10 Reflections on Ten Years of Reentry

It’s been 10 years!  Ten years since I made the unexpected move back to the US after working internationally.  This morning I sat with my journal and my advent candles lit thinking about hope and longing and reflecting on the last ten years.  Here are some of my thoughts…

1) I never dreamed it would be like this.  I didn’t imagine the very hard initial days of reentry.  I never dreamed I would spend time in a therapist’s office trying to make sense of feelings raging inside me.  Working in the same job for 10 years and living in suburbia wasn’t in the long term plan.  I didn’t anticipate a season of walking through depression.  Being passionate about caring for those in reentry wasn’t even on my radar ten years ago {nor did I dream I’d be blogging about reentry ten years later}.

I’m not sure what I expected life after working in ministry overseas to look like, but I would not have been able to predict where I am now.  And perhaps more importantly that I am pretty content with my life now.  Even if there are parts of it that don’t feel 100% “me”, I’ve found ways to truly enjoy life right now where I am at.

2)  Culture will always be a part of me.  I used to fear that I would wake up some day and forget about the things I’d learned living internationally {at least the parts I liked…I was fine about leaving behind some of it}.  Perhaps it’s like the grief when you loose someone close of being scared you will wake up some day and forget their face.  I thought for sure at some point I would “sell-out” to the US subculture again {at least what I perceived that to be}.  Although there are ways I’ve adapted and am content to take advantage of the small conveniences of life in the states, I will never be the same person I was before I moved overseas.  I’m also not the person I was when I arrived home.  Somehow over these past 10 years, I’ve found a new version of me.  I should not have been worried I would  loose my overseas experience in re-entry, I have found it rooted too deeply to get rid of even if I tried.

3)  Friendship sustains.  As I think about these last 10 years, friendship is what has sustained me.  In the beginning, I remember it feeling so hard to invest in making friends.  But as I look back at each year and season, my friends have held me together.  They have been the lifeline of grace, healing, growth, acceptance, hope.  They have been the consistent day in and day out voice of love and truth in my life.  They have reminded me that I am not alone.

To make it seem like there have not been moments of loneliness would be a falsehood.  My journal would tell you a story of struggle and feeling alone for periods of days or weeks or months over these years.  But…looking back…those moments had more to do with me facing my internal battles and being in a place to receive and give in friendship.  If I had it to do over again, I would say embrace all those moments where I let fear and insecurity and shame keep me from delving deeper into these friendships.

To all of you who have been my friends on this journey….words cannot say thank you in a way that really expressed how much you have made a difference.

4) Self-knowledge is the road to understanding.   Believe it or not, ten years after I returned, I’m still having aha moments about myself and how that played into my situation on the field.  These past few weeks I’ve been reading about the Enneagram (The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron & Suzanne Stabile).  There have been so many moments where I have said, wow, that’s perhaps what was going on 10 years ago when I was struggling.

As I reflect on what has been helpful in re-entry, I see a deep dive into self awareness.  The things that were helpful in launching me forward in growth and grace and healing…were most often times where I came to more deeply understand myself {with all of its graces and gory details}.  Attending DAR at MTI, meeting with a counselor, reading books like Strength Finder and A Dark Knight of the Soul and so many others, getting feedback in my professional life and from friends, meeting with a spiritual director, classes on understanding cultures of wealth, middle class and poverty, participating in Ignatian retreats, personal silent retreats, being involved in groups at my church:  all of these and so many other things have led to a deeper understanding of myself and others.  Slowly along the way, a lot of little aha moments have led to healing, understanding, compassion towards myself and others, and self acceptance.  If I were to give wisdom to someone in transition, I would say…you can’t understand the world around you until you understand yourself.  I know it sounds like a cliche, but I have found it to be very true.  As I have slowly understood how I am wired, I can begin to embrace forgiveness, grace, and hope for the future.

