Look at these two pictures.
It seems like a different child. In a way, it is. Both are Peter Pan, but one was taken when he was with our family in America, and the other was taken when he was with his friends in Latvia.
The difference is part of the orphan mentality, a system of toughness that they use to survive. If you were raised in a home where you felt safe and loved, the value system orphans need to use might seem strange. But for those who have experienced trauma, there is a mentality, a way of surviving, which affects everything that they do. A child who has lived with fear and loss understands the world differently than a child without trauma. He lives in fight or flight mode, constantly prepared to protect himself and not ready to trust anyone fully.
What is kept hidden, what is left behind, and what is secretly treasured are managed by a complicated set of social rules and personal responses to tragedy. It differs slightly for each child, but one thing remains the same: the way you survive is by asserting qualities that become your shield for survival. Dropping your guard can become life and death.
For these children, it is never as simple as relaxing in a safe space. They have to FEEL safe in that space. Orphans generally never have a place of felt safety, and so they are always on their guard. One of the things that hosting attempts to do is give these children a breather from the world where they must be impenetrable. We bring them into families to let them feel safe to open up and express themselves and just…be kids.
When Peter Pan was here over Christmas, we quickly saw that his defense was a boastful bravado: he crowed his legendary status, his absolute surety in his own opinions. We worked hard to make sure he FELT safe, and he quickly found we were companions in a world of nerdy pastimes, gaming, and movies. We watched every Star Wars film and were at opening night of The Force Awakens. We raved together over Harry Potter; his favorite Christmas present was a Bellatrix LeStrange replica wand. We shared a love of gangster films and mafia movies; he had never actually heard Robert DeNiro’s voice (he had only seen versions dubbed into Russian). He was in love. My house was filled with tough-guy talk—a child play-acting at being a Mafioso. We played dress up, watched movies in costume, and cast spells wildly at one another. We mashed genres and laughed at our in jokes.
He may have been almost 18, but he was a sweetheart of a thing, playing dress up and planning Nerf wars. He was a gamer, both online and with board games, and we spent hours in friendly competition. I learned more than I ever cared to know about how to play his online games.
And then he prepared to go home.
I should have known when he left his treasured wand, when the Nerf gun was set back on the shelf carelessly, when the games were shut off. This wasn’t his world over there. These things didn’t have a place among the qualities he needed to survive in Latvia.
We went to Latvia a few months later, and he was wholly different. He was cocky and full of his own bravado. He was cold and uncaring and made sure he let me know he had no need for our special jokes or cuddly understandings. When I made a reference to Harry Potter, he looked at me like I had three heads. When I asked him about his online games, he and his friends quickly cut me down with a sharp, “gaming is a waste of time.” He was downright rude in his protection of himself.
I honestly thought I had lost him.
He was completely rejecting me, so what could I do? I told him again and again my home was always his if he wanted it. And I went home.
After some quiet months, he finally confessed that he wanted to come back to America. I was a little wary—for what purpose? After all that had transpired, why would you want to return?
But my word is my word. And unconditional love does not change based on behavior. If I am who I say I am, then I will do hard things. Even if that means paying a lot of money to be miserable for two weeks. It’s not about me and my preferences. It’s about loving and investing without hope of return. With a lot of nervousness, I bought the ticket.
And a funny thing happened as he flew across the ocean.
Each time he called me to update me on his progress, his voice changed. Slowly, with each message, I heard that sweet boy return.
Here he is, not even 12 hours back in our home:
The joy that this brought to my heart is indescribable.
The way he handles himself is much like any teenager trying to figure out the world. Except he is doing it in a situation with no safety net, no one he can fall back on. His choices are not always wise. His behavior is often selfish, manipulative, and frankly, downright cruel at times.
But he doesn’t get the luxury other teens do of apologizing and making amends and trying again tomorrow. His softness could land him on the streets or in a dangerous situation.
I am under no illusions about what will happen. As he flies back across the ocean, he will again transform into the brave, stoic, independent man-child.
And that’s okay.
It is who he needs to be in that world.
I don’t know if I will get another opportunity to see the sweet part of him. I mourn the choice that he has made between felt safety and self sufficiency. I hurt because it feels a lot like rejection. But it’s survival. It’s cold, and it’s ugly a lot of the time, but it is surviving the best he knows how. Who am I, to say that he should act otherwise? What is my life, to say that he should trust it over the toughness that has served him well these past years?
I want to be clear: one country is not better than the other. He is not fully himself in Latvia. But neither is he fully himself here. He has the ability to make independent choices there that he completely releases while he is here—he falls into laziness in America that I know he does not do in Latvia. He holds a job and manages school; he volunteers and works hard.
But I also know what kind of a man is created when he is constantly in a state of survival. I know what things are lost in a soul when there is nowhere safe to be fully human, able to embrace all the flaws and idiosyncracies of your own character. I know the cost of that kind of cutting out of your own identity and the scars it leaves in its wake. It is never a good choice to completely subsume pieces of who you are. I think he knows that. And I think that’s a big part of why he wanted to come back.
What I want for him is not to be wholly his American version, nor wholly his Latvian version. Choosing one or the other is simply not possible, because they are both part of who he is. What I want for him is to have a place where he can figure out how to integrate the two together.
I don’t know the best way to help him figure that out, except to love him and be present for him.
So I will glory in these two weeks, and I will be his safety. I will open myself, because he desperately needs to feel this part of himself again. He needs to know that it still exists, and that it is treasured and accepted.
And I will prepare as best I know how for the inevitable closing. I hope that maybe this time, the door will not slam so fully, that perhaps a crack will be left for me to peek through. I hope that my investment will help to soften the scarring and preserve the pieces of him that he needs more than he knows right now.
This boy is brave…and sweet. He is nerdy…and strong. He is silly…and smart.
He needs to learn how to feel safe enough to be all of it.
Bravado can be colored with softness. Revealing a preference to another person is not a sign of weakness.
It is all part of being human.
What a privilege that we get to learn how to be human together.