1986. I walked onto the Wheaton College campus for the first time. Everything felt hugely new. New culture, new way of life, new value-system. New educational level, new teaching methods, new homework load. New roommate, new expectations…new everything.
I was not prepared for all the newness. I’d said goodbye to my other universe just a couple months before and, to be honest, I was still neck-deep in grief over having lost the comfort zone of my previous life. Friends who knew me. A geographical world that made sense to me. A deep-rooted belonging in people and places, customs, languages, savors and sounds.
But there I was on Wheaton’s campus. I hadn’t chosen the college with any degree of excitement or conviction. I knew about its reputation, its standing, its academic standards. I liked the old buildings. And that was about it. Yet it was supposed to become home to me, whether I wanted it to or not, because it was where I’d put down my well-traveled luggage and paid my fees.
In retrospect, I wish I’d invested a little more thought and energy into digging down into the social, cultural and spiritual “new soil” of a place I’d neither really sought nor embraced. Because I didn’t—because I had no desire to put even a small amount of effort into exploring Wheaton’s potential and my place in it—I lived as an island for the 3 ½ years it took me to graduate. I was like a plant suspended in midair while my roots shriveled and dried up. It was a slow death of my own choosing, a refusal to dig into the promise-saturated dirt of this potential-rich field. And as a result, I walked away a few years later with little more than a degree in hand.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the MK community in particular, we find our insertion into a new world hampered by real but often-ignored factors like fear, unwillingness or a misplaced sense of superiority. If those could be identified and defused early, the richness of digging into the present, however unfamiliar it may be, would be released.
So how can we healthily enter a new environment? How can MKs with a global mindset find the good, the worthy and the fulfilling in a smaller-world setting? Here are a few steps to consider:
1. Accept the change.
So often, we enter new territory with a grudging submission. We don’t really want to make the transition, but there are few other options open to us. So we foot-drag into the new normal of a not-entirely-wanted life—with resentment or rebellion or plain old bad attitudes weighing us down.
But wishing things were different is a fruitless state of mind. It only increases frustration—which in turn drives us from connection. Is there a process of grieving that needs to happen after leaving all that was familiar to enter this new life? Absolutely. And it will take months, sometimes years, for that grief to be processed and transformed. But we sometimes get so “stuck” in wishing we hadn’t had to transition at all that we live in frustration…and lose so much time and relationship because of it.
So yes, hang on to those “sacred objects” that remind you of your favorite people and places. Stay in touch with those who matter most through Facebook, Skype and email. But if your connection to the past prevents your investment in the present, you may want to rethink your choices. Make sure that the bulk of your time and effort are invested in intentionally digging into your new life.
Self-searching question: In what ways have you been resisting the change?
2. Believe there are good things ahead.
This is really an exercise in “mind over emotion.” It may feel like there’s nothing of substance to look forward to. It may seem like this new environment has nothing to offer you. But if you can talk yourself into expecting something positive, the entire attitude you bring to the first weeks of insertion will be proactive and positive rather than reluctant and negative. Not only will this change your outlook, it will change the way people perceive you. There are few attitudes we display that are as attractive as positivity!
Wake up each morning and set a small challenge for yourself. Make sure you pursue and conquer it. Then pat yourself on the back. It’s a good thing.
Seek places, people and activities that shift your attitude toward positives. Reading, biking, singing, working out, writing, art, photography, conversation. If it feeds your soul, be intentional about doing it. It will reboot your mindset and your energy level.
Focus on gratitude! In each phase of your day, consciously identify one thing you’re grateful for. When you’re getting ready in the morning. In classes. In the cafeteria. Walking into town. Doing homework. Hanging out with others. Look for something (anything!) you can be thankful for and make a mental note of it. Better yet, write it down. I can’t overstate the importance of this! Because once you prove to yourself that there is something good in every phase of your day, you will begin to live in gratitude. And that is the nature of “believing there are good things ahead.”
Self-searching questions: Make a list of 10 things you can be grateful for today. And they should range from trivial (food, flowers) to more important (kindness of others, God’s provision). Now, every day at a given time—and for the foreseeable future—add three more!
3. Identify areas where you may struggle and plan strategies.
Struggling is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s okay! There is no such thing as a pain-free, frustration-free transition into a new life. I’d encourage you to voice the difficulties you’re having to someone who will understand—not to those new people in your life who won’t have any context to relate to what you’re feeling. You might also want to be sure that the people you’re sharing with will be sympathetic AND positive. If you compare notes with a negative person, you’ll end up adding their dissatisfaction to your own and will find your mindset darkened by the interaction. Who do you know who has a positive perspective on life and will also be able to understand where you’re coming from? That’s the person to go to!
Because we’re all wired differently, our struggles in adapting to a new place will vary. Most commonly, they revolve around disconnection or disapproval of people for their behaviors, values, beliefs and/or lifestyles. (Or those of the culture as a whole.) It’s important to be conscious of the areas we find most difficult, whether they be the way people do relationships in this culture, the perceived hypocrisy, the different life choices or the idiosyncrasies.
And then what? First, search your heart to make sure you’re not judging from a posture of arrogance. “I’m so much more evolved than any of you.” Secondly, acknowledge that there are things about you that others might find offensive or strange too. Thirdly, put the behavior/belief/value you’re struggling with into correct context and perspective. Try to understand why this person or this culture behaves that way—without necessarily excusing it. Fourthly, decide to have a meaningful conversation about this in due time—when you’ve developed a close enough relationship that the conversation can be open-minded and productive. Fifthly (while you wait for that moment), focus on the positive, valid and praiseworthy aspects of that person or that culture, and celebrate that “good” more than you judge the “bad.”
