Transparency? Or secret life?

A photo of a woman walking on a sidewalk, returning from a morning on the beach. It wasn’t a very good photo.  Not very flattering.  I’m sure she hated it when she saw it. She’s a 70 year old woman who just spent the morning sitting on a windy beach with her family.  But when it hit social media, it blew up the feeds. Breaking news. Trending.

“How could she do that? “

“I can’t believe she is on such a lavish vacation.”

“Where did she get the money?”

“This is outrageous!  She is not fit for service.  Disgraceful.”

“Must be nice to be spending Monday morning at the beach.”

All this, because she is the mayor of one of the most important cities in Europe.  Her life is under a microscope.  Her country is in economic crisis. She is very conservative and has been quick to cut budgets and refuse for government to pay big money for non-essentials.

Last month, she cut out special benefits and government spending for public officials.  She cut her own salary.  She cut her own perks.  No accepting gifts or special treatment for government officials. She put her foot down.

The media had a heyday with her one-week beach vacation. They tried to crucify her, but without the facts, and when the facts came out the story went quiet.  Crickets.  You could hear a pin drop.

You see, she shared her beach house with 8 other adult family members and several children, each family paying their share of the rent from their own pockets.  She did not take her government appointed vehicle or use a driver.  She drove down to the beach with her daughter in her daughter’s car.  She returned to the capital on a public train in a regular seat which she paid for herself.

So, this 70 year old mother and grandmother went to the beach with her family for a week of summer vacation.  Now it sounds just like any other family, doesn’t it?

This story really hit me this month.  I felt for this woman.  Life under a microscope is hard.  Living a ‘normal’ life when you have a less-than-normal job is exhausting.  Being a paid public servant is tough.  Always knowing that every move you make is judged and scrutinized, that people are always thinking that you are misappropriating funds.  People think that you are having too much fun and you should be working… no matter that it is Saturday, or Sunday, or your child’s spring break, or a national holiday… you should be working.  That’s what we pay you for.

I have had the saddest conversations with missionaries all over the world.  People who constantly grapple with what to share and what to hide from folks back home, from their supporters, from the church, from Facebook.  People who constantly fear that a photo of them having a fun outing or a picture of their dinner date with friends is going to start a whirlwind of doubt and gossipy chit chat about how they are off in another country having fun and not working and wasting good ministry money.

Last week, we had a similar conversation in our home.  Our daughter has wanted to learn to SCUBA for quite some time now.  My husband dives and both of my older sons are divers.  She wanted to learn to dive, too.  Upon looking at our budget (our personal budget), we surprised her with a SCUBA course and her certification dives.  So, on the afternoon of her first dive, as any proud parent would do, we took photos.

My husband started tapping out a message on his phone and I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Sending these pictures to the boys on Facebook.  They’ll be proud of her.”

I commented, “I’m always afraid when we do that.  What will they think?  What will others think? I don’t want it to look like we’re off having a great time and have people thinking we aren’t working, or that we are spending ministry funds on personal fun.”

“Baby, We can’t live our lives like that.  We have to share our lives. Especially with our families.  We can’t live being worried about what others think of us.  We know that we aren’t doing anything wrong,” he said.

Okay. So I popped one off to my mom (the granny) via Facebook, too.  The boys texted responses back about how cool that was and how they thought it was great.  My mom loved it and shared it with her friends.

Then, a few minutes later, my husband says, “Where did you share that photo to your mom?”

“On her wall on Facebook.”

“Oh.”  Silence.

“Why?  Didn’t you just say we needed to share our lives and not live in fear of what others think?  I did.  I shared it.  Why?”

“I didn’t share it publically.  I shared it privately in their message feed, not on their walls.”

