Repost: 11 Ways Moving Abroad Is like Skiing to the North Pole

May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.

Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?

 

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Ben Saunders sits on top of the world, the youngest person to reach the North Pole alone and by foot.

In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”

  1. Luggage is a drag
    Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
  2. It can be lonely out there
    One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
  3. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
    When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
  4. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
    According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
  5. The only constant is change
    Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
  6. Culture stress can be a bear
    Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
  7. Coming back can feel like the bear wins
    When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson:
    “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
  8. People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
    When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
  9. Some people really do want to listen
    “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
  10. Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
    When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
  11.  One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
    Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
    (1 ) Why?
    (2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
    (3) What’s next?
    That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”

As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:

(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]

[photo: “North Pole (3),” by Ben Saunders, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [at A Life Overseas]

April 26, 2017 § 3 Comments

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

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This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Empathy at a Cultural Threshold

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.

Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,

I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.

His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.

His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.

It’s worth a listen.

This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.

[photo: “Empathy Picture,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Soldier’s Letter, Unopened and Unread

November 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

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To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.

I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.

When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.

Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.

“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”

Castner replies,

You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.

The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.

(“‘The Life That Follows’ Disarming IEDs in Iraq,” “Fresh Air,” NPR, July 8, 2012)

[photo: “Envelope,” by skeptical view, used under a Creative Commons license]

Goodbye: Making a Hard Word Easier

July 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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From my post this month at A Life Overseas –

goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.

Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.

But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy youGod b’w’yGodbwyeGod buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”

So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?

Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. . . .

Continue reading

[photo: “Goodbye Summer 2011,” by deargdoom57, used under a Creative Commons license]

Standing Up Crooked Together

March 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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The Crooked Forest outside Gryfino, Poland

Here’s an intro to my post this week at A Life Overseas.

Standing Up Crooked

There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where I and my family attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.

This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after a several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.

Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be, sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.

I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.

Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.

Can you identify with this tree?

Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?

[photo: “Krzywy Las w Nowym Czarnowie,” by Artur Strzelczyk, used under a Creative Commons license]

Finish reading at A Life Overseas.

Decisions, Decisions: How Better to Make Them

March 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

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Decisions. Life is full of them.

Leaving our ministry overseas and coming back to the States has been one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make, but it was even more difficult because it didn’t stand alone. So many issues were intertwined with it: our home, our community, our children’s education, our careers, our ministry, our identities, our income, our friends.

Sorting by Numbers

While we were weighing our options, our field coordinator introduced me to a very helpful tool: the Prioritizing Grid, presented by job-hunting expert Richard Bolles in What Color Is Your Parachute? The grid offers a systematic way to rank multiple options or to determine which factors in your life are the most important to you.

The Prioritizing Grid works by numbering each item in your list and comparing them all in pairs. When you’re done, you tally the total votes for each one and you’re able to put your list in order. Over the years, I’ve tried to recreate the grid on paper, but I’ve found it hard to remember how to set it up. I was glad to find that career coach Beverly Ryle has provided an online version of Bolles’ grid at her website. It’s customizable from 5 to 40 items. Forty items?! Yes, sometimes our lives can be pretty complicated, and sometimes the list of alternatives can become overwhelming. Ryle writes that using the grid “helps people in transition to focus their energy and keep from spinning in circles.” Sounds like good goals to me.

Creating Your Own Reasons

While the Prioritizing Grid presents a quantifiable approach to decision making, Ruth Chang, professor at Rutgers University, looks at the same topic from a more philosophical slant. For Chang, even her ideas surrounding decisions, especially hard decisions, stem from her own choices. In a TED Talk, embedded below, she says,

I couldn’t decide between two careers, philosophy and law. I really loved philosophy. There are amazing things you can learn as a philosopher, and all from the comfort of an armchair. But I came from a modest immigrant family where my idea of luxury was having a pork tongue and jelly sandwich in my school lunchbox, so the thought of spending my whole life sitting around in armchairs just thinking, well, that struck me as the height of extravagance and frivolity.

So she made the “safe” choice to become a lawyer. But when she realized that wasn’t a great fit for her, she turned back to “extravagance and frivolity” and began a life of philosophizing. Now she’s a well-known expert on making tough decisions.

She explains that choosing is more than a mathematical comparison, and it’s more than simply finding the best of multiple options. Rather than discovering reasons for what is best, she says, difficult choices give us the opportunity to create reasons, and in so doing, recreate ourselves:

When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am. I am for banking. I am for chocolate donuts. This response in hard choices is a rational response, but it’s not dictated by reasons given to us. Rather, it’s supported by reasons created by us. When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

Deciding to Decide

And finally, there’s this from the fictional Reverend John Ames, as written by Marilyne Robinson in Gilead:

I stay home Mondays when I can—my day of rest—so I had the morning to think and pray and also to do a little resolving, and while I was doing that, it came to my mind that I should consider what I would say to myself if I came to myself for counsel. In fact, I do that all the time, as any rational person does, but there is a tendency, in my thinking, for the opposed sides of a question to cancel each other more or less algebraically—this is true, but on the other hand, so is that, so I discover a kind of equivalency of considerations that is interesting in itself but resolves nothing. If I put my thinking down on paper perhaps I can think more rigorously. Where a resolution is necessary it must also be possible. Not deciding is really one of the two choices that are available to me, so decision must be allowed its moment, too. That is, as behavior, not deciding to act would be identical with deciding not to act. If I were to put deciding not to act at one end of a continuum of possibility and deciding to act at the other end, the whole intervening space would be given over to not deciding, which would mean not acting. I believe this makes sense.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Picador, 2004

[photo: “Choices,” by Derek Bruff, used under a Creative Commons license]

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