06 November, 2019

Friendship goal—12 months later

One of the things OMF missionaries in Australia are required to do on home assignment is debrief with a psychologist (possibly other places too, I can't generalise, though, because I don't know). We did that as a family last July, but OMF encouraged us to go back again if there were things we'd like to go deeper on. I sat on that encouragement for a couple of months and then decided to give it a go.

You see, I'd been finding myself hit harder and harder with the losses of life. The missionary life has more losses than most people encounter (see this post I wrote about the colander of expat life), and I was finding that even small losses were hitting hard. If you've been reading here a while you'll have probably noticed that I've talked about that over the years. Anyway, we've also seen people knocked off the mission field by burnout and knew that if I could avoid that I wanted to try.

So I went to a psychologist and talked to her. This is what I wrote not long after that:
She asked a lot of questions about my friendships and realised that though we have worked in the same organisation for 18 years and in the same location for the last 12, my friendships have had a lot of change over the years, even people who seemed that they would be there for the long-haul have had to leave for various reasons.
Even the other day I realised that many of the people I interact with now don't know the people I was interacting with, even two years ago! Between being in cross-cultural ministry and involved at an international school, we've got a lot of people continually moving in and out of our lives.

The psychologist made several suggestions, but the one that stuck out for me was to gather four friends around me who were less likely to move out of my life and make them the base of a pyramid. I realised that I'd been avoiding investing deeply in relationships in Australia because of the distance, however the truth is that my friends in Australia are generally more stable than the ones I'd been making in Japan. The friends I have in Australia are long-term ones that I keep seeing when I go back there.

Finding friends at a different level
So I set myself the difficult task of deciding which of my friends I'd ask for this deeper commitment of and then steeling myself to ask them. It was not easy. I felt like I was back in Primary School vulnerably asking someone to be my best friend! But I'm here to tell you, one year later, that it is making a difference.

Two of the ladies I asked happened to be good friends with each other and I texted them, almost impulsively, one afternoon in October last year. Asking if we might not join forces and become a support group for each other. That was the start of something I could never have imagined. They both messaged me back within a couple of hours, almost jumping out of the phone screen with enthusiasm. I was blown away—it truly was God's timing. We continue to remark on that very thing and give praise to God.

But that was just the start. I had imagined period Skype calls, but it's turned into almost daily contact between at least two of the three of us. Twice in the last week I've been at a coffee shop messaging with one or both of them (unplanned in both cases). It's almost like they're here with me! I've never experienced anything like it, outside of the friendship that goes with marriage, but even different to that, because they're women and they understand a woman's heart in a different way to a husband.

I also couldn't have imagined the sorts of things that the three of us were to go through in the months following that initial text. It's truly been an incredible, sometimes heartwrenching journey, and being able to do it together has enriched and strengthened each of us.

I have two other good friends who are committed to staying in touch, though we don't chat as often. But I know that I can go to either of them with honesty and bare my heart, or ask them to pray about something very private. And I'm pretty sure they know the same about me.

Having these four friends helped me through the vulnerable time in June at the end of the school year, when so many goodbyes are "I don't know if I'll ever see you again" goodbyes. They've also given me the courage to not hold back from making friends here. It's a temptation you need to fight after a few years of saying goodbye to friends you've invested your heart in.

What might I have done differently?
I'm not a fan of those "write to your 16 y.o. self" letters. However, pondering this journey I've been on now for 19 years makes me wonder what advice I'd give myself on friendship when I left Australia to become a long-term missionary in November 2000? (And no, I wasn't 16 at the time!)

I don't think I'd advise "daily friends" in Australia. I think it is important for new missionaries to leave their home country and friends and do their best to cleave to their new country and the people they find there. But in 2000, we didn't have the advantage of free messaging or Skype calls. However, maybe I'd advise writing/emailing more regularly to a couple of good friends?

I might advise me as a new missionary to be aware of grief and what it looks like, and not to downplay small griefs. You don't need to lose a parent or a spouse to experience grief. To be aware of how many goodbyes I'd already made and how to process that a little better. To have more realistic expectations about the relationships I'd make in Japan with expats. To make sure I had a few more things in place to help me be more resilient?

Our home assignment last year was really hard in so many ways, yet there were things that were good about it, and this is one of them. I'm so thankful for the psychologist who advised me and for these four women who have taken the risk of being friends with someone who isn't even in the country most of the time!

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