Today I offer you Part 2 of the paper by Paul Asbury Seaman, Our Tribal Elders. This part, about the heart of Ruth Van Reken made me cry and I’m not a Third Culture Kid, though I am raising three of them. So many beautiful things here today.

Last week in the Introduction, Paul wrote that:

In a very primal sense we are formed by the landscape of our upbringing—by specific events and social factors as well as the physical place. But our identity is equally influenced by how we interpret this heritage. The basic human question Who am I? is not just about self-discovery but finding our place in the world…

…Placing each of our tribal elders—Van Reken, Useem, Pollock, and McCaig—in one of the Four Directions of the medicine wheel will highlight their distinct contribution and also illustrate four different “windows through which to view the global nomad enigma. These are heart, identity, wisdom, and integration.

(Read all of Part 1 here) And today he will begin diving into the lives of the four people who left massive impacts on the conversation about growing up as a Third Culture Kid by looking at how Ruth Van Reken embodies ‘heart.’

Paul attended Murree Christian School in Pakistan. He currently lives in the Bay Area, California with his wife Catherine. He has published several articles about the impact of growing up overseas as well as a memoir, Paper Airplanes in the Himalayas: The Unfinished Path Home (West and the Wider World)

Website: Paul Asbury Seaman and you can contact him at


Heart… Ruth Van Reken (b. 1945) Our deepest, most satisfying connection to others—as well as to places, things, even ideas—comes from the heart. This is where we hold our most cherished beliefs and sense of self, and it is the heart that tells us we are home when we find what we have been yearning for. The first quadrant of the medicine wheel is the East, the direction of the rising sun, of new beginnings, and family. This is where we experience our emotions and our most vulnerable moments. It is here, in the heart, that we feel the ache of displacement and it is through the heart that we redeem our sense of belonging.

Ruth Van Reken’s credentials as a spokesperson for TCKs are partly genetic. She comes second in four consecutive generations of third culture kids. At one point when she was a little girl, her family (including her parents and older sister) consisted of four people born on four different continents. In her adult life, her husband’s career as a doctor included time in the Navy and several years with an interdenominational mission board; in Liberia he was assigned to the main government hospital, sponsored by USAID; in Kenya he worked as a professor for the medical school of Moi University in Eldoret. This gave Ruth experience in four of the major categories of sponsoring agencies from which TCKs come: military, religious missions, government, and education (the others being corporate and nonprofit).

Her grandfather was a missionary doctor who set up a Presbyterian hospital in Resht, Iran—then known as Persia. Her father was born there, became a missionary himself, and took the family to Africa for the first time in 1944. (The ship on which they crossed the Atlantic was sunk by German planes on its return voyage to New York.) Ruth was born in Kano, Nigeria and, not counting two home-leave “furloughs,” lived there until she was thirteen. Four more of her siblings were born in Nigeria where her parents worked for a total of thirty-four years. During high school Ruth lived with her grandmother and aunt in Chicago. She did not see her parents once in four years.

Later, she married David Van Reken, soon to become a doctor and a man who shared her calling to mission work. David served two years at the U.S. Navy hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, and in 1976 Ruth returned to Africa, this time as a wife and mother.[i] Working through SIM (Society for International Ministries; formerly Sudan Interior Mission), they spent nine years in Liberia, where the first of three daughters was born. The global itch was passed down again, and Ruth’s first grandchild was born in Ghana.

One day when Ruth was growing up, her father told her he felt like he didn’t quite fit anywhere, and she was shocked. This from a man who had regaled Ruth and her siblings with stories of his childhood in Persia, a man who was a well-regarded leader in their mission community, the one people came to whenever there was strife between missionaries and the Nigerian church leaders. (Both sides trusted him, but in the end both sides got mad at him for not taking their side. Being a cultural bridge can be a lonely task.) But her father also used to tell Ruth: “Wherever you go, unpack your bags and plant your trees. Too many people keep waiting to move and they never really live. If you have to move, then at least you will have lived life fully while you are here. If you don’t get to eat off your trees, someone else will.”