Frustrated, again, by this dance of what we should share and what we should not.  Confused again by trying to figure out where the line is.  I want to be honest.  I want to be transparent.  I want to be authentic.  I want to be a proud mom like every other proud mom sharing pictures on Facebook.  If my daughter was taking SCUBA lessons in the USA, we wouldn’t have even had this conversation.  We wouldn’t have even thought twice about whether or not we should share a photo of her.  I watch photos of my friend’s summer vacations scrolling across my screen every day.  I watch them go to other countries, go hiking, go boating, go to the beach or to Europe, or go on cruises.  No one thinks twice about posting those photos. Fun family memories.

Yet we are slaves to that very dilemma.  When to share our fun day off?  When to share the photo of our daughter in her extra-curricular activity?  When to share our short vacation?

We are mission workers, yes.  We rely on mission funding from outside sources, yes.  But we are also real people, normal people.  We work real schedules (real crazy schedules!). We receive a salary and we put away money in to savings, like real people. We get a day off each week, like real people (actually, not like real USA people who get a weekend off from work, but like Spanish people who only get one work-free day per week).  Our contract states that we are required to take vacation time each year, which we pay for out of our own pockets.  We are bound by law to use ministry funds for ministry, nothing else, and we have to prove every cent we spend and turn in expense reports, just like real people in real jobs.  We are accountable to federal tax laws, just like everyone else.  Our personal expenses are just that, personal.  It comes from our pockets.  Groceries. Clothing. Sarah’s piano lesson each week.  A meal at a restaurant.  A Saturday morning at the beach.  All personal money.

Missionaries live very ordinary lives in extraordinary places, but sometimes that gets flipped around on them and folks back home put them under a microscope with a special lens that says, “you are living an extraordinary life in an extraordinary place under very public scrutiny”.  So they make the choice to self-protect and to go into their shell and hide their lives so as to not invoke the public judgement of their normal lives.  They choose not to share the fun day at the water park, because someone might not approve of their day off.  They choose not to show their child winning a ribbon for her sport-of-choice, because someone might think that it is a luxury that missionaries shouldn’t be able to afford.  They have quiet conversations about whether or not they should share the photos of their cultural trip to a nearby historical site, fear of rejection and judgement overtaking their excitement and joy at having this opportunity to learn new things and go special places as a family.

I felt terrible for that mayor on her family beach vacation.  I feel sad for every missionary who tells me about a wonderful weekend that they had, and then tells me how they will show me the photos later because they aren’t going to post to Facebook for fear of supporters and churches back home.  And I feel sad for MKs (missionary kids) whose parents don’t share their accomplishments like other parents do, who live in a private, self-protective world where they have to know the ‘rules’ of what gets shared and what doesn’t and with whom, and they wonder why life is such a secret.

Anyone else have any answers?  How do you live an authentic, transparent, honest life?  How do you stay real?  How do you weigh it all out and decide what you share from your lives?

4 thoughts on “Transparency? Or secret life?

  1. So true, this tension about transparency. We still wrestle with it, though now based back in the US. How do we teach about giving and somehow also communicate accountability w/o that intense scrutiny that so often comes attached to the gifts? Still looking for answers.

  2. Know exactly what your talking about. We budget well. We plan. We save. We pay cash for our cars. We fly for free with miles. We stay with friends or family to eliminate hotel cost. We sleep in hostels rather than hotels. We buy cars with 100,000+ miles. But we are also judged. It’s hard to be in a fishbowl.

  3. I think you have to present it for what it is. Counseling. Therapy. It is similar for special education teachers. The burnout rate is high and most only last 4-7 years. Years of education and money for degrees wasted because there is too much to do and too many expectations. How much worse would it be to have missionaries burn out because they have too much to do and no down time? Years of language and cultural experience wasted because there was no break. A missionary kid who is done with God because it is too stressful or the experience was so bleak. Jesus was fun. He went to a wedding and made wine. God made the world and then he rested. Why should we expect anything different from our missionaries?

  4. We look forward to everything you post online. Very happy when we see her on a horse, diving, or any other extra activity. She along with all of your family have given up so much of your lives to follow your calling. It has never crossed my mind that you were spending money or time that takes away from your mission. Keep up the good work. Can’t wait to see you back home soon.

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