Culture and Perspective

This week, my thoughts seem pretty focused on culture.  It makes sense; my Sunday school class’ look into the life and times of Ruth offers a lot of opportunity to think about the impact of the historical and cultural context on our understanding of the biblical narrative.  I enjoy the study of other cultures, especially up close and personal.  I’ve spent time in several different cultures, from rural and agrarian Midwest USA to a community built on a trash heap in Mexico.  I’ve experienced lush, mountainous Ecuador and surprisingly hot Siberian summer.

These are just a few examples; I could give you more, but I think my point would disappear in a list of places rather than pop out.

What I really want to discuss is how each new cultural encounter gave me a new perspective.

My time in one particular country helped me really frame and discuss the need I saw in a specific community in the US.  It let me explain why this place left me unsettled and gave me more passion for encouraging others around me to see the need right next door to them.

In another country, I learned more than I will take the time here to explain, but some of the biggest things fit well with my theme.  For example, I learned in this place that much of what we know as North Americans about this place comes not from the country as a whole but one or two cities that really are relatively isolated from the rest of the country.  (If you’re in my Sunday school class, you’ll learn more about this on 3/3.) I also learned a LOT about how language communicates more than the words themselves say.  Language and culture are more tied to one another than I ever realized before.

By spending time in other cultures, I learned to realize that what may seem strange, ostentatious, or ridiculous to me on the surface always means so much more than I give it credit.  We like the familiar; we like to understand what is going on around us.  That is comfortable.  When we must stretch outside ourselves, we discover perhaps what we thought we knew for certain may only really be applicable without our particular context or may even not be quite so correct as we thought.  This is unpleasant.

I see this very clearly as I interact daily with individuals who struggle to connect even within their native culture.  They want everything to fit within their own context and do not want to try new things.  Even if they actually like the things they do try, they insist on continuing to avoid those things because that would mean they have to admit they were wrong about something.  This rigidity in perspective means that they only connect on a very superficial level with anyone else because anything remotely different is weird and therefore bad.  No one had better have a different opinion than them because clearly they are right and any other perspective is wrong.  This, by the way, is exhausting.

I think, though, that on some level we can all be this way.  Maybe it’s just that we’re having a rough day and are grouchy and desperately crave comfort to help calm our minds.  I get it.  I’ve been there.  I’ve been there when I have been completely immersed in a culture drastically different from my own.  In a world that is increasingly connected on a global level, though, we face the challenge of either stepping up and embracing the discomfort and adapting or becoming set in our ways.  It is a choice, and it is an active one at that.  Adaptation takes a lot of energy; it often means an increased risk of failure and looking foolish.  As unappealing as that may sound, the rewards far outweigh the consequences.

When we let go of our pride that says we must always be right and must always look good, we truly connect with others.  We let people see that we are human just as they are human.  We encourage them by our actions that it is okay to try new things.  We become real and we find those around us letting their guard down too.  When that happens, we learn from each other, grow together, and gain all new perspectives we never knew were possible.

I know that my experiences with cultures other than my own have grown me, changed me, given me new perspective.  They’ve also shown me just how stuck in my own context I get.  They point out to me the places where I become rigid and don’t allow for differences.  They show me how much I forget to acknowledge that unless there is a biblical precedent, another person’s perspective is not wrong.

If you haven’t immersed yourself in another culture before, I highly recommend it.  But if you do, go in with a willingness to learn and to be wrong.  Be open minded and ready to have your expectations shattered.

If you have been immersed in another culture, try to hold onto the lessons you learned there and if you weren’t open to change while there, don’t hold onto regret.  It’s never too late to learn.