Friday, April 15, 2011

A Fish Out of Water

I recently spoke to a woman at church who mentioned that during her mission trip she became frustrated because she did not speak the language or enjoy the food in the country she was serving. She said no matter how hard she tried, she just could not connect with the people there. A co-worker told me how her son who is living in a foreign country (Russia, I think) stated he was tired of trying to communicate with his host family who spoke no English. She said he felt it was particularly unbearable when he became sick. He just wanted something familiar and comforting around him which they couldn't provide. As I reflected on these experiences, I realized you don't always have to visit a foreign country to be a fish out of water (FOOW).

Scientific studies have been conducted on what happens to a fish when it is out of water for too long. The main effect being the gills dry up and the fish dies of suffocation. It is a slow death that's difficult to watch.

In some ways, I think I have become a FOOW. Don't worry, keep reading, this is not a pity party or judgement of the deep south--just an honest observation of an experience at this point in time. I am a positive person who wants to positively influence and relate to others. I share these observations because I want to grow and help others who might be experiencing the FOOW syndrome. What amazes me most, is the impact being a FOOW has on the FOOW's personality and joy. I call it the "FOOW Syndrome," where several things can happen:

1) You are unable to have meaningful, genuine conversations. Every conversation is guarded or defensive causing only surface interactions.

2) You don't have anyone to offer healthy challenge to you professionally, personally or spiritually, so you become out of touch because of #1.

3) You become acutely aware of nonverbal behaviors (i.e. people tense up, make strange facial expressions or stop talking when you walk into the room).

4) You become systematically excluded from professional and social events causing you to become lonely and even a bit angry---feeding further negative opinions of your attitude and behavior.

5) You exhibit the physical symptoms of stress such as weight gain, headaches, fatigue, and other illnesses.

6) Finally, and most unfortunate, you become irritable in response to being alienated, isolated and lonely. Sadly, this provides more ammunition to further exclude you. Your gills begin to dry up as you flop around all of this and the slow suffocation begins.

Today an EF3 tornado almost leveled the city where I live. My husband was out of town. After making it home safely, I realized that locally I had no one to call and no one called to check on me.*** I am a firm believer in "to gain a friend, you must be friend." As the storm was moving in, I called someone to see if they were okay and the conversation was awkward. I'm not sure the person even understood I was just concerned about them. Once again, guarded and weird conversations. I have even tried to stop wearing business suits to work thinking my attire might be causing the distance. I only wear suits because I own more of those than anything, due to my previous career. Reality and maturity remind me that not everyone connects or likes each other but this is the first time in my life I do not have genuine, deep, caring relationships in the place where I live and work. And that's unhealthy for someone who seeks a fit body, career and spirit. So I am praying about how to better connect and understand what God is doing in this situation.

I have asked myself intellectual and spiritual questions about being a FOOW. Is the lack of connection because the pull of sameness is just easier for most people? Is it because friends and family would judge us if we had a friend from a different background in our homes, churches or social circles? Perhaps it's because if a person does not fit the typical behaviors, speech patterns or social interests expected of a particular gender or race, then people don't want or know how to relate to you. Perhaps high standards of excellence and a strong work ethic cause people to become unnecessarily nervous and insecure. As I look to God for answers, I simply wonder what is the greater purpose of all of this? I am not angry or blaming anyone, I'm just hoping to figure out ways to swim back into freshwater and return to joy.

The good news is I still have healthy, strong, joyful relationships all over the country. These people lift me personally, professionally and spiritually. I can get to any of them via a plane ride, Twitter or Skype but they are not here daily to spontaneously encourage, embrace and show me love in person. That causes me to feel a slow suffocation most days. I long for the authentic support systems, belly laughs, intellectual debates and the caring conversations I have known in other places. I miss having someone ask me about me about my family, my day, care enough to celebrate a success or pat me on the back when things get rough. It reminds me of a great proverb that states, "Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget."

In a freshwater aquarium there are thousands of different species of fish available to the aquarist. The various types of fish found in the hobby today come from all over the world. These fish all have their own preferences for environment and social behaviour yet they share the water and learn to swim in the same direction. They all have similar basic needs: a comfortable water temperature, nourishment, kindness and to swim peacefully within the tank that they are forced to share. Sometimes we think only fish who are alike should be with each other. That's not always true. When a new fish is introduced into the tank, it requires the other fish to accept the new fish and avoid judging it based on the external appearance or what others have said about it.

As a species who often flops around outside of the aquarium at work, there are subtle ways other fish guard themselves. It causes the FOOW syndrome to manifest in me. So I focus inward and ask myself: Should I leave behind who I am and try to fit what makes others comfortable? Do I try to laugh along when a joke or comment reinforces a negative portrayal of another? Do I sacrifice my strong work ethic so others don't think I'm so intense or feel the need to be guarded or secretive?

After publishing these thoughts, I fully realize this may cause even further alienation, judgement, defensiveness or criticism. The unfortunate part is that I will most likely never have honest or intellectual discussions about it. Mainly because it is such hard work for us to invest in growing and building relationships. Alas, I am compelled to write about that which I know impacts my mind, body, career, and spirit. Simply put, I long to get back in an aquarium where we can all breathe and swim freely. I don't care if they are goldfish, bluefish or catfish. I just need kindfish, honestfish and determinedfish. Misery does not love company--joy loves company. I'm not miserable, I just want air, water and yes, joy in growing and building a life and leaving a legacy.

After reading this, would you comment or check a box below? If you comment, try to keep it constructive even if you disagree with me. Bring life giving water into this aquarium! I welcome your thoughts, observations and prayers to return to the freshwater aquarium of clarity, openess, friendship, peace and joy. I can breathe there. What about you?

Have you ever felt like a FOOW? When? Where? What did you do?

***On the day of the tornado, Bruce A. called and sent me a text, he just wanted to know if I was okay or needed help with anything, it brought me to tears.