christian workers can be particularly prone to it, and how they can both copy with and prevent it."

When I pack off a short-term team to go overseas I usually make sure they have a paper or electronic copy of Where There Is No Doctor - handy even where there is one, as it can help you figure out what is wrong, how serious it is, and what might be done about it. This book might be titled "Where There Is No Psychiatrist." Even though member care and mental health care are more available for missionaries than once they were, many workers still find themselves overextended and isolated. They may not have the resources to see what is wrong or find a healthy way to respond.

A woman I once interviewed told me how inconsolable she was after her father suddenly passed away, half a world away. She was able to go back for his funeral, but on returning to the field she felt quite alone in her stifled grief and wondered if she was going crazy; there was nobody who could tell her if she wasn't.

Foyle does a great job covering a wide range of struggles and stresses common in cross-cultural service and suggesting ways to respond. I appreciate her positive, encouraging approach. She emphasizes that most of the problems we have are normal and can be explained and treated. She's also quick to point out the advantages of the missionary life, and also the advantages of having struggles. My copy has chapters on stresses related to selection and preparation, culture shock, interpersonal relationships, and reentry,  as well as singleness, marriage, raising children, and raising adolescents. Click through on the Amazon link above to see the TOC and introduction to the latest edition.

3. Add Sugar, Stir Vigorously

This passage from the chapter on stress in marriage made me smile:
"Suppose the husband has had a bad day at work, and  by the end of it is fuming. It is very easy for him to go home and blow-off the irritation on the first person he meets, usually his wife...

"This is called 'displacement' - letting off anger on a substitute rather than dealing with the real cause. It is actually difficult to deal with the real cause while one is still angry, so anger should first be safely released...

"In this case, the husband would have been wiser not to go straight home. In many Asian countries there are tea shops where people gather to drink tea, read the paper, and often enter a political argument. The angry husband should stop at the tea shop, and whether or not he takes sugar in tea should add a spoonful and stir it hard. The sugar raises his depleted blood sugar, in itself a good thing to do if angry, and the act of stirring vigorously is a physical way of displacing anger. Then he should read the paper and discuss the content with the others in the shop, if it is suitable to do so. By these means he will displace his anger harmlessly, and be able to go home in a calmer frame of mind." (p. 46)

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