Van Reken’s first book, Letters Never Sent, a global nomad’s journey from hurt to healing grew out of Ruth’s struggle with inexplicably persistent depression as a happily married adult. It is presented as a series of letters she might have written to her parents—if she had been able to name her feelings—beginning with her first night at a missionary boarding school in Nigeria and concluding the day her own daughter leaves Africa to begin high school in the United States. The result, published in 1988, is a sort of memoir that carefully reconstructs the little girl’s pain and how that unresolved grief impacts her as she moves into adulthood. With the special power of personal narratives, Ruth’s book has helped thousands of people get in touch with grief. Psychology tells us that we cannot truly feel joy until we are willing to feel all our emotions, including anger, sadness, and fear.

Not everyone will relate to Ruth’s boarding school experience, or to the overtly Christian perspective of her upbringing (and that of the adult author). But the themes of loss and grief, of unintended consequences, and how children can so easily misunderstand the most well-intentioned actions of their parents—these are universal. Although barely 160 pages, it took me a year to finish Letters Never Sent. I cried on almost every page. The book is powerful because of Ruth’s courageous presentation of her feelings, without judgment or analysis, simply describing the sense of abandonment, the compulsive insecurities, and the irrational fear of losing those close to her that continued to plague her well into adulthood. As a result of naming the things she previously felt she was not allowed to even feel, let alone say, Ruth was able to let them go.

Her modest little book is now something of a classic of global nomad literature, far beyond how she originally conceived it.[ii] It would be hard to find someone more empathetic, who is a more fully-present listener, than Ruth Van Reken. And that is her continuing gift. Such compassion—the ability to authentically connect with another person’s pain—would not be possible if she had not acknowledged her own. Ruth’s “letters” were a deliberate part of her faith journey, not just a therapeutic exercise; and her struggle with darkness enabled her to see the commonalities beyond our disparate backgrounds and personalities—starting with the lonely child in each of us, longing for connection, to be loved, to know that we belong.[iii]

Intimacy is the greatest expression of feeling at home. Learning to embrace the whole of our past (whether or not we ever get it all untangled) is part of our wholeness as human beings—and as a culture. It has been said that intimacy means “in to me see.” We cannot be closer to someone else than we are to ourselves. The awareness and trust that creates such closeness must include owning all our feelings—the accumulation of buried emotions as well as what we feel at any given moment. Letters Never Sent is about reconciliation—with our past, with others, and with the conflicts within ourselves. Sometimes we have to forgive life itself for not being all we thought it should have been. More than something we do, forgiveness is a state of grace beyond blame.

Recently, Ruth told me about flying across the mountains of Afghanistan a few months earlier, in a small single-engine airplane like the ones in which she used to travel across Africa as a child; and how the plane banked to dodge the masses of low-level clouds. Later, sitting in a cold guest house after leading yet another workshop on third culture kids and their families—in forty countries, so far—she realized, This is what I was born to do. Everything in her life, all the pain and displacement, joys and connections, had prepared her for the satisfaction of her life now and the effectiveness of her calling. The awareness of such complete integration is a moment most of us can only hope to achieve. In many ways, Ruth has become one of the fruit trees her father counseled her to plant.


[i] Ruth Van Reken had a B.A. in Nursing, as well as being an R.N. But with the trend toward nationalizing mission hospitals and education institutions, her services were declined. Instead (along with raising four children), Ruth started a Bible study group for interracial couples. In a serendipitous foreshadowing of her later work with TCKs and CCKs (cross-cultural kids), it was here that she was first exposed to cross-sector commonalities and saw the many hidden aspects of cross-cultural relationships.

[ii] Including the first, self-published version, more accurately titled Letters I Never Wrote (1987), Van Reken estimates that as of 2010 Letters Never Sent has sold about 35,000 copies—“not really that significant by publishing standards,” she adds quickly, in her usual self-effacing way.

[iii] In summarizing survey responses from adult TCKs, Van Reken lists nine challenges they experience as a result of their cross-cultural background. Six of them—fully two-thirds—relate in some way to the question, “Where do I belong?” (accessed June 30, 2010).

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