Paradox, Part I: Exiles and Pilgrims

(This is the first in a series about paradoxes of life and how we live with them.)

“I called it ‘Hurt.’” Collin was eating some cheese and crackers at the dining table after school, describing for me an art project he had done that day. The students were shown abstract works of art made with angles and were asked to create their own. “Nobody in class knew what mine was about, but I think maybe the teacher understood.”

He described how he had used lines, angles and various colors to represent his life and adventures in China, Thailand and the Borneo Rainforest. He also tried to illustrate the pain of many goodbyes—the “severing of friendships,” as he so eloquently put it—due to the transient expatriate community overseas. He rattled off a short list (although his is long) of other losses and confusions of identity that he somehow tried to express visually in his piece. By the end of his explanation, the tears were flowing (his outwardly, mine inwardly). I realized that he was describing a deep inner sense of exile that is common to TCKs,* especially those who are repatriating.

I believe that many—all?—of us live our lives with some sense of exile. We experience it and are aware of it to varying degrees, but it’s there. So many of our quests, our longings, our purpose-seeking, and the stories we create and tell are about trying to find our way home. Home being that place—literal or figurative—in which we feel wholeness and true belonging, and in which broken relationships are restored. We feel we were made for this something— yet what we are living falls short of the ambiguous ideal in our minds. We are “east of Eden” now and whether we realize it or not, our lives are permeated with lost-garden narratives. “This shouldn’t have happened to me;” “This isn’t the way my life was supposed to turn out.”

I’ve written before about the tricky issue of home and about the meaning of place. For those of us who are TCKs, our struggle to make sense of home tends to be a bit messier, perhaps, than some others’. Exile occurs quite literally in our lives, sometimes over and over again as we move in and out of multiple cultures, gaining and losing each time. The soil of each place clings to our roots each time we are transplanted to a new location. And so often we can never go back; for reasons related to finances, distance, sometimes even political upheaval, the doors are closed. Exile.

So, whether we are TCKs or others longing for “home,” what do we do with this? Some of us adopt a “grass-is-always-greener” mentality. We pine for what was lost—physical homes, familiar neighborhoods and cultural norms, food, friendships—and we just know that if we could go back there, everything would be okay. The discomfort and sense of displacement would disappear,…right? When I recognize this tendency in myself sometimes, I try to identify it and apply the cure: contentment and gratitude for what I have now, for where I am now. It’s hard. But I’m learning to root into the narrative of the place I live now.

Others of us choose to become tourists. Hey, we’re exiled anyway, nothing feels quite like home, so we might as well have some great adventures and take a lot of selfies along the way! Our commitment to relationships is tenuous and shallow, we evaluate our experiences as if we’re writing for TripAdvisor, and we’re always trawling for our next destination. When tempted to live this way, I remember that “the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth” (Psalm 17:24)—restless, disconnected from present realities and people. Oh, and tourists also ooze entitlement out of their pores. I, for one, don’t want to live this way (though it’s tempting at times).

There is another way, and it’s the way of the pilgrim, or sojourner. Pilgrims and sojourners are on their way to a destination, but they know that they’ll be traveling all their lives. While they understand that they are “just passing through,” their minds and hearts are awake to the weighty significance of each moment. They know that on their journey they will be tested in a variety of ways; that small moments and kindnesses matter and will be remembered later; that everything depends upon being fully present and available to each season and interaction. Pilgrims sometimes carry others’ burdens for a while, even if it means going out of their way for a bit. They don’t demand fair weather as their due, but are humbly grateful for it when it comes. Likewise, they don’t curse the storms, but seek to bear up under them and remain true to course. They don’t ask, “Why me?” but instead, “Why not me?”

Pilgrims learn to walk a life of paradox: even though their hearts are set on their final destination, they walk through each day alive to its possibilities, people and lessons. They live the paradox that it is sometimes through suffering that we discover our deepest joy and heart’s desire (for more on this idea, check out Larry Crabb’s book Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy).

I’m thankful that Collin is choosing healthy means—artwork, tears, conversation—to deal with his own sense of exile and longing for home. It’s not always that way, for him or for any of us, is it? I’m hoping that as I walk the pilgrim way, I can invite my kids to walk it with me, and that eventually we’ll each find our way home.

* A third-culture kid (TCK) is someone who has spent a significant portion of his or her developing years in a culture outside of his or her parents’ home culture. The mix of the parents’ home culture and the host culture creates a “third culture” for the child. TCKs don’t fully identify with or feel they belong to either home or host culture; they are a mix of both and a little of neither. Repatriating, or returning to one’s “home” or passport culture, is often bewildering, stressful and frustrating to TCKs because they essentially become hidden immigrants. They look much like everybody else (they are not obvious foreigners anymore), but there are many aspects of their identity, culture and worldview that make them feel very different from their home culture peers. They look like they should fit right in and “get” cultural cues and norms, and so often they don’t. They question their identity and wonder where they belong. I am an adult TCK, as are both my parents, so my children are third-generation TCKs!