Tuesday, June 11, 2013

#3 Lessons from the Empty Nest ~ When Missionary Parents Leave Their Children Behind

~*~ Experiencing the Deep ~*~

I think I was 6 years old when we went on a family vacation with two other families. Our parents had rented cabins for what seemed like a two or three night stay at a vacation spot with a wooded area and places for swimming, fishing, and boating. I had a "new" hand-me-down bathing suit, a one-piece that had the cute little ruffled-skirt, and I felt like a ballerina when I put it on. It would be my first time in water deeper than my bathtub and I was excited. I was going swimming... real swimming, not just bathtub swimming.

This one lady friend with us didn’t have children. I don’t know if their children had grown and gone or if they never had children, but, either way, this lady took a liking to me and wanted to teach me how to swim. She gave me a few basic instructions, and then she took me a little further into the lake.

The lake had a designated swimming area that had been boxed-in on three sides with a dock, and we were in the middle. Kids were playing all around us, and they were loud. The lady held me close and started gently bouncing me in the water until she knew I wasn’t afraid. With my excitement and lack of fear, her bounces got bigger and deeper, and I was enjoying this wonderful first-time fun in the water. Funny how playing in the water always works-up an appetite, and we were soon ready for lunch. We left the water with promises of more water-play later in the day.

After lunch, I walked the backside of the swimming dock and watched the other kids playing in the deep water. They were jumping off right next to me. I watched as they sank under the water, popped back up, and grabbed hold of their inner-tube or the side of the dock. Then they would climb back up the dock and jump off again. I remember thinking, "I can do that"... and I did.

I jumped in, sank under the water, popped back up... and sank again. I didn’t have an inner-tube, and I wasn’t close enough to the dock to grab hold. I remember thinking I would wave my arms and call for help when I popped back up... but the only thing I had time for was another quick breath, and I went under again. This time I opened my eyes under the water, and I could see kids all around me playing and kicking. Some were close enough and bumped me in the water, but noone was close enough for me to grab and hold on to... I was sinking. I tried "climbing" the water wishing it was thick enough to hold on to and support me so I could get another breath, but I kept sinking.

While everyone else around me was having so much fun, I felt alone in my world of danger. I tipped my head back wishing I could stretch my neck to get more air; but I was too deep, and I felt the end of my life was going to happen. Then I was grabbed... pulled to the surface of the water gasping for air, arms held me up while I coughed, wheezed, and rubbed my eyes... it was my lady friend, and her voice was gently telling me I was alright now.

A little later, I went with my friends to play in the woods... but I felt sick and sat down on a log... my body began to shake uncontrollably, but I wasn’t cold. I looked at my friends and they told me my face was white and that I should go back to see my mom. I told them I had almost drown.

Years have passed, but jumping off into the deep is a horror to my soul that I will never forget. I’m not afraid of water, but I am cautious about it’s depth and aware of my limitations. I remember the feeling of being alone while surrounded by people... I remember being in extreme danger without the person nearest to me even aware of my struggles... I remember feeling all my efforts exhausted me and only sank me deeper.

Jumping off into ‘the deep’ is not just about water... there are moments in life that are just like ‘the deep’.

The day came when, for the first time, we were going to leave two of our five children behind while we returned to our mission field in Kenya, East Africa. I remembered watching from the bleachers of the gym as our son and daughter were making their way around to the different tables signing up for their college classes. The gym was crowed and loud, and the place was filled with anticipation of what the year would mean to so many.

But only the Lord knew the horror I felt in my soul and what I anticipated the years ahead would mean for my children. There my children were, surrounded by people, but noone knew them... struggles for them were going to happen, and yet I wondered if those nearest to them would know. It exhausted me to think I would be an ocean away, knowing even an emergency departure to reach them would take 3 days of planning just for one of us to make the trip. I took some deep breaths and managed a smile for them. I was there to support them, not to spoil their excitement.

We knew these days would eventually come... the days when our children would leave to make their own way in this world. After all, it’s natural for our children to leave ‘the nest’. But in all my thoughts for the future my children would have, I always imagined we would be near enough for them to bring college friends home for the holidays, and I anticipated keeping their room and beds ready for when they came home for the summer breaks, too. But instead of our children leaving ‘the nest’ we, as missionaries to a foreign field, packed-up ‘the nest’ and left them. I felt like they were in ‘the deep,’ and I was walking away... leaving them to either sink or swim on their own.

This is part of the missionary’s life... to experience ‘the deep’. Because we live in foreign lands, we’re halfway around the world from our loved ones. When it comes to the natural occurrences of life, such as our kids leaving home... their first loves... courtships and weddings... funerals and family gatherings... missionaries miss-out on a lot. Our kids never brought friends home for the holidays, there is no home in the states... we missed our daughter’s wedding... we missed my brother’s last days and funeral... I wasn’t there to help Mom when Dad was dying. To be absent from my loved ones, in these times of great need, felt like ‘the deep’ to me. I felt like I had left them to sink or swim on their own.

This absence from my family has always been my greatest struggle with this part of our missionary life, but I take great consolation in knowing we are where we are supposed to be, on the mission field.

Monday, June 3, 2013

#2 Lessons from the Empty Nest ~ Perception

Have you ever revisited a place you only knew as a child? Isn’t it amazing to realize how small everything looks, now that you’re grown? The huge kitchen cabinets that had to be climbed in order to reach the cookie jar on the top shelf now seem so small. Obviously the kitchen cabinets didn’t change, but our perception of them sure did. In like manner, have you ever wondered why one particular event can be witnessed by different people and later, when they’re asked to recall the event, it’s as if they’re telling different stories?

It all has to do with perception. Perception is why investigators taking the statements of eye-witness accounts, concerning an accident or crime, must keep their focus on the common details of their stories in order to uncover the facts of the incident.

