“One of my favorite moments in Star Trek is when Captain Kirk looks over the cosmos and says, ‘Somewhere out there, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in any language.’ Of course, your heart sinks and you think it’s going to be, ‘I love you’ or whatever. He says, ‘Please help me.’ What a philosophically fantastic idea, that need is a beautiful thing.” Hugh Laurie
Need? A beautiful thing? The statement doesn’t sit well with me—mostly because I’ve spent the better part of my lifetime trying to avoid the trait.
Anecdotal evidence suggests I’m not the only MK for whom the Gift of Need has become a defining fear. There’s no denying that TCKs are subjected to more loss by the age of 18 than most of our peers. I’ve written several articles documenting the impact of the resulting grief on our friendships and relational outlooks.
What I haven’t discussed, perhaps because it’s a deficiency of mine, is how repeated losses affect our ability to need. Not everyone responds this way, but for those of us who do, the consequences can be grim.
Here’s how it works:
The first few losses of our nomadic lives take us by surprise. Children are optimists by nature, and many of us assume, in our early grief, that the newest friend will stick around or that this time I won’t be the one to leave.
Then comes the next departure, the next wrenching tug at already frayed heart-strings. As time goes on, the farewell tears become more bitter—acidified by an inevitability we can’t seem to control.
Years pass. The more we lose, the broader the wound feels.
So we retreat into the fortresses we build. Strongholds intended to survive successive blows. Bastions designed to protect our fragility. Their walls are thick, their dungeons deep. So deep that Need can scream itself to hoarseness and not be sensed or heard.
We mask the moats and parapets with friendly smiles and skillful interactions, using adaptability to conquer social tests. We soften just enough to mimic a connection. But when the sun goes down, we flee back to our ramparts and watch, out of sight, as less stoic throngs encounter, explore, embrace. Depend.
We pay no attention to the keening of Need, lying listless in its cell. We’ve rid ourselves of its discomfort and its disappointment. We’re feeling strong—unbreakable. No more loves lost or relationships severed. None that matter, anyway.
We’ve sacrificed the Gift of Need to the comfort of isolation.
Don’t get me wrong—we’re fine with Need. As long as it’s someone else’s. We’ll fly in and rescue at a moment’s notice, telling ourselves, “This proves that I’m okay—I’m able to engage.”
We settle for relationships in which others need us, but we need no one. In which others confide in us, but we confess to no one. In which others trust us, but we depend on no one.
Because life—or God or circumstance—has stolen our willingness to love and lose again. Even in marriage, I’ve seen MKs shirk vulnerability to avoid the pain that shaped their reticence.
The occasional friendship may sneak past our defenses. Reluctantly, we murmur, “Maybe just this one,” and hope the loss, when it comes, won’t kill us. But mostly we hang back, observe and try not to feel lonely.
We’ve conquered vulnerability and won a septic solitude.
Yet love—true, meaningful love—requires the Gift of Need.
Relationship is a three-sided construct: one part common interests or focus, one part mutual enjoyment and one part reciprocal need. Without the latter, we create a flimsy bond of similarities and pleasure, but leave out the impulse that draws us back to each other and fuels our willingness to risk intimacy.
I’m not immune to the distortion.
Growing up in the goodbye-saturated world of ministry, I learned at a young age—when heartbreak drove me to a dangerous sadness—that I’d have to be more careful with my Need.
I became an adult who picked her friends carefully. As years stretched and they didn’t leave, I allowed myself just a little bit of Need. When they honored it and met it, I surrendered a bit more.
Then life broadsided me. My strongest, longest friendship was severed by her death. (The finality still stuns me.) The other, equally precious, succumbed a bit more slowly, strangled by changes, busyness and less “utility.” Another—one I’d assumed intrinsic in its bonds—threw my Need back at me.
I railed at myself for having been deceived and, longing for the fortress of my youth, began to re-erect it. It didn’t take as long this time. Its walls formed a familiar oubliette.
So when unbearable pain rushed me to the hospital in the middle of the night some months ago and I slumped in a wheelchair for three hours waiting for a doctor, I didn’t make a call. I sat and moaned and tried not to pass out and wondered if I was dying. But I didn’t make a call. I took toxic pride in proving to myself that I could live above my Need. In countless other less terrifying ways, I’ve failed to make the call.
I’ve built a shrine to independence on the quicksand of my Need.
Hoping to control it.
Hoping to quell it.
Hoping to eliminate it.
My case is not unique. The MK world is woven with survivors whose coping skills have led to a stunted form of Need, who manage to engage while preserving their isolation. It protects them from the losses that destabilized their youth. They think their self-denial will protect them from more pain.
Yet Need stirs intimacy. Need fosters commitment. Need untethers trust. It’s a facilitator, not a dictator. A connector, not an abuser. A uniter, not a depriver. A necessity for friendship and a terrifying leap.
