(Picture credits go to wonderful friends who dragged me up a mountain a few weeks ago. So exhausting, but so worth it).
A few weeks ago, Addie Zierman started to pick apart the meaning of the all-too-familar phrase “Let go and let God.” And she put out the challenge to process this concept for September. So I’m linking up with my two cents on her blog today.
A few weeks before my twentieth birthday, I left my family and flew to South Africa to do ministry in townships for a year. As a Third Culture Kid who had spent her teenage years in Uganda and lived through a difficult re-entry to Germany, I couldn’t wait to get my feet onto African soil again. Little did I know that this year was about so much more than curing my fernweh for this continent.
When I arrived, things weren’t the way I had expected them to be. I shared a room in an open space with little to no privacy; we had to improvise our youth programs with the little material we had and worked in diverse teams. Living with people from all over the world and working together in the South African culture (which, in itself, is already a conglomerate of cultures) led to quite a few challenges.
It didn’t take long until I began to resent my environment, including the work and the people around me. I was knee-deep in culture shock.
When we transition between cultures, we tend to experience a sequence of emotions.
On arrival, everything is new and we take in new places, smells, tastes. It is fascinating meeting new people who are so welcoming and different from us.
Over time, though, these differences rather exhaust than fascinate us. Communication, daily work and even downtime have suddenly become hard work. We run into conflicts and quickly become angry at the people around us and the circumstances. Everything seems too much, too overwhelming, too tiring. The new is no longer a gift but a burden.
Sadly, there’s no timeframe how long this period of exhaustion and struggle will take.
For some people it’s only days, others need years to adjust to a new place. As a TCK, I have had my fair shares of transitions: I have moved from place to place, from university to a proper first job, in and out of friendships. I have experienced the beauty of the honeymoon phase, battled the depths of culture shock and basked in the joy of coming out stronger on the other side of it.
And yet there is one transition that seems to be unlike all the others.
What happens if the faith we grew up with is no longer this safe haven, this firm foundation, this comforting conviction we sometimes need so desperately in life?
How do you deal with an evolving belief system that feels like a completely unknown territory to you?
Leaning into the battle of culture shock is both scary and liberating.
When we enter a new culture, we don’t just leave behind our familiar environment, food, people, jobs. We lose parts of ourselves and the way we used to function in our home culture. Not knowing how to speak a different language or adapt a new style of driving, working or relating to others is like taking a billion steps back in our development. We once again become little children who need to be taught the basics of survival in a new environment.
This is a stressful, enduring and often exhausting process – a journey we often aren’t willing to embark on.
But if we practice patience and presence, we might observe the changes taking place in and around us:
The first time we connect with a stranger over food, laughter and sign language.
The beauty of making a friend who opens up the mysteries of this new culture to us.
The moment we realize that our differences are what make us truly beautiful.
The strength of finding new words for new experiences.
The comfort of learning that we are still here, behind all the struggles and unfamiliarity. The joy of discovering new facets of our own personality and the richness that is now embedded deep inside our souls.
The peace that sweeps over us when we understand that this new normal is our new home.
And I wonder if culture shock can teach us something about our faith battles as well.
When the honeymoon phase is over and we learn that the world is darker, more lost and broken than we could imagine.
When our questions and doubts have become so big that easy answers won’t do.
When that hunger inside of us has turned into this giant hole eating us away.
When we wrestle with our beliefs and the nature of faith itself, we might have to lean right in rather than run away.
We might have to get lost for a while and return to the basics.
We might have to let go of who we used to be in our old lives with our old selves and grieve our losses.
We might have to fight for survival, keep asking, seeking, waiting and feel exhausted most of the time.
We might have to practice gratitude and patience and presence to observe the changes taking place in and around us:
The first time we connect with people from other backgrounds, belief systems and lifestyles to find out that our differences are what make us truly beautiful.
The strength of speaking our thoughts out loud and putting new words to new discoveries.
The beauty of meeting others out there in the ambiguity of it all who hold and protect our thoughts and questions.
The comfort of encountering God in unexpected places and learning that He is so much more than we could have ever known.
The pure joy of allowing him to unearth the depths and richness that are still inside of us.
The peace that sweeps over us when we understand that this new normal is our new home – the beautiful wilderness, the familiar unknown – the place where He has always been waiting for us.