Building Resilience Through Change; Navigating Transitions in Humanitarian Aid Work & Disaster Response

by | Crisis Response, Humanitarian Aid, Resilience, Self Care, Transition

We live in a world where nothing under heaven is constant, except change. When we are returning from the field, leaving for the field again, or entering a new realm of life or work, there is always an onslaught of change. But change does not equal transition. Change means our situation has become different. Transition is the process of dealing with change. And there, my friends, is the rub.

Transitions start with the end. At their worst, they can feel a little like small deaths. The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This age-old, sage wisdom is much more than a poster-worthy platitude. In it, we see the circle of death and resurrection that reminds us life is fleeting.

Transitions can start anywhere on that circle. As writer and movie producer Tim Burton humorously observes: “Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not necessarily in that order.” But it’s sometimes harder to find humor in our stories, especially in times of transition. They are painful, exhausting, and debilitating. A huge part of navigating changes well is managing our expectations, managing our emotions, and of course, managing everything else.

Let’s start with managing our expectations. When we arrive at the next stop in our stories, we might be expecting to feel like: “This is where I belong.” But in actuality, we may stay restless. Life is a journey whose destination is unattainable on this earth. We call it an existential restlessness: A longing for a home we have never known.  In his incomparable work titled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Scripture makes this plain for the believer:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had the opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. Hebrews 11:13-16 ESV

You can be both content and restless. But only in God.

Another mismanaged expectation is the thought: “How hard can it be?” But movement takes work. Newton’s law of inertia says an object at rest will remain at rest unless an unbalanced force acts upon it. The very nature of humanitarian aid and crisis response work exists because of unbalanced forces. The stress and strain of those forces act upon us relentlessly. We must rest in God’s strength and not our own.

And it’s not only the unbalanced forces of this work. “Home” has its many stressors too, many of which come from our mismanaged expectations. Our assumptions involved with the idea of “going home” and “being back”, of “here” and “there” can create a large part of the stress in transitions. In actuality, people only move forward; “back” exists in memory. It is essential to reframe the experience of change as a continuous, ongoing process. To view every stop as part of the adventure (even “home”), as the next destination on your journey with God, and not just an extended layover in an airport terminal.

Another expectation we mismanage is our identity. Heraclitus of Ephesus was an Ancient Greek philosopher who famously proffered, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

We change. Our work gives us a new sense of justice and fairness: we’ve seen what global inequality looks like; financially, in gender roles, in healthcare, etc. We’ve seen how economic issues in our sending countries can directly affect the lives of those in the country of our deployment. We have a new level of intensity: we’ve been a part of work that means something, one that is high stress but with a purpose, where we’ve maybe even saved lives. Indeed, we’ve empowered others. We have new priorities: our idea of fun, our tolerance for small talk, our capacity for “being still”, may all have radically changed. We have further thoughts on spirituality: our concept of what organic, authentic “church” should look like may have shifted. Our theology of suffering may have been pushed to the breaking point.

We’ve grown, having been stretched by our experiences. We are aware of this on every level of our being. We are willing to live, work, play, feel, love outside of what before may have been very narrow cultural paradigms. We have new eyes. We see everything differently than before. All of these internal changes come into direct conflict with the external forces of change. Managing our understanding of how we’ve changed is fundamental to transitioning well.

These changes exist and are felt primarily in our emotions. Managing our emotions is instrumental in navigating transitions. Our body can only be in one location. Our hearts, however, can exist in several places at once. When we are leaving one location for another, we must be intentional. A leading expert in transitioning well is Dr. David Pollock. He came up with the R.A.F.T. principle as a tool for people to manage their emotions.

  • Reconciliation is necessary because leaving without resolving issues can cause the problem to fester, and lack of closure can be emotionally taxing later on.
  • Affirmation involves finding important people and letting them know how much they are loved or missed. Affirmation is crucial for them and us since we may not see that person again.
  • Farewells. Take the time to say goodbye to people, to places, to things and traditions. In addition to verbal farewells, taking pictures of friends, places, and pets can also help.
  • Think Destination. Take time to think about how the first few weeks will be after our transition. The more realistic our expectations, the less dissatisfaction we might experience if the expectations aren’t entirely met upon arrival.