"Perception is the process of acquiring, interpreting, selecting, and organizing sensory information. As we move throughout our lives, we create an internal model of how the world works.

This model maps sensations, such as sight of an accident, to certain preconceptions contained within our unique model. Our model is also constantly evolving, as new information is acquired.

Because our backgrounds and physiology are all different, we experience the interpretation of sensory information in different ways.

Thus... different stories about the same event."
(Copied; Unknown) 

 Years ago, through my relationship with my siblings, I learned something that has been helpful to me as a parent with adult children. The lesson I learned had to do with individual perceptions. It is a fact that memories are attached to strong emotions, such as love, hate and fear, and then those memories are filtered through our individual temperaments. What happens then is that our own unique perception of an event is created and a memory is established. But could that memory be wrong? Could it be biased in some way?

Our mom had her hands full with four kids under 5 years of age. Our ages put me as the middle child with a big brother 2 years older and a baby sister 2 years younger and our little brother was only 11 months older then the baby. With this age spread, we shared a lot of the same family events and we made memories together. Later in life, when our younger brother started reminiscing about those family times, I realized he carried away a lot of emotional pain. Having heard my brother repeatedly talk about his emotional pain from those shared events, I finally said to him, "I was there... we were all there... none of us can say we liked what happened, but the rest of us aren’t letting it eat us up like you are. Mom and Dad are not responsible for your perception of what happened in the past, you are. You need to let it go. You need to get over it... it’s burning a hole in your heart."

I know my words were harsh, especially to the ears of a soul that was already hurting, but nothing I said could compare to the anguish my brother had already put himself through. An anguish he constructed through his own perception of what he emotionally felt. We were all there... each of us walking away with our individual, emotional perception of what took place, but it was our younger brother who allowed his perception to lead him into a self-inflicted emotional trauma. An emotional trauma experienced by one... made through the thoughts and mind of one.

As his sister, I had taken the liberty of being harsh with my brother on purpose. No doubt he didn’t like what he heard, but he needed to hear it, and after hearing it, he needed to process it. It was a few years after this that my brother finally desired to trust the Lord as his Saviour. I lead him to the Lord and his story is posted on my blog entitled "After 33 Years".

However, as a parent, harsh statements like that to our own children could be devastating to them. Funny how it works, but even when you children are adults a sibling still has more liberty to address delicate issues than a parent. Let a parent say something harsh to their adult child and they still can be plummeted into an emotional depth of despair, the intimidation and rejection of your words will further alienate your child from you. That’s not parental tough-love, that’s just callousness.

Our perceptions are our responsibility. And it is our responsibility to figure it out, not our parents, they’re not to blame for what we choose to carry as our emotional baggage (nor is anyone else, for that matter). Occasionally, parents need to be willing to "walk down memory lane" through the eyes of their children... and that could be a painful walk, but parents need to be willing to hear the heartache of what was experienced through the memories and perceptions of their child. Looking through old family pictures together is one way to revisit the past with each person having an opportunity to recall the event depicted through their own perceptions. Memories tend to be one-sided so parents need to softly interject the other side of the story, correcting any misinformation that there might be. Did you know that memories are a lot like overhearing one-side of a phone conversation? Until you’re able to put together what you heard with what you didn’t hear, of the phone conversation, all your information could be nothing but misinformation.

If you were to interview our 5 adult children, they would most likely reminisce about shared family events, but I also have no doubt you would get 5 different perceptions of what it was like growing up in the Coley household, as it is also true for my siblings and I. Perceptions are relative to our emotional health.

I read a book by Dave Pelzer entitled A Child Called It, his own story of abuse.
"This book chronicles the unforgettable account of one of the most severe child abuse cases in California history. It is the story of Dave Pelzer, who was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played torturous, unpredictable games--games that left him nearly dead. He had to learn how to play his mother's games in order to survive because she no longer considered him a son, but a slave; and no longer a boy, but an "it."" (Amazon review)

In his book, Mr. Pelzer wrote: "I believe it is important for people to know that no matter what lies in their past, they can overcome the dark side and press on to a brighter world. It is perhaps a paradox that without the abuse of my past, I might not be what I am today. Because of the darkness in my childhood, I have a deep appreciation for life. I was fortunate enough to turn tragedy into triumph." (page 166; A Child Called "It", by Dave Pelzer, Health Communications, Inc., Deerfield Beach, Florida, 1995)

Painful events do happen, but the power of those memories is always our choice. We choose to let the memories either make us, or break us.

~ * ~ * ~

This article reminds me of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. The Bible says of Elijah that he was "subject to like passions as we are..." - James 5:17. Elijah was subject to his own perceptions of events, and even he struggled with his emotions.

Elijah struggled with:

1. Doubts and questions God. - I Kings 17:20

2. Fears for his life at the hands of Jezebel. - I Kings 19:3

3. In despair and wants to die. - I Kings 19:4

4. Depression sets in and he hides in a cave. - I Kings 19:9 & 13

5. Full of self-pity he feels alone; isolated. - I Kings 19:10 & 14

6. Elisha ministered unto Elijah and encourages him. - I Kings 19:21

7. Still fearful and is told "be not afraid" by an angel. - II Kings 1:15

And yet, with power from on high, Elijah was able to:

1. Stopped the dew and rain for 3 ½ yrs. - I Kings 17:1

2. Restore the life of the widow’s son. - I Kings 17:22

3. Defeated the false prophets on Mount Carmel. - I Kings 18:21-40

4. At his word caused it to rain again. - I Kings 18:41

5. Called down fire from heaven. - II Kings 1:10-12

6. Parted the waters of river Jordan to cross on dry land. - II Kings 2:8

7. Did not die, was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind. - II Kings 2:11