People who have studied intercultural work have written about how culture shock can be worse on the return home. Traveling in spiritual endeavors can be just as hard, even if you didn’t leave your home language or region. The hard thing is that you know you have changed but nothing else, no one else around you has changed as dramatically, in the same amount of time.
I haven’t traveled enough that it has become routine for me, but it has gotten easier. It seems like this last trip to FWCC took a lot less preparation than the first time I went three years ago, but the coming back was still hard. Based on these and other various travels in the ministry, I have four points of advice.
- Give it time
- Watch what you fill up on
- Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones
- Learn what’s important to you specifically
Think about how much time you spent preparing for your journey and try to block out a proportional amount of time to recover. Take an extra day off work. Don’t accept invitations to unrelated events the first few days. I find that the time it takes to do my laundry is good for reflecting on my experience and integrating it into my self. I like to plan some time to write about my experience: to record what I did, who was there, and what I learned. Then I like to have someone to talk to about the experience. I don’t mean making a public presentation (although that can be useful too, a little later) but someone who knew what I was going to do or who went with me. The key is that this person must be someone who I can be really honest with and tell how I really think it went, what went well, what went badly, who said what, what I would do differently another time, what I think will come of it all.
When I worked for the American Red Cross, they had a rule for their staff who went on disaster assignments. For every week you were on assignment, you were STRONGLY encouraged to take a day off. And you had to take it right away, you couldn’t save it up for later. I think that traveling in the ministry has a lot in common with emergency relief work. The hours to start with. From the moment you wake up, probably pretty early and in a strange time zone, until long past dinner, you are on call, with strangers, in a heightened state of alert, trying to discern what you need to do or say next, eating unfamiliar food, sleeping in a strange bed, and excited and scared at the same time. Even if you’re only gone for a weekend, or an afternoon, it takes a lot of energy. It’s understandable that you might be spiritually and physically tired. Which leads me to point number 2:
“Watch What You Fill Up On”
Deb Fisch and Becky Phipps, from the Traveling Ministries Program of FGC, said this to me a few years ago when we were discussing traveling in the ministry. I think this can have a lot of elements.
One is media. When you’re already full of a new experience is maybe not a good time to load up on television or reading books or magazines or other people’s blog posts. Download some of your experience, in writing, or in dreams, or in talking to other people before you fill up on other stuff, whether it’s essentially healthy or junk.
Watch what you eat – have some comfort foods, for sure, but not too much, in the mindless way that some of us eat when we’re tired. Not too much caffeine or sugar. Have some serious protein: if you eat red meat at all, now is a good time to have some, but you can adapt this advice to meet your own dietary principles. (I learned this third hand from a friend of John Calvi.)
If you can, choose carefully the people you are around while you’re in this somewhat fragile and vulnerable state. And most of all, get enough sleep. Get some fresh air and exercise, but again not too much. Which leads me to my third point:
Be Gentle With Yourself and Others
I’ve noticed that when I get home, I’m tired from my trip, but my family is also tired from me being away. My children are clingy and emotionally brittle. My husband is trying to be helpful, but he’s been doing a lot of extra work while I’ve been gone. And I feel torn between wanting to be with them and wanting to just be alone for a while. It’s easy to get cranky with each other. But now that I recognize this is a pattern, it’s easier to move through it and not prolong it with snarky comments that just make things worse.
It’s also good to be aware of and watch for the point when you come down off the high of the experience and begin to feel like it was all a failure. Elaine Emily calls it “Wednesday.” (Since much of our work is done on Sundays and it’s often about three days later that it all falls apart.) Don’t decide right then that you’re not meant for this work. A few days after this point, you may come to a more balanced view of the situation.
The fourth point is more individual. You have to figure out:
What Do You Need? (that may be different from anyone else)
I personally need to be picked up at the airport or bus station when I get home. It’s not a big deal when I’m going somewhere, but I find it really discouraging and hard to have to take a shuttle or taxi home by myself at the end of a trip. What I really want right then is for someone else to take care of my kids so my husband can come pick me up at the airport. So far, when I remember to ask in advance, this is something that people in my meeting have been willing to do to support my ministry. But I have to remember and be willing to ask.
I’m curious. What have other people learned about the re-entry process that might be helpful to others traveling in the ministry?
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