If there’s one thing the MK community values above all else, it’s relationship. Deep connection. What insidious fears force us to tolerate its absence? What tyrannical scars demand that we must live without?
We’ve surrendered life’s greatest treasure in our attempts to vanquish the Gift of Need.
And many times, even as adults, we relinquish what we crave the most because the grieving child we used to be commands us not to risk.
The solution? Too complex for this post. But here’s a place to start—with self-talk that declares that we will live outside our walls. Words matter; they change hearts. These are both vow and prayer:
- I choose not to let childhood fears limit me.
- I embrace the Need for connection God placed in me.
- I believe he placed it there to bless me, not to harm me.
- I will be cautious and brave in pursuing meaningful friendship. (Refraining from typical MK-relationship models.)
- I will not let initial failures deter me.
- I know that I am strong enough to overcome potential heartache.
- The process may be scary, but I was created with the Gift of Need and I trust that the rewards of friendship will outweigh the risks.
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Excellent, thoughtful, and well-written. Hits close to home for me. Thank you for sharing this!
Wow! Much to think about!
Thank you. This puts into words some things I’ve been thinking about.
family members.. even children don’t get it..how could they.. I nver talk about it..I am secure in my box
Resonates with me.
I wonder if this phenomenon is different and how with the millenial MKs who have FB, Instagram, Skype, etc. I have boxes of aerogrammes. Goodbye was really goodbye. I wonder if current MKs have a new host of issues with what might almost be the burden to not let go of any locale. When we went to boarding, we weren’t allowed to visit home for the first 3 weeks. This made the transition easier as we weren’t trying to keep one foot planted at home. Wondering how that might translate to moving frequently but keeping a foot in the previous locales.
You hit the nail on the head! Well written!!
O thank you Michele. This is really scary and very true. I work hard at helping others, I don’t have needs that I will admit. I can get myself out of anything. I am responsible for all those who NEED me. As I think about this I realize the moment 43 years ago when I told God I didn’t need anyone but him. For years I have looked at that experience as a highlight in my spiritual life. It was but I interpreted it as I therefore don’t need people, even those of my family. Life has to change now but boy am I scared. Thank you.
Touches a real nerve with me. I have been conscious of the dynamic, but seeing it put into words brings home my current reality. As time goes on, even trying to maintain ‘old’ friendships over the miles is hard, as each contact brings back the initial feeling of loss (and this, after 24 years.). Avoidance, even of very good, ‘old’ friends, is often easier than being faced with the distance and inability to maintain the day-to-day ease of relationship there once was. The challenge… to maintain those friendships, and to work out with whom to start forging new, quality friendships… knowing that, as a now-missionary, there will be a time where goodbyes will need to be said…AGAIN!
Great depth of writing and sharing on your latest “The Gift of Need” – excellent & very thought provoking.
Hope you decide to write more about the complex solution to this issue. I am sharing this article for sure!
I’m an MK as well as a therapist. It’s a relief to read your well articulated posts. PLEASE Keep writing and sharing.
Thank you for your heart-reaching post about THE GIFT OF NEED. It captures the importance the child I was put on becoming self-sufficient FAST, and it still describes where I live… with the exception of my husband of 18 years (another M.K.). We have many friends and mentees, but only a few that are in reciprocal relationships with us, and living close enough to spend time with – or be able to be responsive to need. On the other hand, it is remarkable how many of our current friendships are vibrant after many decades (even since high school or college)… with other M.K.s, folks in ministry, or especially colleagues in human rights work (in other words, others who share much of our complex international “reality.”) My husband and I have both been pretty tenacious about not being willing to truly say “goodbye.”
Looking forward to reading – and internalizing – more of your blogs,
Thanks Michele Phoenix. A superb article which I believe speaks to many of us.
Thanks Michele, lots to chew on here, and yes, I have battled and do battle those tendencies with walls. I also watched myself, almost out of body, in this latest transition, do some of that ‘diving in deep’ and frightened some folks, I think. (One was a couple heading to East Africa to do missions work and I didn’t consider that we would have much more in common after they return.
Thanks for the article, it sums up much of my experience, and the journey I’m still on.
I teared up reading this. Thanks for writing, Michele. You are reaching and blessing more people than you’ll ever know!
I was a PK, some very similar traits, I also teared up. At 57, widowed, remarried, living in a country different from my country of birth, I’m just starting to realize I struggle with so many of these traits…
I remember that my very favorite song at age 12 was Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a rock”.
I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.
Lois E Groat
Heather (called Joy) Chenery
My friendships have been those with needs. I have often wished they would take the lead and call me sometimes. For the last 2 years especially l have not been contacting them much and haven’t heard much from them. I love those friends dearly but l don’t live close by anymore and have family responsibility which takes my time. A deep loneliness has been my companion and l have had the fear of rejection even though I to others may seem very outgoing involved etc.
I feel after all these years more comfortable with women in our church who also have been there along time.
It is a strange journey. ….life!