Hope for Those in a New Place: The Power of Muscle Memory

I recently moved to a new country. New house, new city, new grocery store, new car, new neighborhood. Just about every single thing in my life was new.

Entering a grocery store almost brought about a panic attack. I started at the jars of mayonnaise, paralyzed by indecision. Which one tastes best? Which one is healthiest or cheapest? What if I make the wrong choice? And then repeat that by 25 as I walked down the aisles, my head spinning, my list clutched in my sweaty hand. I didn’t know where the olives were. I didn’t recognize much of what was on the shelves. I stressed over how much chicken was supposed to cost. Once I was ready to check-out, another wave of tension flooded me as I had to remind myself of the procedure for buying my groceries. 

Then there was driving. My new country drives on the opposite side of the road as my previous country. That meant that every time I got to the car, I had to focus on which side of the car I needed to enter. If I happened to be absent-minded, I would get in, close the door, and attempt to put my key into the glove compartment. Once I did manage to successfully turn on the car, it took all my concentration to make sure I was driving on the correct side of the road. I repeatedly reminded myself of the traffic laws of my new country, knowing that my instincts would be to follow the rules of the former.

And of course, there’s not only the newness of living in a new house, but all new furnishings too. Are the light switches on the outside of the door or the inside? Where is that can opener? How do I get that new fry pan on the new stove to cook bacon without burning it? How do I get rid of these confounded ants? 

That much newness, all at once, was incredibly disorienting. It made me feel out of place and out of sorts. And I found myself having thoughts suspiciously similar to what I remember about middle school: I feel so stupid. Everyone knows what they are doing except me. They really must be wondering what is wrong with me. 

It was exhausting. All that concentration, all day long, from remembering the route to the store to picking up mail to cleaning the floors, had my brain on overdrive. A big part of me wanted to run back to my previous country, where everything felt familiar and routine and comfortable.

So it was during those first few months that I needed to remind myself, over and over, of the power of muscle memory. 

Muscle memory is defined as: “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” Muscle memory, is, perhaps, one of God’s greatest gifts to us. It means that we can talk to our kids while driving the car, or get brilliant ideas while taking a shower. Our brain can relax in our day-to-day routines, giving us the mental space we need for learning new skills or concentrating on solving a difficult problem. 

This explains why when we move to a new country, our lack of muscle memory makes it easy to be overwhelmed and exhausted. It makes sense why we might even hate our new life, and deeply crave running back to what feels comfortable and familiar. 

It’s at this point that we must remember why muscle memory is important. Life will not always be this hard, this tiring, this formidable. It will not always feel so strange. Muscle memory assures us that if we do the same thing enough times, it will eventually feel normal and easy. It will. Trust that it will. 

A year after our move, I can walk through my house in the dark and not bump into things. I don’t have to use Google maps for every place I go. The grocery store is boring, and I automatically pick up the same type of mayonnaise. When I drive the kids to school, I know the spot where the lane ends and I have to move over, and I do it without thinking. I’m not used to every part of my new life yet, but on the whole, it’s become a whole lot easier. 

Here’s the surprise twist: My new county is the United States of America. We relocated back after 16 years in East Africa. I found that re-adapting to life here was just as challenging as moving overseas. 

So for those of you in a new place, let me encourage you: Your brain will not always feel this tired. You won’t always have this maniacal part of you that wants to run away and jump on the closest airplane to take you home. 

What is the secret? Just keep going. Keep moving. Keep doing the same things, over and over again, and wait patiently for muscle memory to kick in. Push through this weary season, because it will get better. It will. I promise. 

Coming or Going during Turbulent Times

storm clouds

In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.

When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.

Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.

There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).

Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.

And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.

“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,

So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.

I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.

But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.

Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.

And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”

When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.

Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.

During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007 (archived at Wayback Machine)

[photo: “Storm Front 4,” by mrpbps, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Trip to the Embassy

by Seth Lewis

I was excited. We’d only lived in Ireland a few months—long enough to begin to feel the reality of deep differences, but not nearly long enough to adjust to them. Our second son had just been born, a different experience in a different medical system, and we needed to register his birth at the United States embassy. American soil, in Ireland. It would be nice to get a little taste of all we’d left behind. A few hours on the motorway got us to Dublin, where we found the US embassy—a big round thing looking out of place on its street-corner, like a landed UFO. Like us. 

To get through the outer wall, we had to go through security. I hadn’t anticipated that, but it made sense, and I knew what to do. On the other side of the metal detector, the ground was American. Even the flowers were red, white, and blue. This was going to be fun.

