I, like the rest of the civilized world, have found a new hero, Ukrainian President Voldomeyer Zelensky. How can you not be inspired by a leader who refuses to abandon his people, at great risk to his own life, who perfectly frames the moral stakes of a great conflict, who so powerfully articulates a love of a country he and his fellow Ukrainians refuse to let go. And in this social media age, his videos are irresistible. The cargo pants, military-green T-shirt, and scruffy stubble are out of central casting. In style and substance, this guy is a leader for our time.
I wake up every morning hoping he’s still alive. And then I think about his children.
He and his wife have two, both teens now. While he stayed in Kiev, his wife went into hiding with their children in a safer location inside Ukraine. I think about how terrified they must be, how afraid must all Ukrainian children be. I think about how they wonder if they will ever see their father again. I pray they will.
As they watch the global adulation, I’m sure they feel enormous pride. That’s their dad up there, defying a once-in-a-generation kind of villain, bigger, badder, with better weaponry but with a bankrupted soul that’s no match for their father’s enormous courage. They’ve gotta be like, Yep, that’s right, Our dad is a total badass.
But maybe they also think–Why? Why did he have to go into politics? Why did he need to take this on? Why do we have to be apart right now and fear his death and be in constant, dreadful wait to hear he’s alright. Of course, to a great extent, he did not choose this–if he were an ordinary Ukrainian dad, he’d still probably be separated from his frightened children. His life would still be in danger. No Ukrainian chose this fate. A bully chose it for them. They are only fighting back.
But I can imagine his children having some anger. Maybe its tinged with the reality of his humanity, a reality of which we don’t get much of a glimpse through our TV screens and on our apps. Maybe his temper is a little too quick. Maybe he’s a workaholic. Maybe he’s a terrible listener. Maybe he’s too prone to judgment and has too little empathy. All of those things are just normal, human flaws that are perfectly tolerable in a normal, human person, especially in those who can acknowledge that about themselves.
But when the whole world turns your human dad into a hero? And when they are celebrating him in the midst of your personal grief and terror of loss? That can be a lot to take.
I imagine his kids are proud of their dad. But I also imagine they’d rather he just be…normal.
I recall Nelson Mandela’s poor assessment of himself as a father in his autobiography:
“When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.”
One of his children concurred, and his relationship with them once he was released from prison was strained. His daughter, Makaziwe, said shortly before his death in 2013:
“I’m sure now, in his twilight years, that he looks back and says, ‘You know, I could have done that differently.’ He has regrets in life, mostly about his family. He was not there as a father. He tried the best way that he could when he came out of jail. But you understand that my father came out of jail and was swallowed up even before he became president. He never really had the time to truly be a father.”
He was the father of a nation. He was all of our heroes. But at his own children’s expense.
You can feel tremendous empathy for Mandela’s children while not necessarily blaming the man himself. Like Zelensky, he was confronted with a great evil from which it was hard for even ordinary people to escape. That evil put him in jail, it separated him from his children. But I’m sure the Mandela children have asked, Why him? Surely there could have been someone else.
Evangelical missionaries, who are not rich or famous or powerful or particularly extraordinary in any way, are not Zelensky or Mandela (Although frankly, some of them I have known would put themselves on par, if not above). But in their minds, they are confronting a great evil, too, that they did not invent or choose. They sincerely believe that all of humanity will burn for eternity in hell if they don’t head off to whatever place they feel called to share the Gospel with the lost. This is a cause easily on par with dismantling apartheid or resisting an invasion, if it turns out they are right.
Most of the missionary kids (MKs) I’ve been talking to, even those who continue to believe in hell and the necessity of Christ for salvation, have some quibbles. (For those who don’t believe in hell, “The whole thing kind of falls apart,” one of them told me recently). Especially the ones who endured significant trauma for their parents’ calling. Did God really need their parents to take them to a war zone in order to save others’ souls? Did they need to spend nights on the floor of their house to avoid stray bullets? Did they need to send them away to boarding school at a tiny age? Or live in total isolation without any real friends? Did he really need American missionaries, some without appropriate education or practical skills, to struggle to work within massive cultural, economic, and language divides, sometimes in countries and regions with significant numbers of indigenous Christians? How much good could they do living behind razor wire and traveling with armed guards?