Other areas of struggle during transition might be coping mechanisms (those behaviors that make you temporarily feel better but aren’t necessarily healthy), depression (see bottom of post for more on that) and a sense of alienation. It’s so helpful to identify what particular challenges you’re facing, then to figure out what might help. Asking an older and wiser person for input might be a good thing to do! And if you feel absolutely hopeless and unwilling to go on struggling, please seek help immediately. There’s no shame in admitting we’ve reached the end of our capacity to cope.
Self-searching questions: What areas are you struggling with today? And what can you do, what help can you seek, to reduce their impact on you?
4. Discard lies and prejudgments.
Oh, we don’t like being pre-judged—put in a box or stereotyped. But we’re often so quick to do that to others! Particularly for MKs moving from a global world to a mono-cultural world, there’s a tendency to generalize in an often insulting way. (See my previous article, “America the Stupid,” for more on this!)
Engaging in a form of judgment we despise in others makes us pretty hypocritical! And we often don’t even realize we’re doing it. My advice? Every time a negative generalization pops into your mind (or out of your mouth), confront it with truth. Any statement that starts with “all Americans are…” or “Nobody here is…” is likely to be false. It might feel true, but there are probably beautiful exceptions to the statement, and you won’t see them while your condemnation of an entire population is clouding your perspective. Discard generalizations! Don’t act or react out of disdain for others. It’s an arrogant stance, and arrogance is an alienating trait. For more on this, view this short video:
Self-searching questions: Have you already judged and condemned this culture? List some generalizations you know aren’t completely true. How will you stop perpetuating them?
5. Engage where you are.
This is the fun part! Find ways of putting yourself out there (whether it’s initially comfortable or not) and then “repeat as necessary.” Willingness and persistence are critical in this stage.
- Accept invitations to things you might not generally enjoy.
- Put off something you can do later if there’s a spontaneous chance to interact.
- Invite others to join you in your own activities.
- Go to larger gatherings and find someone to talk to—even if it’s initially awkward.
- Ask others about themselves—don’t sit back and wait for someone to show fascination with you!
- Fill in this blank with your own proactive idea: __________________
Don’t. Give. Up!! Keep at it. Even when you’re bored or frustrated. It will pay off!
And every time you make a small step forward? Yep—back to gratitude. Acknowledge the progress. Write it down. Thank God for the small victory. Then move onward with greater confidence.
Self-searching question: What can you do this week to put yourself out there?
If you’re an observant soul, you’ve already figured out that the acronym for the points above is “Abide.” It’s no fluke! Whatever the transitional challenges we face in life, there is only one person who is never changing, ever present and unceasingly loving. He is the lifeboat we can cling to regardless of the waves rocking our lives. Or the vine from which our feeble branches draw courage, resilience, and peace. Forget all I’ve written above. Really. Because this is the most vital piece of advice I can give you:
“Abide in [God] as [He] in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself.
It has to stay attached to the vine.”
Some final (wise!) thoughts from adult MKs looking back on their own lives of transition:
If you have any further ideas based on your own transition experience, I’d love to read them! Please use the comments space at the bottom of this post to share your wisdom. And as always, don’t forget to use the “like” button to show your support or share this article with those you know who could use the encouragement. Want to subscribe? Send an email with “Subscribe” in the subject line to email@example.com.
Feeling sad, despondent, hopeless? A few steps for you to consider —
- Recognize intense emotions for what they are.
- Sometimes one emotion masks another. ie. sadness can come out as anger. Anger can show up as depression. What is it you’re truly expressing?
- Don’t take it out on innocent bystanders: try not to hurt others with the overflow of your emotions.
- Make sure your self-talk is truthful.
- “Everybody hates me” and “I’ll never fit in” are generally exaggerations.
- Avoid making those statements and correct them when you think them too!
- Replace them with more realistic statements. “I’m having trouble now, but…” It feels like I’ll never feel more at home, but if I give it more time…”
- Communicate with someone who cares and hears you.
- Emotions that aren’t expressed fester and rot.
- Speaking them to someone relieves some of the intensity and allows for help.
- Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
- Read, Skype with someone, take pictures of new location, turn to art or sports.
- Monitor yourself: when a temporary escape becomes excessive, it can actually harm more than it helps. Don’t get lost in your coping mechanism, but stay engaged in “real life.“
- Be active.
- It resets the brain and releases endorphins.
- Force yourself to get up and move, even when you don’t feel like it. You’ll feel better for having done it.
- Continue to seek out others (new people in your life too).
- Be bold and brave about it.
- Don’t become a hermit—it’s a very hard habit to break once it’s engrained.
- Remember who you are.
- Just because you’re in a different place doesn’t mean you aren’t yourself anymore!
- People around you may not know who you are yet, but give them time.
- Tell God what you’re feeling…even if you don’t really believe He exists! Give Him a chance to prove Himself to you.
- Seek comfort from Him. (Look for comfort verses in the Bible)
- Tell Him what you’re grateful for too.
- Stay close to Him through every means necessary. He will see you through.
- Tell God what you’re feeling…even if you don’t really believe He exists! Give Him a chance to prove Himself to you.