I opened the door to the UFO, and was immediately struck by the lack of country music. Not even rock. Nothing. Just another security guard, another metal detector, and a sign that said “Please take a number”. A number? I’m not a number, I’m an American! This is my embassy! 

I took a number. White walls and tiles. Uncomfortable chairs. Drop ceiling. I knew there was a ballroom in the building, but no one offered to show it to me. Come to think of it, the room did look familiar. I’d seen this set up before, in America, at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Social Security Office. 

An embassy is a US government office. I should have known it would look like one. That I would hear several people being refused before I got a turn to hand my number through the thick (bullet proof?) glass and hope I had every form and supporting document exactly right. Somehow I had thought they would be as happy as I was to see another American. I had wanted a taste of things we left behind. I got one.

We walked out past the red, white, and blue flowers and through the security gate. On the other side, the Irish ground felt a little more like home. In the car, I played country music.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Seth Lewis has lived on the south coast of the Republic of Ireland for the last ten years with his wife Jessica; two of their three children were born there. He works with a network of local churches who are committed to church planting and also assists with a local Bible college and youth camp ministry. Before moving overseas, Seth worked with a church in Virginia. His accent doesn’t really fit anywhere anymore, and he’s okay with that. You can find him online at sethlewis.ie.

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to be able to experience cross-cultural confusion without having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. During a coup, his team’s vehicles were commandeered by the military, so Thiagarajan and his colleagues stayed in their compound, passing the time playing Euchre. Born in Chennai, India, Thiagarajan had learned how to play Euchre after moving to Bloomington, Indiana, and as his Liberian coworkers hadn’t played it before, he gave them a copy of Hoyles Games to read up on the rules. The trouble was, after their crash course, they all came away with different interpretations of how to play. Rather than clear up the arguments, though, Thiagarajan let the players work it out, and after three hours, the group had settled on their own unique version of the game.

“This interesting episode presented me with a blinding flash of the obvious,” writes Thiagarajan in Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes. “Serious conflicts arise not from major, obvious cultural differences, but from unrecognized, minor ones.”

From this, Thiagarajan developed Barnga, one of 120 simulations and games that he has created during his career.

The concept of Barnga is simple. Each player is handed directions for a card game called “Five Tricks.” The participants have a few minutes to familiarize themselves with how the game is played and then they give the rule sheets back. During play, they are told, they won’t be able to talk or write out words but must communicate only by using gestures and drawing pictures.

While learning new rules and facing difficulties in communication seem like the point of the game, there’s another twist (don’ read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want to find out what it is)—unknown by the players, there are slight differences in the rule sheets they’ve studied, so they’re not all the same.

After the cards are dealt, the results are many and varied. There’s confusion and frustration. Some think that others are cheating or just can’t understand the rules. Some assert authority or claim superiority, while others give up or give in. Some love the game. Some don’t want to play any more.

Yup, sounds like culture stress to me.

The instructions for Barnga include not only how-tos for the simulation and printouts of the rules but also guidelines for directing the follow-up discussion—wherein lies the real meat of the experience. It’s when people are allowed to talk and share how they feel about the game, and about each other, that the shift is made to the realm of cross-cultural interaction. Though it’s possible with as few as four players, the simulation works best with about 20 to 40, allowing for numerous interactions through tournament-style play, and more voices for the follow-up conversation.

Possible uses for the simulation are numerous: as part of a class on cross-cultural issues, for pre-field orientation, for teams visiting overseas workers, as a preparation for receiving international students or other foreign visitors, or for supporters of missionaries or those involved in member care.

The 25th-anniversary edition of Barnga comes with rules and discussion guides in English, French, German, and Spanish and includes updates to the original publication. Copies are available from several sources, including Thiagarajan’s website, The Thiagi Group, and Amazon.

I’ve participated in Barnga and I’ve facilitated it, as well. It’s always interesting (and entertaining) to see how players’ attitudes change as the simulation progresses. And even if some figure out what’s going on, they have to make decisions about to how to deal with that knowledge. When it comes to culture stress, it’s not just the differences you face, but how you and those around you react to them. And dealing with that, regardless of the setting, can show and tell us a lot about ourselves.

This post is adapted from “Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules.”

(Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, with Raja Thiagarajan, Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes, Intercultural Press, 2006)

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Cultural Low Bridges

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t exactly fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.) During an overly stressful trip to what we thought was a familiar city, we were looking for a place to park and found a parking garage with a seven-foot-something clearance, which sounded close to being OK for our vehicle, which was probably not quite that tall. Sure enough, it was quite that tall and we heard a sickening scraping noise as the ceiling narrowed down above us. I was sure that we were wedged in so tight that we couldn’t go forward or backward, with a line of smug little minivans and their scowling drivers packed in behind us. We weren’t, but it took several seconds of panic before I figured that out.

