The following is taken from Paul G. Hiebert. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, n.d.. This is a book that I highly suggest that all missionaries read. It has made a difference in my life and will in yours also.
Are you suffering from Culture Shock?
The real problem in culture shock is the psychological distortion that comes undetected while we think we are functioning normally. This twists our perceptions of reality, and wreaks havoc with our bodies. What are the symptoms of this cross-cultural malady?
In their first service year, new missionaries have usually experienced marked changes in their financial status, occupation, geographic location, recreation outlets, church routine, social activities, and eating habits. If they are young, they may have just been married or had a child.
One common consequence of high stress is physical illness. Among the more common sicknesses caused by prolonged stress are chronic headaches, ulcers, lower back pain, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and chronic fatigue. Stress also impairs our ability to concentrate and makes us accident prone.
Cecil Osborne (1967:198) writes:
[Emotional] stress creates a chemical imbalance resulting in malfunction of glands and other organs. The body then becomes unable to provide resistance to germs which are normally held in check. Since the mind tends to hand its pain, guilt and grief over to the body by an unconscious process, we find it easier to incur physical illness than mental anguish.
For one thing, we receive sympathy, which is a form of love, when we are physically ill; but the person suffering from mental anguish or depression is likely to be told to “snap out of it” or to “pull yourself together.”
Illness in a foreign setting, however, only increases our anxiety, particularly if the medical services we are used to are not available. In strange settings we easily become obsessed with health and cleanliness and magnify every symptom. Nor are such fears totally unfounded. We often do face strange diseases and dangers, and it is our lives that are at stake.
Psychological and Spiritual Depression
The most serious consequences of stress are often depression and a sense of failure. Caught unaware, we are unable to cope with the problems of living in a new culture. We are overwhelmed by constantly having to face confusing situations and the strain of learning a new way of life. There is little time for leisure-after all, is it proper for missionaries to relax when there is so much to do? Our support systems are gone. We are part of a missionary community made up of strong-willed strangers to whom we do not dare admit weakness, and there may be no one to pastor us when we fail.
There also hangs over us the sword of unrealistic expectations. The public’s image of a missionary is a hardy pioneer who suffers great deprivations; a saint who never sins; an outstanding preacher, doctor, or personal worker who overcomes all obstacles-in short, a person who is creative, brave, sensitive, and always triumphant. When we are young, we almost believe that we can become such persons when we cross the ocean.
It is not surprising, then, that we face depression, often severe, when we discover that we are still very human. Going abroad has neither changed our weak and sinful natures nor given us new talents.
Levi Keidel (1971:67) echoes the experience of many missionaries when he writes:
I began to stand my various manifestations of unchristlikeness up on a row to take a good look at them: bad temper, chafing against unavoidable circumstances, enslaving myself to legalistic motivation, ill will towards those who impeded my program.
To these I added recurrent terminal exhaustion…. I remember the counsel of my pastor when we first left for Congo: “Now Levi, you don’t have to accomplish everything during your first term.” Before I completed two years on the field I was taken to a hospital…. I was a bowl dipped empty and scraped raw by the ravenous appetite of demand.
Unfortunately, if we think we are failing, we work harder to maintain our self-esteem. But this only multiplies our problems, for the fear of failure itself saps our energies. Defeated, we conclude that we are faulty and not acceptable for God’s service.
Sometimes we put on masks to disguise our weaknesses. For a time we can deceive others, even ourselves, but in the long run we know these are worthless self-images.
Dwight Carlson (1974:65) writes:
Like other unresolved conflicts, the mask requires a lot of energy and leads to a host of problems besides fear, such as irritability, worry, anxiety, fatigue, excusing ourselves, blaming others, and, not infrequently, frank lying and deceit….
When we refuse to remove our masks, we not only create internal conflict and fatigue, but we also hinder our own growth and the growth of others. Individuals grow by relating to other genuine people and seeing how they deal with life’s problems. Christian leaders must be willing to first remove their own masks before they can ever expect others to do likewise. Only as we Christians are willing to expose our feet of clay will others feel (and maybe only then) safe to expose themselves and their needs.