Another crucial part of managing our emotions is permitting ourselves to be human, to grieve. Grieve the loved ones, the experiences we’ve left behind. Grieve all we’ve lost as a way of honoring how much of our hearts we’ve invested. Grieving is a healthy, Godly thing. So often, we, or those that would counsel us in our grief, try to use the gospel as an anesthetic. They might imply or insist that Christ should be enough, and we need to “get over it.” But in reality, we may not want to get over it. Christ is enough, and yet lamenting is very much a part of the Gospel narrative. Allow yourself time to grieve before and after and even during transitions. It is not only healthy; it is God-ordained. Grief only becomes unhealthy when we refuse to allow Him to comfort us or when we cannot ultimately also experience His joy amidst the sorrow.

Along with permission to be human is permission to protect our hearts. We don’t have to take all the pain of the world on ourselves. We aren’t the savior of humanity. We will inevitability experience guilt in what we haven’t done or been able to do. We must release ourselves from those expectations. Where we’ve failed, let us repent and be comforted by Him, and where we still see so much brokenness, we must cast all your cares on Jesus.

Now, to managing everything else.

The most prolific of the “everything else” is culture shock: the strain resulting from the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations in transition. Culture shock has many symptoms: a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation regarding friends, status, profession, and possessions; Of rejection by and/or rejection of members of our old/new culture; Of confusion in our role, its expectations, values, feelings, and self-identity; of surprise, anxiety, even disgust, and indignation at culture differences; Of feelings of impotence as a result of not being able to cope with the new/old environment. And so much more.

While experiencing symptoms of culture shock, it is essential to remember these three things:

Our identity is not our occupation. We are not defined by our experiences nor other’s perceptions of us. We are also not defined by our accomplishments or lack thereof. Our occupation is not who we are. For followers of Jesus, our identity is in Him and who He says we are-restored, redeemed, renewed. He is sovereign over all things. He knows the beginning from the end. He saw our failures, our missteps before He called us, and yet He still chose us.

We are not alone in this. Talk about it. Don’t let it fester.

     These symptoms and the stress they cause are normal.
Again, we have permission to be human. We must never underestimate the effect of cumulative stress. Building up a tolerance to this lifestyle isn’t the same as immunity. God’s grace is made perfect in our weaknesses, but we must first admit our weaknesses.

Here are some time-tested tips for transitioning well.

  1. Decompress: If possible, before being thrown back into the chaos of the “field” or unbearable boredom of “home,” stop somewhere along the way.
  2. Set parameters: Let those closest to us know what your specific needs returning will be.
  3. Have answers ready: Be ready to tell the story, but anticipate our audience and be self-aware of our emotional state. Don’t be put off if they zone out after a few moments.
  4. Be intentional: Spend contemplative time, alone in nature, allowing God’s Spirit to help you process. Give ourselves plenty of grace and time.
  5. Don’t compare: We’re living between two worlds. Let them remain distinct. Don’t play them against each other.
  6. Rest and recreate. Self-care is paramount to health and productivity!

And perhaps the greatest asset to transitioning well is a healthy community. We desperately need a sending and receiving spiritual community. One we stay in contact while on the field. Communicating about our life on the field but also staying abreast of life back “home.” We were created to live in community, and as believers, called to the church’s spiritual community. It’s a non-negotiable for healthy spiritual life and indispensable for transitioning well.

Everything under heaven changes, but Christ, seated in heavenly places, cannot change. And we as children of God have the Spirit of Christ in us. Though this life is fluid, His Spirit remains constant and never waivers. His constancy will sustain us through transition because He will never leave us or forsake us. He finishes what He starts.

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6 ESV

                                                                                          ~Mark Langham

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