We backed up, and continued on. And then for the rest of our trip, I dreaded telling our friends what I’d done.

When we returned the van, I took the rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach and told the husband and apologized as quickly as I could. He had his own several seconds of panic as he hurried over to see the damage. The scratches on the roof weren’t as bad as he’d probably feared, and our friends were generously gracious and forgiving. But I feel pangs of anxiety even now as I relive this 13-year-old memory.

I’ve got a lot more embarrassing stories from our time on the other side of the ocean. (None involve driving, since I didn’t do that over there. . . and “over there” is better off for it.) Some of the stories are funny. Some not so much. For both, I’m glad that we were surrounded by so many kind people who recognized our efforts and looked past the mistakes.

I’m thankful for people, regardless of where they live, who express grace and forgiveness. I’m thankful for people who translate the signs. I’m thankful for people who let us borrow their vans. I’m thankful for people who tell us which roads not to take. I’m thankful for people who laugh with us instead of at us. I’m thankful for people who are good at putting trucks back together. And I’m thankful for people who don’t set up cameras at the low bridges.

[photo: “Low Bridge #1,” by David Brodbeck, used under a Creative Commons license]

Moving Abroad Can Sure Mess with Your Autocomplete

We can tell a lot about each other by looking at our autocompletes. For instance, start typing “I can’t find my” into a text message and see what it thinks will come next. For me, it’s “keys,” “wallet,” and “phone.” That’s pretty insightful: I have a car, I’m a guy, and I’m absent-minded enough to have my phone in my hand and wonder where it is. But I’m not all that unique. You’re autocomplete may very well say the same thing (even if you’re not a guy). We, and our autocompletes, are products of the cultures that produced us.

So what happens when you relocate to someplace new and different? Your old autocomplete is now out of whack and needs to be retrained to match your new surroundings. Sure, some of it is dealing with single-word typing discrepancies like theatre vs theater or fighting spell-check battles over your friends’ names (Yes, I really do mean Mrak!). But it also goes deeper than that. It’s a change in how you live and act and think. It’s transitioning from normal to strange to new normal.

I just texted “I can’t find my llama” to my wife. On my third try my phone gave in and swapped out “wallet” for “llama” as one of my choices. It may take a while, but as you transition, your autocomplete will catch up—maybe just in time for a trip back home, far away, that place where the foreigners come from.

So what are your autocomplete settings right now? Where do you fit in with the sentences below?

It all depends on where you are, and where you are in your getting there.

From normal to strange to new normal.

Wow, you can speak two languages? You
. . . must be a genius!
. . . must be average.
. . . must be ready to move to another assignment where you’ll need to learn two more.

I had a panic attack when someone swiped
. . . my passwords.
. . . my passport.
. . . my passion-fruit green tea.

I’m freezing. It’s
. . . gotta be 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
. . . gotta be 15 degrees Celsius inside.
. . . gotta be . . . HEY, CAN SOMEBODY PUT A NEW BATTERY IN THE WATER HEATER? I’M IN THE SHOWER! HELLO! ANYBODY?!!!

School is canceled today
. . . because of snow.
. . . because of pollution.
. . . because rebels are occupying the building.

Yikes! I
. . . found a black banana in the back of the fridge!
. . . found a black olive and banana pepper on my pizza! (I specifically ordered extra peas and mayonnaise.)
. . . found a black mamba and banana spider—as big as a pie plate—in my closet!

Everybody knows that
. . . driving on the right side of the road is the right way.
. . . driving on the right side of the road is the wrong way.
. . . driving down the middle of the road—and sometimes on the curb—is the only way to get where you’re going on time.

I hope you can worship with us next week. We’ll meet up
. . . under the banner outside Auditorium B.
. . . under the big tree next to the river,
. . . under the watchful eye of our neighbor, who may or may not be a government official.

You kids can have some brownies
. . . after you finish your vegetables.
. . . after the care package comes from Grandma.
. . . after we can figure out where all of Grandma’s care packages are going to.

Oops! How embarrassing! I just told the bank teller
. . . I wanted to deposit $1,000 instead of $100.
. . . I wanted to deposit 1,000 envelopes.
. . . I wanted to be the father of her 1,000 children.

I cut my finger. Can you run by the corner store and
. . . pick me up some Band-Aids?
. . . pick me up some gauze and antiseptic cream?
. . . pick me up a hypodermic needle, some lidocaine, a needle and suture . . . and some gauze and antiseptic cream?

