I watched her eyes redden, moisture collecting at their edges. “No one told me how lonely this would be,” she shrugged.
She’s a global worker, but despite her training and passion, hadn’t counted on the excitement of the Great Commission dissolving in potent alienation.
If you don’t treat loneliness overseas as an issue to be dealt with, it’s possible it might shorten your shelf life in your host nation.
Maybe this sounds ironic–but how deeply do you feel your need for other people? (Why?)
And how much do you believe your ministry needs others?
Ever feel it’s easier to be alone because relationships take so much work–or pain?
Jesus said others would know we’re Christians by how we love each other (John 13:35)–and as we look at the Trinity, presumably, this is not just a one-way love.
And that echoes Genesis 2, right? It’s not good for any of us to lack community (v. 18), even if we walk with God himself (3:8).
Then there’s this: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you'” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
Before you only believe loneliness overseas comes from lack of availability of people who understand, spend time asking God about other reasons you might be lonely.
What might he have you do to overcome what’s in front of you?
We’ve got a few ideas to help you deal.
12+ WAYS TO DEAL WITH LONELINESS OVERSEAS
Reject some key Western ways.
- Decide to walk wherever you can.
- Get comfortable with people knocking at your door without calling first. (Though feel free to take a Sabbath from this.)
- Depending on the culture of your area, consider greeting others at the grocery store or who serve you, say, as cashiers. Challenge yourself to get to know their names and bits of their stories.
- When you can, gain one degree of proximity: If you were going to text, call. If you were going to call, walk over.
- Host dinner “unplugged”, inviting guests to stay a bit longer, even if you’re only having a chopped salad or rice and beans, and even if the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned. Invite people of all social classes, treating them with easy dignity and respect.
- Buy local, even if it means paying a little more, or going to three shops, or having to wash your produce twice.
Westerners aren’t always great at building their community at large, but in a different way than long, thoughtful talks, having a place “where everybody knows your name” makes a place feel more like home.
With that in mind–
Many overseas cultures value the time to chat, even if the stories are meandering and you’re not sure if either of you got to know each other better. At all.
Part of stifling loneliness overseas may be communicating your availability, your willingness to stop and shoot the breeze, your desire to sit down and people-watch with a neighbor, even if you have some place to go.
See, people are unlikely to talk about what’s meaningful to them, including religion, if they don’t trust you. Trust, especially of foreigners, takes time.
And if your personal agenda or your penthouse apartment means a slower-paced culture never sees you?
Those conversations will get hard.
BANISH LONELINESS OVERSEAS BY ShowING trust.
I’ve known some global workers skeptical of nationals at every turn. And if you’re in a culture that frequently lies or cheats, I do get it. I’ve been swindled and conned, even mugged.
But let me ask you this.
If you were working for someone or hanging around someone who never believed the best about you, how would that affect your sense of self around that person? How would that affect your relationship?
Would you virtuously strive to become more trustworthy, or would you just slip on a better mask?
Part of generating that trust you seek also means offering trust.
No, I’m not saying be a doormat, or be unwise. Jesus commanded us to be wise as serpents, gentle as doves. Genuine relationships that could defeat loneliness overseas aren’t built on us rolling over for evil. Jesus didn’t allow others to take his life; he gave it up when it was time (John 10:18).
But overcoming evil with good? That’s biblical. Cheritable judgments, especially those duly-earned, go far in any culture.
And statistically, any of us is more likely to trust others when we are trusted.
When you find a person who gets it, ask, “Can we do this more often?”
- This might be a video call with your mentor from back home, or even a friend who’s never lived overseas, but is willing to keep up with how much you’re going through, how much you’re changing.
- Maybe it’s coffee at ten on Wednesdays. Maybe it’s trading video chats on Marco Polo (a free app).
- See if the two of you can take a road trip.
tell someone From your passport country your story. (even if you don’t think they’ll get it)
When I was involved in a fatal accident overseas, my fear, loss, and questions felt overwhelming.
We soon went on home assignment. And my husband advised me to trust one friend with the whole story of the accident: not just the facts, but the implications on me, the unresolved questions about God, the ugly-crying.
I still remember crying in a friend’s car in her driveway on a rainy day. But trusting her–a trust of which she proved so worthy!–may have helped us stay overseas.
We’re always relating stories others may not understand to varying degrees. Maybe single friends don’t understand marriage–but maybe married people don’t understand singleness. Maybe your spouse doesn’t understand what it’s like to be pregnant–but are you really not going to relate what’s going on inside your body?
No, don’t be willy-nilly about who you trust with what’s sacred to you.
But some friends would love to know about your world.
Find a cultural liaison.
Who’s that national who serves as a bridge between you and your host culture? Can you invite them over for dinner to appreciate them more often? Can you buy them coffee or invite them over for tea, to continue to generate closeness?
At three in the afternoon, neighborhood kids would start shimmying over our walls (built for “security” and obviously oh-so-effective) and knocking at the gate.
They knew that’s when my kids were done with homeschooling. And we had bikes and Nerf weapons and outside games in abundance for everyone to use.
Yes, this meant our bikes wore out a lot faster. Yes, this meant we paid to have our minivan touched up with paint before we sold it, to cover all the handlebar-level scratches.
But it also meant my kids felt at home, and that neighbors got the idea we weren’t just walled-in Westerners. I hope they got the idea we were available.
No, those kids didn’t meet my deep need to be understood. No, loneliness overseas didn’t suddenly evaporate.
But it meant where we lived felt like home, and people knew us. It meant they called our names in the supermarket.
And maybe, it was a step away from lonely.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, and speaker, as well as the editor for Go. Serve. Love. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Janel also frequently writes and speaks to missionary women through Thrive Ministry.
Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House) released October 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.
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