Looking back over my journey through this pandemic with its imposed lockdowns, I recognise the various phases of culture shock I experienced when I moved to live in Turkey 40 years ago. It was a new country and a new way of life. Then I had similar experiences in reverse on returning home to Scotland 15 years later.
Arriving in Ankara in 1980 I felt lost and confused. There was so much that was strange and different that I had to learn. Three areas were similar to learning to live with the pandemic. Greetings? – Turks hug and kiss much more, Personal space or social distancing? – practically none! Dress code? – no masks but more modest and sometimes a head covering.
There was no church and until then much of my Christian faith had been expressed through church activities. I felt afraid. Would my faith wobble? We proved then and now the faithfulness of God.
The next phase I passed through was a kind of honeymoon experience where I could see the positives in my new culture, like the wonderful emphases on family, community and hospitality. My relationship with the Lord was deepening as I grew in prayer and learned to feed myself on his Word.
During the pandemic I’ve been very aware of some gains we have made through lockdowns, like a slower pace of life with time to walk more, appreciate nature, reflect and be creative, and really get to know our neighbours. Prayer fellowship on Zoom, locally and internationally has been a blessing.
Honeymoons don’t last and as time went on I became aware of a dark side to the culture. The down side of strong communities can be unhealthy hierarchical structures and traditions that control and manipulate individuals. In Turkey it was hard for followers of Jesus who were often shamed, shunned or persecuted by society.
Of course, eventually the dark side of our imposed lockdowns has caught up with us all – missing key events like birthdays, weddings and funerals bring the inevitable sad sense of loss and isolation. The technology that was novel becomes wearisome and we long for face to face relationships.
Finally, there was an acceptance of the way things were in Turkey. We learned to embrace what was good in our new culture with thankfulness, while acknowledging the bad and praying for change. Life began to feel more ‘normal’ and less emotionally tiring. God was working and in the midst of turbulent times the church grew.
This is true of this pandemic. We have learned to seize opportunities to bless others, concentrating on what we can do, rather than what we can’t. Around the world the church is growing. In some of the worst hit places like Yemen, Afghanistan and Turkey social media and the good works of national Christians are having an impact.
Reverse Culture Shock
Returning to Scotland in the mid 90s brought an intense experience of reverse culture shock. The emotional journey was similar to that of my initial entry to Turkey, only worse, because I didn’t expect it! I felt frustrated with those around me and angry with myself; I felt fitting back in should have been easy. The problem was I had changed, and everyone else had changed too.
As we see restrictions easing and life opening up again, we should expect to experience reverse culture shock. We have all changed and in ways we’re still not fully aware of. Although we’ve been in it together, each has had a unique and personal experience. As we come out of this pandemic, many feel anxious. Some are desperate to gather again in large groups, shake hands and hug, while others feel panicky at the thought and will resist meeting indoors even when it’s allowed. Family and friends may differ in attitude, adding to our stress.
Let’s be aware that reverse culture shock is real and happening. Be kind and patient with ourselves and those around us. We remember that none of this has taken God by surprise. He proves himself faithful and keeps his promises to refine our lives, grow his church and manifest his kingdom. Our role is to commit ourselves whole heartedly to his purposes. So, let’s reflect on what God has been teaching us, what he wants us to hold onto and what we should just let go as we move forward. Let’s keep what’s good, while enjoying and using the new freedoms.
Looking to Jesus
Jesus is the founder and finisher of our faith (Hebrews12:1-2). He knows the end from the beginning and will sustain us as we yield our wills to his. The faithful who have gone before us all endured hardships of various kinds while honouring God. They are cheering us on. Let’s take heart, trust him and allow heavenly joy to beckon us forward, giving us strength for the journey.