I feel so lonely
. . . after we moved to a town of 2,000.
. . . after we moved to city of 10 million.
. . . after our third set of teammates moved away.

Have fun at the retreat, and just in case, you’d better
. . . take an extra towel.
. . . take a machete.
. . . take a water purifier, a GPS beacon, and four forms of identification.

My stomach isn’t feeling so good. I think it
. . . might be the flu.
. . . might be that fermented goat cheese I got from the street vendor last night.
. . . might be parasites . . . again.

We’ll go to McDonald’s
. . . as soon as you get ready.
. . . as soon as our next trip to the capital.
. . . as soon as the opposition wins the election and foreign trade is allowed again.

I can’t sleep
. . . with the TV so loud.
. . . with that rooster crowing.
. . . without fireworks going off outside my window.

It’s Monday morning, and I
. . . plan to change the world.
. . . plan to change my neighborhood.
. . . plan to change my socks, as soon as the electricity comes on so I can do a load of laundry.

[photo: “Qwerty,” by Xosé Castro Roig, used under a Creative Commons license]

Culture Stress, when There’s No Hook to Hang It On

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When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.

When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.

It’s the Water and the Dirt

When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.

For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.

Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.

But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.

A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil.

Shui tu bu fu may have been the most accurate description for her illness, but it wasn’t very comforting. For us it had a simple meaning: we can’t explain it, and the only cure is getting used to Taiwan. (Add vague diagnoses to our cultural stressors.)

Over time, she did get better, but it’s hard to suffer without knowing the cause. With culture stress, even when a cure isn’t evident, we’d like to know the why. Without the why, it can start to seem, at least to others, that the symptoms aren’t real. A tombstone that reads “I told you I was sick” is hardly a victory.

Heavy Pockets

Culture stress is cumulative over time. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the term culture stress over culture shock. To me, culture shock brings up images of being brought to your knees by a great weight—for example, an enormous wool coat with its pockets full of bricks. Culture stress includes that heavy coat and also a jacket with a pebble added to its pockets each day. Bricks are obvious; pebbles, not always, but they can weigh you down just the same.

Of course, not every feeling of frustration or malaise is caused by culture stress. Often, we bring our own ill-fitting wardrobe with us and adjusting to a new setting brings that to the forefront.

Sometimes our feelings come from a combination of multiple causes, with or without identifiable hooks, and at times, they can seem overwhelming. If everything rubs you the wrong way and you find yourself having an “I hate (insert name of host country here) day,” don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone. It happens. Also, understand that those days are equal opportunity when it comes to place. You may find yourself having an “I hate (insert name of passport country here) day,” too. Reverse culture stress is equally real—and can be equally frustrating to pinpoint.

In whatever form, culture stress is normal. So is it normal to be faced with confusion when going through it. Give yourself time. Give grace to your host culture, and use the same grace for yourself. That time and grace will change you. They will give you the ability to tolerate, accept, and embrace, and to be able to say, “I love this place!”

The Aches of This World

London-born author Tahir Shah makes his living writing about travel and crossing cultures. In his book In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, he tells about his life after moving to a dilapidated mansion in a Casablanca shantytown. He writes,

Settling into a new country is like getting used to a new pair of shoes. At first they pinch a little, but you like the way they look, so you carry on. The longer you have them, the more comfortable they become. Until one day without realizing it you reach a glorious plateau. Wearing those shoes is like wearing no shoes at all. The more scuffed they get, the more you love them and the more you can’t imagine life without them.

This is the goal when one makes a new country home, this feeling of shoelessness, but it’s not always possible. Some pinches we never get used to, and some we shouldn’t. We should never become comfortable with gross injustices: racism, human trafficking, child abuse, and the like. We want to get rid of the feeling of different, but the pains and the aches are needful reminders that all is not right, and this regardless of the earthly locale. As Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in this world.

Paul’s writing also shows us that “wearing” our home is an idea that should not be foreign to Christians. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says,

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

“We groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling.” This move goes beyond new clothes for our bodies, it necessitates new bodies for our souls. So if on earth we are not comfortable even in our own skins, how can we expect to be completely comfortable in the trappings of any culture?

Someday when we put on heaven, we’ll truly be home. There will be no more groaning, no more culture stress, no more painful shoes, no more stiff collars, no more weighted pockets . . . and no more need for hooks.

(Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, Bantam, 2008; Philippians 3:20, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

[photo: “038,” by glassghost, used under a Creative Commons license]