Fathom Mag

Indebted to Sadness

How sadness is perfecting my missional mind

Published on:
June 14, 2017
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6 min.
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Two summers ago, I woke up sad. There were a lot of reasons behind this. My husband and I had left our mission organization in Minneapolis where we had served for three years and moved back to Portland, OR—and we had to find housing and new jobs and start the hard work of starting over (again). 

A few weeks prior to that, I had given birth to my second baby and almost died in the process due to postpartum preeclampsia.

We were struggling with so many kinds of transition—spiritual, financial, geographical, career—and I no doubt had a touch of postpartum depression. Plus, the the past decade living and working within refugee communities in the US left us with secondary trauma. 

Missional do-gooders don’t get panic attacks, right?

Simple things—like driving a car, for instance—had become harder and harder for me to do. I told myself I wasn’t completely incapacitated, but when we moved back to Portland and settled into a low-income apartment complex on the edge of the city—ready to try again at neighbor-love and community living—I found I simply couldn’t do it. 

I had known that I struggled with anxiety but downplayed my experiences and emotions. I had experienced panic attacks for the past several years, misdiagnosing them as allergic reactions—because missional do-gooders don’t get panic attacks, right?

I couldn’t make myself go outside my apartment and do what I always did—strike up conversations with my neighbors, start English classes, go to local churches and conscript volunteers to help me. I woke up sad, took care of my two young children, cried in the afternoons, and sunk deep inside my thoughts in the evenings.

The summer we moved back, I knew I was supposed to be excited at all the possibilities, at all the ways to put down roots and reach out to others, but prophetic imagination requires energy. And I didn’t have it.

Meeting the Other Woman

It was an unusually hot summer for Portland, and our tiny 800-square-foot apartment faced the eastern sun. We were hot, sweaty, and had no money. My husband took our one car to work, while I took my children on walks to the park and the 7-11 near our apartment complex. 

I wondered if there were people like me, people who were sad, and suffering, and lonely, in any of the apartments I walked by. I tried to pray for them. I tried to pray for myself as well. 

Nobody ever told me what to do if I suddenly ran out of good will and good cheer

The first few months we moved in I was incredibly anxious about everything—that my baby would get sick, that my daughter wasn’t transitioning well, that we would never be able to pay our bills, that I had let everyone down by leaving our organization and starting over somewhere else. 

I couldn’t sleep at night (which wasn’t helped by a baby who slept in our room) and I started to lose my appetite and focus. 

Where was the driven, intense, program-creator of the past? The woman who started homework clubs and art classes and community English centers? Where was the woman who would strap her child in an Ergo and teach literacy to classrooms of women from places like east Africa, Bhutan, Guatemala, and Burma? The woman who wrote freelance articles begging more Christians to get involved in the business of loving their neighbors on the margins of America, asking people to do the hard work of exploring what it might mean to choose to be downwardly mobile in a culture that reveres success? 

This woman had left me. She had slipped away while I was in the full-time process of trying to survive and create a new life from the ashes of the old.

The new, sad woman I became was useless in the utilitarian paradigm I had absorbed—where missional living meant being perfectly productive and full of good deeds to show off like shiny coins. Now I lived in a dingy apartment, barely able to feed and clothe my two small children, dependant on Tom Hanks movies, seeing a counselor, and desperately longing to return to be a person who could accomplish things.

Missional Christians love to talk about intentionality, about sharing the gospel in deed and in word, in going to the margins like Jesus did, and of doing life together in the kingdom. But nobody ever told me what to do if I suddenly ran out of good will and good cheer, if one morning I suddenly woke up and found myself with nothing left to give, that I myself might be the very one in need.

Sadness on Mission

The summer turned to fall, then to winter. I walked and walked and walked around our neighborhood. I memorized all the buildings, took notice of what services were provided and what wasn’t, how few parks and green spaces we had. I sat in a chair outside my apartment and waved small hellos to the people who strolled by. 

I started to recognize people, and they started to recognize me.

Sometimes, in the common courtyard, I would join a group of women as they sat together and laughed and joked. When I would go outside to take out the trash, a woman across the way would lean out of her second story window to wave hello to me—sometimes even inviting me up for a piece of fresh bread. 

Neighbors, most of them recently arrived refugees, started to pop by more. They loved to kiss my baby, to drop off some food for me, to invite me to their homes to watch some Afghani music videos. I tried to teach a few English classes in the lobby of the manager’s office, but it always devolved as the cries of the children clinging to our bodies got louder and louder. Nobody seemed to mind. They just wanted to hang out.

When I came to the place where I had nothing to give, I could finally start to confront the problematic nature of my savior complex.

Winter turned into spring, and soon enough we were celebrating one year of living at our apartment complex. I was sleeping a bit more—thanks to both medication prescribed by a counselor and also a baby that had grown up a bit. I also didn’t wake up quite so sad every morning. And almost every evening there was a knock on our sliding glass door—a child asking to play with my kids, a friend of mine just wanting to stop by and visit.

That spring, the consistent opening and closing of the glass door started to sound like accomplishment: I had pathways into the community. I had relationships with my neighbors. And all without the constant programs and sheer good will that I had oozed in my past community-building efforts.

Without my realizing it, I had been forced, by the very nature of my sadness, to disengage in traditional “strategies” of mission, which often can encourage hierarchy instead of mutuality, and can turn people into potential converts and nothing more. When I came to the place where I had nothing to give, I could finally start to confront the problematic nature of my savior complex. I could see how my self-worth was tied into me being the bearer of good news and good things into “distressed” communities.

My sadness was a teacher, pointing me to the real experts I needed to learn from, the ones I’d passed over for the books on missions I had studied in college.

It was sadness that kept me from rushing into relationships or programs that were disconnected from my neighborhood. Sadness that kept me close to my apartment, close to my children, close to my neighborhood. Sadness that slowed me down so I could finally, truly, listen to my neighbors—to see them not only as equals in the work of building both community and the kingdom of God, but to view them as my mentors.

Giving Up Programs to Gain Neighbors

People don’t like to be projects. Neighborhoods with a large population of people experiencing poverty are constantly bombarded by non-profits and churches who end up benefiting from the exploitation of the very people they say they’re there to help. And our tendency is to call people “ministry” instead of friends.

But people want true, reciprocal friendships, no matter what their income level or cultural background. They want to be recognized as being the experts of their own lives and communities, which they are. They want to be honored with time and attention; they want to be the stakeholders in shaping their lives and communities.

My sadness knocked the do-gooder wind out of my sails, which turned out to be one of the best things that has happened to me. I am learning to do the longer, harder work of mutuality rather than rushing in and starting something just because I can (or because outside forces dictate it). 

Things like advocating for our schools and parks and sidewalks have become important—going to city council meetings and standing up to developers was never covered in any of my undergrad or seminary classes, and yet here we are. My neighbors want their community to be better, and stronger. They want to be at the forefront of the mission of God, even though they might not use that exact same language.

It’s my sadness I’m indebted to. Because of it, I am just a neighbor along for the journey. Nothing more and nothing less.

D. L. Mayfield
D. L. Mayfield likes to write about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics. Her book of essays, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith, was recently released by HarperOne. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two small children. You can find her writing on her website and on Twitter.

Cover image by Gabriel Santiago.

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