New Normal, New Expectations

“My capacity is low. I’m tired a lot. I seem to have nothing to do, but then I never seem to have time to do all that comes up. EVERYTHING takes more time than I’m used to. Normal life activities (shopping, cooking, talking, thinking) take more energy than usual. Although I know I am where I need to be, I sometimes feel guilty for ‘not doing more’ in any given day or week.” [journal entry]

Do you relate to any of these feelings? I often felt this way under the stay-at-home mandate resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. I feel it even more whenever I think about the current racial tensions. Only these words were not written because of an international pandemic or domestic crisis. This is a journal entry from my first six months living in another country and adjusting to another culture.

The situation we are living through today feels similar to me to the first six months of living overseas. And one of the first lessons I learned there is that in a new culture, I need to lower my expectations.

I am a task-oriented person. I like to get stuff done. I make lists for fun, and my to-do list is my favorite list of all. So you can imagine my frustration when I moved to another country and my ability to accomplish ANYTHING on my to-do list shrunk to almost nothing.

Before I moved, I generally had ten things on my list for the day, and I could usually get them all done, maybe more. In my new country, I would make my list as usual, but I rarely got everything done – in fact, I rarely got even close to everything done. I felt SO unproductive, and yet I didn’t have time or energy to do anything more.

To survive, I had to redefine what it meant for me to have a “successful” day. I told myself that if I did ONE thing in the morning, ONE thing in the afternoon, and ONE thing in the evening – that was a GOOD day! The ONE thing could be something as simple as having a quiet time in the morning, talking to someone in the afternoon, and making dinner in the evening. As ridiculous as it might sound, those three things were exhausting.

The quiet time in the morning would often be dealing with my own guilt over feeling unproductive: Where does that come from? Why do I feel this way? Is there sin in my life? What am I supposed to be doing? Can I trust God to do what HE has promised and not worry about the rest? Wow, good stuff, but it was emotionally exhausting.

Talking with one person in the afternoon, if that happened outside my house, meant I had to GET there. That meant knowing what bus to take and getting off at the right place (which I often didn’t) or psyching myself up to get a taxi (which of course meant I had to use my limited language). Meeting ONE person might sound as simple as picking a place, having coffee, and talking. But in a new culture, there are all kinds of unexpected “detours” that can make a “simple” task a monumental and exhausting endeavor. Going to work, buying groceries, getting a little exercise –  these are just some of the “simple” things COVID-19 has unexpectedly made exhausting.

The lessons I learned then, I am applying now. If I’m feeling overly lazy, unmotivated, lacking in discipline, or in an “escape mode” and I can’t get out of it, I try to remember that these feelings usually pass with time (and if they don’t, it is probably time to get some serious help). I give myself a “grace period” and set a more attainable goal and a deadline to begin afresh. This gives me a chance to just let my emotions ride themselves out. (And if they don’t, I call someone.) Usually, by the time my deadline rolls around, I’m ready for it because I’ve given myself time to rest as well as set better expectations about what it means to be back in the game.

A verse I learned to pray for myself – even before I moved overseas – is from John 17:4. In speaking to His Father, Jesus says, “I have glorified you on earth, I have finished the work you gave me to do.” Jesus didn’t do everything that could have been done – there were still sick who needed healing, lost who needed to hear the gospel, and disciples who needed more training. But He was faithful to finish everything that God had given Him. My frequent prayer for myself is, “Lord, help me do all that You have given me to do today and nothing that You haven’t.”

Whatever your circumstances in this new normal, if you are like me, you may need to learn to be faithful rather than busy, adjust your expectations and give yourself grace.

On Your Own

On your own or with a friend, think about…

  • What kind of expectations do you have for yourself? Are they realistic? Do they need adjusting? Ask someone who knows you well what their observations are of you in this new season of adjusting.
  • What is a realistic daily “to-do” list for you? Should it become, instead, a weekly to-do list? How can you be faithful to do what God is asking of you rather than just filling your time with things that make you feel “productive”?
  • What is a verse that you can pray for yourself as you learn to lower your expectations of how much you can do in today’s new circumstances?

Love, War and a Comfy Green Couch

My first major purchase in Central Asia was a custom-made, green, suede-like sectional couch. It was beautiful, comfy…and expensive. I wrestled for months trying to decide if it was really worth the cost. I wanted my home to be inviting – a safe place. But was it really worth it? Shouldn’t I just make do with something less expensive?

“Wartime lifestyle” – a term coined by Ralph Winters, former Director of the US Center for World Missions – is a revolutionary perspective that has given me a grid for re-thinking how I spend money. It’s about more than not spending money. It’s about evaluating every purchase and decision through the matrix of “what will it take to win the war?” It is a perspective that asks us to evaluate what are the things that I can sacrifice that will help move the war effort forward and, perhaps more importantly, what are the things I need to “splurge” on to accomplish the same goal.

Consider a lesson from World War II. The US government implemented ration stamps for basic items such as gas, meat and sugar. However, by 1945, 89% of all federal spending was directed toward defense spending. While the American people sacrificed everyday necessities, the federal government spent generously. Both were choices committed to the same goal – whatever it took to win the war!

I ended up buying my comfy couch, which eventually took on a personality of its own. That beautiful, comfy and expensive couch was the site of many significant conversations about the Kingdom of God. It moved with me four times and came to represent “Tammy’s house” – a place of safety and refuge where students and co-laborers could relax and feel at home. Eventually, “Green Couch” (the name it acquired along the way) moved into the home of one of my friends, where it continues to be used to advance the Kingdom. It had become so much a part of our friends and family that when these friends moved to a new house, their teenage son made one request – Green Couch had to move with them!

The financial cost of that couch was nothing compared with its eternal value. When we think about our standard of living, the question to ask is not what’s cheapest vs. what’s most expensive, nor is it about what other people do or don’t have. The key is to ask the Lord, “Will this advance the ‘war of love’ effort?” (Note: this article was adopted from Squeezed and Shaken: Thought-Provoking Meditations on Living Cross-Culturally