Culture shock and fatigue are intertwined elements of cross-cultural stress, which is one of the issues reviewed in my dissertation (see pp. 27-45 in particular). Left un-addressed, any form of stress can eventually lead to burnout and in some cases, missionaries opting-out of missions altogether. In the next few posts I plan to summarize and add a bit more information from my study on the subject.
Culture fatigue has been defined as the gradual or acute accumulation of stress from encountering different and unknown cultural or social environments. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating a new environment and culture. Circumstances that can trigger culture fatigue include:
- Your way of communicating gratitude or emotion does not always work the way you expect.
- Confusion over observed behavior, as the rules for appropriate behavior are not always clear.
- A clash of values systems – over money, family, time, human dignity, etc.
- Your personal identity is perceived as one-dimensional. Your new friends do not understand where you have come from and what has shaped your worldview.
- A clash of beliefs – about God and heaven, for example
- Even with so many ‘new’ experiences, you are expected to function with full competence.
Symptoms of culture fatigue include: exhaustion, irritability, moodiness, homesickness, sleep disturbances, anxiety, unexplained tears, over eating, indulging in one’s besetting sin, melancholy and depression. These are normal expressions of the difficulties in assimilating a new environment and culture..
The dynamics of culture fatigue, however, are not easy to identify because they are so intermingled with the way one tends to cope with stress in the first place. What is clear is that culture fatigue brings one face to face with their humanity.
There are multiple theories of cause (Pedersen’s Five Stages of Culture Shock outlines each theory quite well). From my own experience (I know, anecdotal research is sloppy), and theology (I’m a pre-suppositionalist at heart), I would say culture shock and fatigue is not a malady to cope with or recover from but an appropriate disruption of one’s closely held assumptions about life. Thus, it is an opportunity for deeper reflection and personal growth through the process (shock) of self- discovery. (See also, Pedersen, The Five Stages of Culture Shock. p. 12)
The most important thing to remember is that culture fatigue and shock is a process of learning because it is a process of self-discovery. It is a process that requires community for the one struggling to eventually emerge in health.
With each transition a person encounters comes loss. For example, a person graduates from high school and says goodbye to their youth as they enter college. When they leave college to enter a career they undergo the same stress of letting go of some things in order to embrace others. The process a person undergoes is an individual one and cannot be pre-scripted.
When a person enters a whole new culture from their own, they undergo even more dramatic change and loss. They are now separated from the familiar–their families and ways and means of doing life that make sense to them. Certain rituals and traditions they may have taken for granted become more important to them simply because they are a part of the person’s identity and how they interact with and understand the world (e.g. “I’m Dreaming of White Christmas”)
Saying goodbye to parts of oneself brings a person up close and personal with the groaning Paul talks about in Rms. 8.
Rom. 8:18 That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. 19 The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. 20 Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in 21 until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.
Rom. 8:22 All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. 23 These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. 24 That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. 25 But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.
Rom. 8:26 Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. 27 He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. 28 That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. (MSG)
This may not necessarily help take away the struggle or lessen the symptoms of culture struggle, but it does frame the struggle within the larger story of God’s movement in the world and the eager anticipation for that day… Unfortunately, too often, struggle is viewed as a bad thing to avoid at all cost. And, unfortunately, it is easier and easier to avoid the shock of self-discovery (whether living cross-culturally or not).