5)  Dissonance defines us.  In the beginning, I would feel the dissonance all the time.  I felt out of place practically everywhere.  Even the little things like paying a tip at a restaurant made me feel awkward because I didn’t know the social protocols.  Over time we learn the ways things work in this new place.  Then the dissonance is only felt on deeper issues.  Internal conflicts with how we view the world versus how others view the world.  Issues with family members because we no longer have the same political views.  I found those types of dissonances didn’t so much go away as I learned how to respect my friends and family…and that some things were just best not discussed in certain circles.    And then there is the even deeper dissonance we feel at church or in matters of faith.  Initially for me this dissonance was extremely strong.  As time went on and I explored different church communities, I learned ways of coping and moving forward and those feelings have lessened.  I struggle less with God….I feel more at home in church on Sunday mornings.  Strangely now I find myself experiencing dissonance with international travel.  The places now that bring complicated feelings are times when I am immersed in another culture.

As I reflect on these last 10 years, I do see a theme of constantly feeling some type of dissonance.  And trying to figure out what to do with it.  Much time and energy has been spent trying to feel more at home. I’m not sure if that’s bad, but sometimes perhaps I could have saved some energy by just living with the dissonance until it passed rather than trying to move it along.

6)  Suburbia is not that bad.  It was a long process to convince myself that living a “normal” life in suburbia was OK.  Maybe I missing the constant adventure?  Maybe I held myself to an unrealistic standard of what a “good” person should do with their life.  Maybe I had preconceived ideas about what life in suburbia was really like.  Maybe I had bought the lie that to make a difference in the world you must live somewhere hard and give up the nice things in life {like having a dishwasher}.  But here I am living in suburbia {and liking my dishwasher}.  Yes, sometimes I have to venture out to find some little pockets of culture because there’s a part of me that needs to hear other languages and eat ethnic food and be reminded that convenience and possessions in life do not make us happy, but many days I enjoy life in my little world.  And I’m learning to embrace {I know 10 years…took me long enough} that I like the me that lives in suburbia too.

7) Hope from others in transition.  Over these 10 years, I have encountered many friends and acquaintances who are experiencing transition.  It may be another friend who’s moved back to the US or a friend who is a new mom and suddenly her life looks very different or a refugee family who has just found themselves transitioning to a country they know nothing about.  As I have heard stories and observed others, I have found companionship.  I have been reminded I am not alone.  I have been encouraged deeply by spending time with refugee families who are making a hard transition than I am and with so much determination and hope in the midst of it.

Volunteering has led to many of these connections.  Either at community center downtown or with a refugee resettlement agency or with an organization that does retreats for women in transition.  All of these have taught me that we are called to live in the midst of the messy.  Very rarely is life a perfect story.  If we wait for things to be “at a good place” we may be waiting a long time.  Instead if we take small moments here and there to just do life together with people in the midst of our messy world…it can be encouraging for both us and them.  Honestly, I’m not sure if much of my time volunteering has actually been impactful to those I work with…maybe here and there…there are a lot of times it feels like one step forward one step back…but to me it has been greatly impactful.  As I have seen courage in the midst of transition modeled over and over and over.

8)  We must tell our story.  Someone shared with me the quote {I think it’s on a monument somewhere for veterans} “I did not feel fully at home until you heard my story.”  Looking back over the last 10 years, much of the “moving forward” in reentry has come through slowly telling my story.  In the first couple years, it was in safe places.  Debriefing retreat.  Counselors office.  In the next few years, it was in a few late night talks with close friends where eventually I had the courage or they asked about my life on the field or my life in reentry.  It wasn’t until two years ago {8 years after moving back} when I started blogging that I felt I was at a point to talk more openly about my story.  At each step of the process of sharing with a wider community, there has been a level of healing and personal growth.  Looking back, I also see the wisdom in waiting to talk about our stories in a more public way until we can do so from some distance.  Although in the beginning there were feelings of loneliness, I’m not sure even if someone had asked I would have had the discernment or distance from the story or the words to express what I was feeling.

