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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Psychological and Spiritual Depression

The most serious consequences of stress are often depression and a sense of failure. Caught unaware, we are unable to cope with the problems of living in a new culture. We are overwhelmed by constantly having to face confusing situations and the strain of learning a new way of life. There is little time for leisure-after all, is it proper for missionaries to relax when there is so much to do? Our support systems are gone. We are part of a missionary community made up of strong-willed strangers to whom we do not dare admit weakness, and there may be no one to pastor us when we fail.

There also hangs over us the sword of unrealistic expectations. The public's image of a missionary is a hardy pioneer who suffers great deprivations; a saint who never sins; an outstanding preacher, doctor, or personal worker who overcomes all obstacles-in short, a person who is creative, brave, sensitive, and always triumphant. When we are young, we almost believe that we can become such persons when we cross the ocean.

It is not surprising, then, that we face depression, often severe, when we discover that we are still very human. Going abroad has neither changed our weak and sinful natures nor given us new talents. Levi Keidel (1971:67) echoes the experience of many missionaries when he writes:

I began to stand my various manifestations of un-christ-likeness up on a row to take a good look at them: bad temper, chafing against unavoidable circumstances, enslaving myself to legalistic motivation, ill will towards those who impeded my program.

To these, I added recurrent terminal exhaustion... I remember the counsel of my pastor when we first left for Congo: "Now Levi, you don't have to accomplish everything during your first term." Before I completed two years on the field I was taken to a hospital... I was a bowl dipped empty and scraped raw by the ravenous appetite of demand.

Unfortunately, if we think we are failing, we work harder to maintain our self-esteem. But this only multiplies our problems, for the fear of failure itself saps our energies. Defeated, we conclude that we are faulty and not acceptable for God's service.

Sometimes we put on masks to disguise our weaknesses. For a time we can deceive others, even ourselves, but in the long run, we know these are worthless self-images. Dwight Carlson (1974:65) writes:

Like other unresolved conflicts, the mask requires a lot of energy and leads to a host of problems besides fear, such as irritability, worry, anxiety, fatigue, excusing ourselves, blaming others, and, not infrequently, frank lying and deceit...

When we refuse to remove our masks, we not only create internal conflict and fatigue, but we also hinder our own growth and the growth of others. Individuals grow by relating to other genuine people and seeing how they deal with life's problems. Christian leaders must be willing to first remove their own masks before they can ever expect others to do likewise. Only as we Christians are willing to expose our feet of clay will others feel (and maybe only then) safe to expose themselves and their needs. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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