This post first appeared on Assist News Service in December 2015.
Have you ever had an Only-for-You-Jesus moment? It’s a moment when you’re facing an excruciating decision. You know what Jesus wants you to do, but you really don’t want to do it. In fact, if anyone else asked you to do it, you would say no. Flat-out, no hesitation. You wouldn’t do it for your husband, your children, your parents, or your best friend. But then you look at your beautiful Savior, and you find yourself saying softly and tearfully, “Yes—but only for You, Jesus.”
As melodramatic as it might sound, making the decision to move back to Kyiv was such a moment for me.
When I first moved to Ukraine almost thirteen years ago, I lived in Kyiv for four and a half years, and it was a difficult, painful time that left me with emotional hangups that I’m still working through.
While there were happy moments, my memories of those years are overwhelmingly dark. It was a time of frequent depression and neurosis. I lived in constant fear of stepping outside the door to our apartment. When I did leave home, I tried to maintain a low profile, keeping my head down, my eyes averted, and avoiding all speech unless absolutely necessary. I was afraid of many things. I was afraid of getting lost. I was afraid of falling prey to the pickpockets who patrolled the subways and busses. I was afraid of people discovering that I was a foreigner. I was afraid of being yelled at by strangers. I was even afraid of being spoken to. I was a mess.
My fears paralyzed me. Even though I wanted to explore the city to discover its secrets and make it feel like home, it was a project I talked about for years and never started. Even though I made it a point to learn how to drive a stick-shift before moving to Eastern Europe, I left the driving to my husband, preferring to use public transport rather than brave the perils of the road, which included erratic drivers, dangerously pushy big-shots behind the wheels of imported luxury vehicles, random stops by police, and the very real possibility of getting lost in the days before widespread GPS. In all the time we lived in Kyiv, I think I got in the driver’s seat of our car twice, and to this day, the terror I felt is fresh in my mind.
I blamed my problems on culture shock and the difficulty I had learning the language, and I assumed that with time, things would get better. But after four and a half years, when our work in Kyiv was done, I was still no better. At that point we moved to a much smaller city, and life changed dramatically for me. I relaxed, I smiled more, I stopped being so afraid, and I even started driving. I also gave birth to three more children, in addition to the baby we had when we moved away from Kyiv, and being a mother gave me a welcome change of perspective. But despite the positive changes, the old fears were always lurking just beneath the surface, ready to strike at the slightest sign of any threat that reminded me of Kyiv, hijacking the rational part of my mind and putting me immediately into fright and flight mode. (I’m not the fighting type.) And every time we returned to the capital for a visit, I found myself enveloped in the old fog of paranoia that had characterized life for me there.
Until last May.
We went to Kyiv for a conference and ended up staying a few days afterwards. As we took public transport, walked the streets of the city, ate in restaurants, and interacted with a variety of people, to my amazement, I felt no fear. I felt absolutely normal, like a capable and confident adult. It was the strangest experience. Gone was my paranoia of being recognized as a foreigner, and that was a good thing, because when you go places accompanied by four young children all shouting excitedly to each other in English, it’s impossible to blend in. Gone was my cringing fear of being yelled at or snubbed by strangers: what they did or thought just didn’t seem to matter to me anymore. I could hold my head high and look people in the eye with a calm, quiet confidence, without a trace of the suffocating inferiority that used to follow me everywhere in Kyiv.
I was pleased, although I was confused because I could find no explanation for the abrupt change. The mystery was removed several weeks later when unexpected circumstances resulted in us making a sudden decision to move back to the big city. It was clear that God had miraculously taken away my fears just in time to prepare me for the next step He had for us. While the decision to move was jarring and incredibly painful, God had already gone before us, and we had no doubts about what we needed to do.
It’s been about five months since we moved back to Kyiv, and I continue to be surprised by the changes in me. I don’t recognize myself. Thirteen years ago, if I had been able to look forward in time and watch myself today, it would have been an enormous encouragement, but I doubt it would have been as amazing as it has been to watch the transformation taking place in real time over the last few months.
For one thing, I have much greater confidence behind the wheel of a car. I’m starting to feel like the Ukrainian version of an American soccer mom, running my kids back and forth between kindergarten, school, and music school in our minivan. I am finally developing the just-make-it-work, think-outside-the-lanes mentality that is crucial for successful driving here in Ukraine. When I encounter a car parked in my lane or a manhole missing its cover or some other obstruction, it’s becoming second nature simply to drive on the opposite side of the road to get around it. When I’m going down an extremely narrow two-way street and encounter a car going in the opposite direction, instead of feeling trapped, I just pull two wheels of the car up onto the curb to let the other driver pass. (Did you know you can do that with virtually any car, provided the curb isn’t too high?) And when I need to find parking in an area where there are no parking lots, I’ve learned to park on the sidewalk, just like everyone else. However, I still have not attained the same level of confidence as my late father-in-law, a long-term missionary to Ukraine who once drove his compact sedan down a flight of stairs to get around a particularly bad Kyiv traffic jam! Maybe I’ll never be quite that bold, but I’m reveling in my new-found confidence and the freedom it gives me.
But perhaps the most profound change is how I respond when verbally assaulted. This used to be one of the most difficult aspects of Kyiv life for me. Now when someone is yelling at me, I feel a sense of quiet amusement and detachment. I’m able to explain myself calmly, without feeling threatened. The other person invariably calms down, and we’re able to have a rational conversation. Sometimes I even find that beneath that tough Kyiv exterior lies the heart of a kind, helpful person!
Now that I’ve had some time to reacquaint myself with Kyiv, I realize that most of my trouble in my early years here was not because of the differences between Ukrainian and American culture, as I thought at the time. It was because of the jarring disparity between the suburban life I had led in the United States and the bustle of the big city. Living in close quarters with millions of strangers does something to you. It makes you less personal, more guarded, and lightning-quick to jump to your own defense. Everyone seems to expect to be attacked, so the preemptive strike becomes your best self-defense mechanism. I think that’s why people yell so much. If you start yelling first, the other person has to go on the defensive, giving you the advantage. I’m pretty sure this style of relating is equally prevalent in New York City. It’s a big-city dynamic, not just a Kyiv thing.
This new-found understanding is helping me feel compassion for the people around me, even when they attack. If they are striking out in fear of being attacked, I can sympathize, because I spent far too many years feeling afraid myself. Now that my fears are behind me, I want to become a force of unexpected and provocative kindness. I will no longer simply be a mute victim; by God’s grace, I will demonstrate that a soft answer is more powerful than wrath, and love neutralizes anger. Jesus has called me to return to this urban jungle, and having followed His call, I don’t want to stop short of anything but full consecration to His will for me here.
Cover photo credit: Julien Brun, www.flickr.com/photos/julienbrun/8056135047/in/photolist-dgTNh8/, some rights reserved, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/legalcode
If you enjoyed this, please consider subscribing here.
I would be honored to have the privilege of encouraging you on a regular basis!