9)  God is the hero of the story.  I returned from working overseas very unsure about my faith.  I had lots of doubts and anger and struggled to sit on a pew without running for the nearest exit.  But as I sat with my journal today, I cannot help but notice that over these last ten years, the moments that have sustained me and propelled me to get out of bed in the morning have been those times when I have felt the love and invitation of God in my life.  It’s hard for me to type that because I don’t do “churchy” or “cliche” anymore.  I’m afraid you will think that I’m overspiritualizing it.  But I cannot deny as I look back, there has been a subtle, quiet pattern of moments where I have felt God reaching out to me.  He has been comfortable with my anger.  He has been a cheerleader towards forgiveness.  He has been a model to me of compassion for others and for myself.  He has been a voice whispering that I am loved and accepted for who I am not what I do. He has been so very patient.  He has given depth to friendships.  He has brought self-knowledge that led to healing.  What has struck me as I thought about the five or six times in this re-entry journey where I have really felt God’s presence in a big way…it has never been about what I should do {although there have definitely been periods where I have ask Him like a good church girl what I should “do” with my life}…it has always been a voice of acceptance and love and grace and hope.  It has always been an invitation.

I also think it’s important to note that for my journey many of these experiences have not come from Sunday morning services {a few have} or ways I might have connected with God before moving internationally.  Rather I have found new things that helped in connecting with God like silent retreats or Ignatian prayers.   Everyone has their own ways of connecting, but the lesson I take away from this is it’s important to be willing and to try to explore new ways of moving towards God if the former ones aren’t working as well.

God and I have our days.  Some days we are friends.  Some days I am frustrated with Him while He goes on loving me.  Some days I look forward to prayer.  Most days it is still a struggle to want to pray.  Some days I feel a distance.  Other days I feel deeply loved.  But I cannot deny that over these ten years….His still small voice of invitation to grace and love and acceptance and healing has been what has really moved me towards a better version of myself!

10) We will never fully arrive…  For a while I thought that was the goal of reentry, to arrive at a new place with a new job and a new life and me that didn’t feel any dissonance towards the culture I was living in.  I wanted to fit in and yet still have a life full of adventure.  Ten years have taught me about focusing on being in life and not so much on the doing.  Ten years and listening to lots of stories of others have taught me that we aren’t meant to fully arrive…

I have this quote from Kisses for Kate on my wall next to my world map, “My heart lives in so many places, with so many people.  But God whispers to me that I really have only one home, and that is with Him.  I will never be content on this earth.  I will always be a nomad.  It was meant to be that way.  My heart was created with a desire for a home, a nest, a sanctuary, and that can be found only with Him in Heaven.  And I will continue bouncing from one home to another, loving with everything I have in whatever location I currently reside, excitedly awaiting the day when I am called heavenward and He says to me, Welcome Home.”

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Ruthie formerly served cross culturally in Central America. She had her own rocky reentry back to the USA about eight years ago. She currently lives in the Midwest where she enjoys volunteering with refugee families, shopping international grocery stores, and drinking cups of coffee with friends.

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you so much for this article. I too returned from missionary work 9 years ago. I never planned on living in a “nice” area but it’s where I’ve found myself. If I’m feeling down I wonder if I’ve done something wrong or I could have done something differently so I’d still be “living the dream” but like you I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the past few years. And when it comes down to it I trust God that he knows me and knows what’s happening in my life. I can “do” my life here and make the most of it but there’s a tinge of disappointment that’s hard to shrug off and a feeling that I don’t belong here. I hope I can return to work overseas one day. I think it’s always going to be where my heart is. It’s a challenge to get our identity from being not doing!! Love the quote by your map too.

  • I also want to thank you for your honest words. I too returned from a missions minded trip almost a year ago and it’s been such a long and challenging journey coming back and right now I’m still struggling so much at times not knowing who I am and feel much of the time that I have no idea where God is, why He feels so far away, and why am I here. I read the book, Kisses From Katie and it was such an encouragement to me. If you have any other book suggestions then I’d love to hear from you.

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