The best comparison I have to living through 2020 is the culture shock I experienced when I moved to Central Asia with the International Mission Board. “Culture shock” is a helpful phrase that captures the all-encompassing assault—on your body, mind, and emotions—that comes from moving to a new culture.
There are a few things that are different from my first experience with culture shock (in 2008) and the 2020 variety. Most notably, (1) that 2008 experience was more obvious because I had moved to another country. Looking around, I saw different clothing, different stores, different buildings. I heard a different language. Everything was obviously not what I was used to. (2) I had chosen to do this. It makes a big difference when you choose to walk into something tough. And (3) there was always the possibility of getting back to “normal.” If the pressure got to be too tough, we always had an exit.
It’s easy to see the differences between 2020’s difficulties and the culture shock I experienced in 2008. We haven’t moved anywhere. We haven’t chosen this. And there isn’t any exit. But there’s enough overlap that remembering my first round of culture shock has helped me weather the 2020 variety.
Three Expectations of Culture Shock
Specifically, there are three expectations I had in 2008 that I’ve had to come back to in 2020. I was reminded of these recently by a missionary friend who was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The three expectations are:
1. For six weeks, expect to be more tired than you’re used to.
Culture shock is stressful, and whether our minds admit it or not, our bodies know it. In April, I talked to one person after another, all of them surprised that they’ve been sleeping more AND YET ARE STILL feeling more tired. They’ve been doing less but feeling completely exhausted at the end of the day. Culture shock does that to a body. Leave room for that and try to remember it’s not permanent.
2. For six months, expect things to take longer than they should.
As in, maybe, two or three times as long. Our society is (to put it mildly) having a hard time dealing with the pandemic. It’s not hard to imagine why normal activities would take longer: More resources are going to fighting a virus; more people are excessively tired and anxious; more and more people are getting sick. If we’re used to life moving at a certain pace, there’s nothing quite like culture shock (or a pandemic) to completely throw a wrench in our gears.
Try as we may, most normal activities are simply going to take forever. Add this to the reality #1 (you’re going to be tired more often), and the result is: You are going to get a lot less done. The sooner you accept that reality, the better.
This last one is the most important (and the most difficult):
3. For as long as it takes, give and receive grace.
When you and everyone close to you is experiencing culture shock, you are going to say some hurtful things. Hurtful things are going to be said to you. It’s never good to hold a grudge, but now more than ever, you’ve got to write your grievances down in pencil. You’re carrying far more than usual. So is every other person you know. We are suffering. We are hurting. You cannot remind yourself of that often enough.
There will come a day when the mists clear. You’ll find you feel like yourself again. You can move at a pace you like. You’ll remember some of the terrible things you said as if they were in a dream. When that day comes, thank God and seek reconciliation. Until then, be gentle with yourself and be gentle with others.