Today is the final post in the essay Our Tribal Elders by Paul Asbury Seaman. This final post is a bit long but I urge you to read all the way through, it is well worth the time. In total, the series is 24 pages long, not including Paul’s extensive end notes. Breaking it into a series of 6 posts has helped me, and readers, to digest his thoughts and reflections. Our Tribal Elders is a thoughtful combination of tribute, memoir, history, and hope.
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)
Legacy… The circle of life
Those we view as sacred elders—the giants in whatever field—become so not only for what they have done but what they inspire others to do. As with scientific discoveries, it is the interconnected nature and cumulative impact of their work that has made these people significant. Ruth Useem’s research led to David Pollock’s TCK Profile; his articles on that topic led Ruth Van Reken to write Letters Never Sent. The larger issues of loss, grief, and multiple transitions so poignantly illustrated by Van Reken’s book helped clarify to Norma McCaig the striking commonalities among the offspring of widely different sponsoring cultures. Ruth Useem allowed us to see for the first time what was distinct about our heritage; Norma McCaig enabled us to celebrate it. Dr. Useem gave us a name; Norma gave us an address. Just two months after Norma died, a global nomad took up residence in the White House. It’s too bad she didn’t get to see it.
Van Reken first met the other Ruth in Liberia in 1984. At that time Van Reken was a missionary and Useem was there doing research on TCKs. After the interview, Van Reken drove Dr. Useem back into town and, as she tells it, almost got her killed. Unbeknownst to her a new Israeli embassy had been built directly across from the guest house where Useem was staying. As they turned the corner onto that street, suddenly the car was swarmed by soldiers with guns drawn. (Ruth Van Reken is a tall woman with a forthright, almost nonchalant demeanor; Dr. Useem was slightly built and maybe even shorter than Norma McCaig. Picturing the two Ruths together brings to mind images of Laurel and Hardy.) The women’s actual destination was quickly clarified and they went on, but Useem always kidded the other Ruth about it.
Through subsequent conversations with Useem and others, Van Reken realized that all the research on TCKs was focused on teenagers and college students—in part because they were a readily identifiable cohort. In 1986 Van Reken conducted the first survey of adult TCKs. In turn, Useem, working with Ann Baker Cottrell, produced a more extensive and academically rigorous study of ATCKs. Their analysis confirmed Van Reken’s emphasis on the lifelong impact of a cross-cultural childhood and helped broaden the way David Pollock and other researchers looked at the issue. It is also part of why Norma McCaig wanted to use the more inclusive term, “global nomads.”
Like most revolutionaries, McCaig was more visionary than legislator; she could rally the troops, but when it came to building an institution, the devil was in the details. Norma herself contended that attempting to organize global nomads was like trying to herd cats. I believed strongly, in support of Norma’s efforts, that any lasting enterprise cannot be dependent on the founder’s charisma. It must develop some kind of structure to objectify the vision. As both a board member of GNI and the first president of Global Nomads Washington Area, I felt conflicted about the degree of central authority that should be relegated to the larger organization—for the sake of consistency and in support of the wider mission—given the more informal nature of local groups. Membership, finances (including member dues), and how much legal specificity to incorporate into by-laws, especially for an organization run entirely by volunteers—these issues were never satisfactorily resolved and by the mid-1990s a great deal of the early momentum had been lost.
