Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Emotions and Duty

How do you keep your emotions under control when you face tragic situations daily? Of course every job holds its own emotional challenges, but some are more obvious than others.

I work with kids who are social orphans. 90% of them have a living parent, but they do not live with them for some reason. I also work with some kids who live with their parents but have behavioral or developmental problems. I see evidence of these issues everyday. I also live in Russia, where suffering is a common theme. Even if a person’s pain is exaggerated, he or she may be held slave to it. Even if a beggar fakes a limp, he is probably in need. At the very least, it is a dismal existence to be brought to your knees and beg for money. And you cannot fake a missing limb. And a crying baby is unhappy, whether or not his mother pinches him to earn more pity money. This is reality, but to sit and think on it much is neither healthy nor helpful. So what is to be done?

A non-believer once asked me, “How do you avoid becoming attached to your English students?” The answer: I don’t. In fact, bonding with them is part of the plan. I set boundaries, but I don’t try to keep from loving the children and adults I come in contact with. I’ve always had trouble separating “business” relationships from personal ones. Maybe it’s something I haven’t learned yet, or maybe it is actually a plus. I try to care for each as though he/she is my neighbor. Maybe I’m not professional enough, but I’d rather take the risk and try to bring a little joy to someone’s life.

In a public school I would set certain boundaries for teacher-student relationships, but it is different in an orphanage where you are fulfilling not only intellectual, but emotional needs. The kids sometimes relate to me as more of an older sister/nanny than a teacher. They call me by my first name, sit in my lap (the younger ones), hug and hit me, and throw things. They spontaneously 1) take my outer clothing and run around wearing it or 2) run away and hide somewhere and call out for me to find them. Hmmm, is someone in need of attention? Maybe I’ll talk about discipline in a future post…

So my boundaries consist of taking into consideration the child’s individual situation; allowing behavior appropriate for their developmental stage; trying not to mislead or promise anything unrealistic; and trying to be consistent with the rules of the local establishment, so as to not cause an authority conflict with the other adults involved.

Of course I think about the orphaned children not having a future. Of course I cry at night and dream about them. Of course I want to give them all the love they’re lacking. It doesn’t save a life, but it gives me the motivation to pray and ask God what to do.

Nehemiah was broken-hearted and shed tears for the despair around him. "When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: 'O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel.' " –Nehemiah 1:4-6

I recently saw a film produced by a Russian woman, a believer. The film realistically portrays life in the orphanage and highlights the efforts of a young woman to give some of the children a home. I liked the personal testimony and the example she set, but I wasn’t terribly impressed by the sounds of children crying, “Mommy, where are you?” That can manipulate a person’s emotions. Who could resist such a piteous cry?

In contrast, another more mainstream Russian film I saw recently depicted a 6 yr old orphan who decides to decline an adoptive family, having been convinced that his birth mother might come back for him. A heavy issue for a young child. The negative view of adoption was depressing, but the needs presented real. If the goal is to keep families together, a more positive message would be to encourage birth parents to take more responsibility and to protect children from having to carry such burdens. I’ve seen some situations in which a child was discouraged from choosing to be adopted due to the lament of some “poor grandmother” or other relative. That threat can haunt a child for life, no matter which path he chooses. It’s despicable.

In presenting the needs of orphans it is always hard to find a balance. If you stick to facts and figures, you will have a sobered or even snoozing audience. If you use images and touching stories, you may get a response. But is it the right response? There’s the danger that people will respond out of initial emotions and not by the leading of the Holy Spirit. In fact, I don’t mind when there’s little or no response. If a person has a calling from God, it will be clear.

In examining the life of Jesus, we see how he cared for all sorts of people. We know that he ministered, but what was his attitude? Did Jesus feel any emotion for the masses? Being the Son of God, Jesus saw the pain in every heart. How did he cope when presented with so much need all at once? The Bible says that he had compassion (Mt. 14:14; 20:34; Mk. 6:34) This compassion moved him to help by healing, teaching, leading, comforting, and even providing lunch. How he chose to help specific people in certain situations is beyond comprehension. But it’s clear that he felt deeply, while remaining able to function well enough to serve people’s needs.

God made us to have feelings, and to use them, and it all brings Him glory somehow.

I need to get some sleep or else I’m going to have some not so pleasant emotions tomorrow. :)


  1. i identify with your struggle on boundaries with students. i, too, get attached to them at a very high level. surely the Lord honors it.

    i feel your pain, though, as you work through the emotions of dealing with orphans. you're doing a great job, i'm sure, liz. God bless you and give you the strength to keep going. love you.

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