I spoke to a psychologist, an MK himself, who has spent many years working with MKs. He said the key therapeutic difference he has noticed between MKs and the general population of comparable demographics is the level of reported anger. He said in his work, using diagnostic testing, he found MKs had double the anger of the general population. DOUBLE. I asked him why he thought that was. He thought it related to a feeling of having little control over one’s life, of being uprooted at will, the equating of parents and God, compounding layers of grief, and not being given space to fully express other emotions. All good explanations.
Then I told him why I thought it was, with all of my vast non-expertise in psychology. To his credit, he listened.
It’s the gaslighting, I told him. It’s the insistence by too many adults around you on a reality you know is a fiction. It’s the denial of any feelings that betray that. As one MK told me, “It wasn’t safe for me to just feel sad.”
It’s an entire evangelical culture making their parents out to be heroes–“Super Christians” as one pastor called mine–when those same parents have sometimes endangered them, often neglected them, or simply been unapproachable or emotionally unavailable as their children endured disorienting change, disruption, trauma, and sometimes abuse, all on their own. My parents are good people, but they aren’t “Super Christians.” That’s not a thing that exists at all, in fact.
It’s a culture that celebrates even more the “hardcore” missionaries, the worse the place, the better. The more dangerous, the best. All the better to “see the Lord’s protection.”
It’s that culture telling children they are SO LUCKY to have such godly parents, without giving space for the child to feel SO UNLUCKY at times, or even a lot of the time.
It’s parents who warn their kids if they act out, get out of line, or simply can’t hold up, it will ruin their ministry, or their image at least.
It’s the ladies at the American churches who console missionary mothers about how hard it must be to send their children to boarding school and never once ask why that had to happen or express any concern for the children who went.
It’s the magazine articles that breathlessly detail the kidnapping of missionary families in a notoriously dangerous place without ever asking why they really needed to be there, how did they know God was really calling them, or why they needed to take children with them.
The majority of MKs say they wouldn’t trade their childhoods for something more “normal.” It’s who they are. The majority of MKs also love their parents. Many still believe in the missionary enterprise and go on to become missionaries themselves.
But I’ve met very few MKs who don’t bristle at the heroic narrative that surrounds missions. First of all, when someone is lifted up on a pedestal, they can’t be cared for properly themselves, and missionaries need the space to be broken and human in order to be healthy people and stable parents.
Many MKs have observed to me the disjuncture between the pedestal treatment and the otherwise disinterest many American Christians and churches have in their actual lives and work. In having a real relationship with real people. They seem to want the heroes to swoop in, inspire them on a Sunday evening, tell good story, show some fun slides, make them feel good about the money they may have given to missions, and exit right. MKs–and I’m sure many missionaries, too–don’t want to feel special, they want to feel they belong. But that’s an elusive feeling. Some chase it their whole lives.
In addition, children can’t access people on pedestals. Pedestal people have to make the extra effort to come down to our level. Pedestal parents have to make the extra effort to come down to their children’s level. If they don’t, their children are cut off. They become the emotionally orphaned children of heroes.
Heroes of a cause that is not at all clear cut.
And that’s enraging.
We all seem to want heroes. Need them perhaps. But children need normality. Children need stability. Children need emotional vulnerability that tells them it is safe for them to fear and cry and fail. That’s what is actually heroic to a child.
So as we celebrate Zelensky and his vividly righteous cause–and I take nothing away from him or his country–I hope his children can hold on to his humanity, to keep accessing him emotionally, to express their anger, even at him if that is what they need.
I hope their father lives. But I also hope they get to keep him.