Tag Archives: fear

Leaving the field

Is this how it feels to know you’re soon to be leaving a country you’ve learned to call home, soon to be leaving what was always to be a temporary moment of cultural immersion and learning, but also people who have become your friends, your kin, your world, all the same?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I don’t think we anthropologists do a great job talking about the process of fieldwork with all its insecurities, guilt, anxiety, joy, pain, and meaning.  Sometimes we prefer to speak in theories and codes, leaving all that humanity–ironically the object of our study–in relative obscurity.

A temple in Kunming, China.

But I’ve discovered that I’m not very good at that.

And I’ve discovered that while I’ve enjoyed the feeling of being transported to somewhere else visiting friends and hosting family here in China, I’m feeling overwhelmed about the last month of research in China, about being sucked back into my life here, and wondering how and where the research ever ends.

You can leave, but you never stop feeling, you never stop caring.  

I’m a ball of mixed emotions these days, wondering whether the comfort I’ve felt at times that the sacrifice and devotion of these lowly foster mothers will be honored in another lifetime is merely an attempt to assuage my own guilt at leaving them and their children behind.

The faces of the gods at a temple in Kunming.

I’m feeling so racked with shame about the lovely invitations my family make to my friends here in China to come to the US, because I know they’ll never be able to afford the trip, let alone get the visa to do so.  Or I just worry about the myriad of children here who grow up without parents, for whom it may get worse before it gets better.

I know I’m not to worry.

I know it’s not in my power or my purpose to change things, and yet the very concept of fieldwork, becoming a confidant, a compatriot, a companion, just feels trite when one gets to the leaving part.  

And so I stumble on, forced to embrace the fact that life is unfair, imperfect, unjust, and I’m actually quite small in the grand scheme of things.

And then again, things wouldn’t hurt like this if I hadn’t been changed by the people around me, made to feel and understand things in a whole different light.  And that’s no small thing, I suppose.  And the journey wasn’t without its moments of doubt, fear, and pain, either.  When I think how far I’ve come, I can’t help but be thankful, but that doesn’t make leaving any less discombobulating.

All photos by Evan Schneider.



A concept that came up in the passage I posted the other day, Philippians 2, is that of being emptied, as Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”  This is a concept that many who practice contemplative prayer identify with, and many cite the way Jesus himself needed to be emptied in the wilderness before he was ready to serve.

I’ve always struggled a bit with this idea of being empty, given that we are also made in the image of God, and therefore, what do we really need to be emptied of in order to know God more fully?

Richard Rohr, in his book Simplicity says that we need to empty our thoughts, feelings, and self-image to discover who we are to be in Christ, in order that we might be “tethered to the center,” and live fully.  Rohr encourages us to “imagine a river or a stream.  You’re sitting on the bank of this river, where boats and ships are sailing past.  While the stream flows past your inner eye, I ask you to name each one of these vessels.  For example, one of the boats could be called ‘my anxiety about tomorrow.’  Or along comes the ship ‘objections to my husband,’ or the boat, ‘Oh, I don’t do that well.’  Every judgment that you pass is one of those boats.  Take the time to give each one of them a name, and then let it move on.”

Rohr continues,

For some people this is a very difficult exercise, because we’re used to jumping aboard the boats immediately.  As soon as we own a boat, and identify with it, it picks up energy.  But what we have to practice is un-posessing, letting go…Some of the boats that are accustomed to our jumping aboard them immediately think we just didn’t see them the first time.  That’s why they head back upstream and return…

Some of you will feel the need to torpedo your boats.  But don’t attack them: this is also an exercise in nonviolence.  You aren’t allowed to hate your soul.  The point is to recognize things and to say, ‘That’s not necessary; I don’t need that.’  But do it very amiably.  If we learn to handle our own souls tenderly and lovingly, then we’ll be able to carry this same loving wisdom into the world outside.

I tried sitting beside the stream last night and watching the boats go by.  It was amazing how the boats blipped onto my radar registering my inadequacies, self-doubt, and fears, and it was also freeing to watch them sail by, to release them, and in so doing, release myself from their pull.

Rohr says this is the practice of cultivating both a deep commitment to the world and to self-compassion and peace that passes all understanding.  As Rohr puts it, “You don’t need to win anymore; you just need to do what you need to do, as simplistic and naive as that might sound.  That’s why Augustine could make such an outrageous statement as ‘love God and do what you want!'”

I think about how many times I question who I am in Christ rather than boldly living in the reality of God’s awesome grace, simply, purely, and intentionally.  I think this is the power of contemplation, of going boating, in that it draws us toward that emptiness so we can experience the fullness, go out and love God and serve however we feel called.