However, it was around this same time that Ruth Van Reken and David Pollock began writing Third Culture Kids, the book that remains, according to many, the bible of TCK literature. Actually, Ruth had been after Dave for years to write “his” book—to get it out before so many of his ideas got borrowed and adapted by other authors that he’d have to end up quoting them. Pollock kept saying, “I just don’t have time, Ruth.” Finally she said, “Well, I’ll help you then.” That was in 1992. Van Reken spent the next seven years at a computer in her basement. Periodically she’d get on a plane, fly up to Houghton, New York, and physically map things out with Pollock, spreading notes and draft pages over the dining room table and the living room couch like some kind of Rube Goldberg diagram. “It got longer,” she explains, “because I figured I would just help him write up his TCK Profile, but David Hoopes, then editor-in-chief at Intercultural Press, took a look at my first attempt and said, ‘You can’t just describe it, you have to explain it.’ So that is really what took so long and where I think our partnership was so special. I love the why questions of life and David [Pollock] was always a great place to bounce ideas off of; but as a non-TCK himself he could observe the characteristics maybe each of us thought were either normal or what made us personally weird, but some of the reasons could only be understood from the inside out.”[i]
In 1998, not wanting her good missionary mind to idle, Ruth Van Reken sat around her kitchen table drinking coffee with three other women with international backgrounds—and founded Families in Global Transition. Van Reken realized that she was traveling all over the world while the same dynamics arising from globally mobile employment were happening right where she lived, in Indianapolis, Indiana. As its name implies, Families in Global Transition (FIGT), has given special attention to “trailing spouses.” You can’t just talk about the kids, Ruth’s friends told her. If you don’t talk about the moms, your kids won’t be happy, either. FIGT began as a one-day event aimed at addressing the issues of the international families, spouses, and corporate employers in her hometown—with David Pollock as the keynote speaker. Thanks to early sponsorship by the Eli Lilly Company and others, it quickly developed into an organization that was global in scope. After being hosted in Dallas and Houston, as well as Indianapolis, drawing speakers and attendees from over thirty countries, FIGT’s annual conference have lately been held mostly in the Washington, D.C. area. The FIGT website (www.figt.org) describes its signature event as “the only US-based conference where representatives of the corporate, diplomatic, academic, military and mission sectors come to share cross-cultural coping strategies. . . . FIGT has been referred to as the grassroots ‘think tank’ for families transitioning globally.” In 2002 the U.S. Air Force designated FIGT as its official conference of choice for all family support personnel. Parents attend the conference from many places in the world, to learn how to better parent their children in other cultures and to successfully adjust marriages in response to the special stresses brought on by transitions to an unfamiliar environment.
In many ways FIGT has successfully combined Norma McCaig’s vision of cross-sector dialogue (among the various sponsoring agencies) with David Pollock’s emphasis on proactive policies at every step before, during, and after a trans-national posting. Attendees have represented Prudential, Coca Cola, The World Bank, U.S. Department of State, various universities, international schools, oil companies, missionary agencies, and press organizations; they have included spouses, counselors, corporate coaches, entrepreneurs, health professionals, and global mobility managers. At its 10th Anniversary Conference in 2008 FIGT recognized three visionaries that had made formative contributions to the organization’s goals and concerns: Norma McCaig, David Pollock, and Ruth Van Reken. It was one of the last public events Norma attended, just months before her death. Accepting Pollock’s honor on his behalf, Dave’s widow, Betty Lou, was acknowledged in her own right as one of the many unsung heroes known as spouses.
