We moved to the Middle East in July last year and experienced a tough summer with very few of our belonging, knowing barely anyone, with temperatures pushing 50C. Within a fortnight of arriving, my husband’s job took him back to the UK, leaving the rest of us to soldier on alone- something we’re used to as a military family but never before in an abaya, thousands of miles from home, unable to drive or work… When the new school term began, the children’s homesickness only seemed to intensify as we tried to establish new routines and forge new friendships. And my husband was away for a lot of it.
So how did we manage? We had our individual coping mechanisms but the collective one was a holiday-shaped carrot at the end of term, dangling ahead of us in the distance. It was billed as the holiday of the decade, for our little family of 5 anyway: a Christmas trip to an all-inclusive resort in Malaysia with a fabulous kids’ club and an even more fabulous adults-only pool. Our new life in the dusty desert was proving a struggle but the promise of a holiday lay on the horizon like an oasis, shimmering and glinting when we looked up from the daily grind.
It didn’t quite go according to plan. The fact we arrived in Malaysia during the height of the monsoon, when most other resorts were shut, was our own fault. Bit more research needed next time into the weather, rather than how long the kids’ club will hold onto the kids. The broken AC that had me jumping up and down in reception at 2am one night, when our already jet-lagged family couldn’t sleep, wasn’t our fault. Neither was the arrival of the monsoon into our room at 6am on New Year’s Day, when a waterfall sprang forth from the ceiling onto my husband’s head, tying in with the arrival of the monster head cold that would obliterate the rest of his experience in paradise. Our 9 year old suggested this was not a good start to 2018…
My husband and I read our novels and drank lattes at the adults only-pool only twice, once beneath an umbrella…
The journey home was what really finished us off, though. The day was punctuated by:
1. Losing our smallest child on the train to the airport at the point when the train doors were opening for our terminal, causing some of us to run through the carriages screaming, others to wedge themselves in the train doors to forcibly prevent the train from leaving and others to fling bags heavier than themselves at the platform and other passengers
2. The train porter, who dragged the rest of our luggage off the train, enquiring whether we’d enjoyed our trip. He remembered our arrival (at one of the world’s largest airports), probably not for good reasons
3. During check-in at the business-class desk (we weren’t flying business; not sure why we were allowed there), witnessing the queue of well-heeled business men behind us move, with one mind, and as one entity, across to the economy desk, preferring to take their chances there than remain near us, after 20 minutes of watching us trying to check in 15,000 bags,car seats and buggies.
4. On arrival onto the plane, the smallest child’s shirt attaching itself to another passengers chair, creating a traffic jam of passengers who then couldn’t board the flight, delaying take off.
5. Once on-board, being handed the Gruffalo Trunki we’d left in the departure lounge, possibly not by accident, after our smallest child used it to take out a group of Buddhist monks. meaning there was more Gruffalo-related fun when we landed for our connecting flight…
The next day, finally home, my husband and I shared an appointment at the medical centre, him to sort out the cold that had turned into conjunctivitis, me to try and get some help with my back, which I’d put out on the plane, leaving my husband having to pick me up off the floor at various points.
So why share a breakdown of my holiday? My trip got me thinking about how so many of us have become future trippers. People who are constantly aiming for a line further along in the sand where we plan to be happier, less tired, wealthier, a step higher on the career ladder, more healthy. Some of set up a mini-heaven a little way off where life will be better and we put our energies into reaching it.
Dreams and aspirations are important but the problem, if this is where we draw our strength, is that these oases often turn out to be mirages. Take our holiday. We somehow expected to be able to suspend the normal patterns of life, with its illnesses, bad behaviour and bad weather, to create a bubble of perfection in which we’d escape. And it didn’t work! The temptation then is to start planning the next holiday or set ourselves the classic New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, save money, do a triathlon.
What’s potentially more problematic is when our plans actually do come to fruition and we find ourselves on that dreamy desert island, cocktail in hand, kids loving kids’ club, phone on silent. And we discover, in the silence, that our version of heaven is nice but it’s not what we expected. We still have a yearning for more.
Jim Carrey recently tweeted: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” He joins a long line of wealthy, successful people who report that riches and fame don’t satisfy our deepest longings.
In ‘Surprised by Joy,’ C. S. Lewis wrote about his experience of joy. “Joy—that sharp, wonderful Stab of Longing—produces longing that weighs heavy on the heart. It dashes in with the agility of a hummingbird claiming its nectar from the flower, and then zips away. It pricks, then vanishes, leaving a wake of mystery and longing behind it.” According to Lewis, this joy creates a yearning for something beyond this world. It took him many years to work out that this hunger was a hunger for God.
As it turns out, we are called to be future trippers. Only the trip that God invites us on isn’t from the same mould as my Malaysian adventure- one dreamt up by humans, which may or may not work out, depending on a million different variables. It’s an invitation to look up from the daily grind and explore the promise of heaven. And the good news is that it’s not just a promise for the future, we are able to access it’s joy along the way.
And yet for some, the idea of joy is a distant notion. Sometimes the pain and darkness of this life can prove too much to believe in a heaven. Life’s going well for me right now but it hasn’t always and I’m sure there will be times when it isn’t again. I’ve have experienced dark times, from depression, anxiety and a host of other troubles. It’s during these times that we may need to lean on others who are able to hope until we are able to hope for ourselves.
There’s line in the song below that I love: ‘You didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus you brought heaven down.’ Wherever we are on our journey, a simple prayer available to all of us is the name ‘Jesus’.
‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things’