In the largely-secular, and inherently international environment of TCK issues, people like David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken often left their religious beliefs understated. Yet clearly, Pollock and Van Reken’s vision and commitment were motivated and nourished by a living faith. Indeed, the missions community—the institutions and associations that employ, organize, and care for missionaries and Christian service workers around the world—has been at the forefront of developing TCK awareness and being proactive about systemic changes to support children raised in trans-cultural environments. Speaking of her late husband, Betty Lou Pollock likes to say, “David had the heart of a pastor, the mind of a theologian and philosopher, and the whole world became his parish.” This man who described himself as a “TCK-wanabee” did, in fact, profoundly model the ecumenical embrace of diversity that characterizes global nomads at their best.[ii]
If Van Reken’s early focus was on healing, Pollock’s was about prevention. He spent more time speaking to and working with sponsoring agencies than he did with adult TCKs themselves. His presentations always included a section about what parents and their employers could do to lessen the impact of transitions on their children, to help reduce some of the pain caused from lack of awareness or by misguided attitudes. The first version of Third Culture Kids was finally published in 1999. [iii] Until then most literature on TCKs and global nomads was either memoirs or academic work. Together with the revised editions, Third Culture Kids has become an international bestseller (at least among its target audience), translated into German, Korean, Japanese, and Norwegian.[iv]
For global nomads, our stories are the symbols of our culture. Our heroes are the researchers, organizers, true believers, and poets who describe us—but like the blind men describing an elephant, we each touch and “see” the part that most concerns us. The best cultural and religious symbols evoke both self-reflection and a sense of reverence; they tell us not only who we are but what we are capable of becoming. While “the movement” may still seem somewhat nebulous, the scholarship, social connections, and professional associations are certainly real. David Pollock’s organization, Interaction,[v] had a significant impact on changing attitudes of mission boards to make family mental health a larger priority, while also providing a variety of services in support of returning TCKs. The continuing research on the various permutations of global nomads owes much of its impetus to the original studies conducted by Dr. Ruth Hill Useem. Finally, many of us met each other at one of the conferences of Global Nomads International and would not have the treasure of those personal friendships and professional connections if not for the vision and incredible work of Norma McCaig.
These were not just good people at the right place at the right time; they were people who knew who they were, saw what needed to be done, and took the time to do it. In the archetypal sense, they were warriors. Yet the tapestry of inspiration is woven by the twine of ordinary life. In the midst of all their accomplishments, three of these heroes raised children and lived to enjoy several grandchildren (and two great-grandchildren, in Ruth Useem’s case). Two of the women endured repeated bouts with cancer. Nothing in the background of these four individuals—whether homemaker, feminist scholar, pastor, or hospitality coordinator—presumed the direction that their lives would take. Yet their unique combination of character, perspective, and emphasis has made the global nomad community what it is today.
All of the founders exhibited a humility that belied their stature. They had a clear sense of purpose but also simply a zest for life that was palpable to anyone in their presence. The discrete characteristics described in this essay overlap, of course, and apply to all of them. In Four Quartets T. S. Eliot uses the symbolic framework of the four elements (earth, air, water, fire) as aspects of spiritual purification. This book-length poem, written amidst the trauma of World War II, emphasizes the unity of past, present, and future as essential to wholeness. The oft-quoted lines from the final section take on new layers in a global nomad context and with the principles of the medicine wheel in mind:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
A healthy, balanced life is measured in the cumulative impact of our experiences, passions, and focus. The beauty of the medicine wheel is the way it represents the seasons of our lives but also the cycles of growth—a spiral moving us toward grace and contentment. The various gifts given to us by the founders offer us opportunities to integrate and expand upon our special legacy: with a stronger sense of identity, rooted in elder wisdom, connecting from the heart.
[i] Personal correspondence with the author.
[ii] Historically, Christianity has been slow to accept psychology as a legitimate tool rather than a competing ideology. It has also too often been insensitive or simplistic in its view of international issues. With so many failings and misdirected priorities over the centuries, many of the caricatures of religion are well-founded. It is only fair, however, to acknowledge when an institution takes steps to address its inadequacies. With the influence of feminism, and the Liberation Theologies coming out of Latin America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s mainstream churches have made significant changes in both attitude and policy. Even many traditionally conservative evangelical churches now reflect society’s greater embrace of the arts, social justice concerns, mental health, and other quality-of-life issues.
[iii] Pollock and Van Reken, The Third Culture Kid Experience (1999). Revised and republished as Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2001; rev. 2009).
[iv] As of summer 2010, Third Culture Kids has sold approximately 25,000 copies in its various editions.
[v] Interaction International, the organization founded by David Pollock (see www.interactionintl.org), should not be confused with InterAction, a coalition of international aid and disaster relief organizations. See also the growing number of global nomad websites, including www.tckid.com and www.tckworld.com.