If you have come to the end of this year feeling tired and weary you are not alone. Since our first COVID induced lockdown in March, we have been very much ‘off map’ in uncharted territory and that makes everything feel like hard work. The timeframes within which we can plan and operate with reasonable certainty have shrunk, and our sense of control over our lives has decreased. So even though human beings have been blessed with an incredible capacity to adapt to new and unexpected situations, this doesn’t come without a cost. Having to constantly ‘recalibrate’ is tiring and we need to acknowledge and accommodate this.
The sense of being overwhelmed has been a common theme as I have sat down with various people recently and heard what the journey has been like for them. There have been silver linings, but also frustration and disappointment, and a general sense of weariness. It hasn’t been a ‘big’ year in terms of events or travel, but somehow, the ‘less’ has felt like more, much more. This has brought bewilderment and for some a sense of failure as if they ‘should’ be coping with it all a lot better.
I have actually had many conversations like this over the years, but the difference is that they have typically been conversations with missionaries facing the huge challenge of adapting to a new cultural context. Missionaries often describe their exasperation at the herculean effort it takes to catch public transport, navigate the supermarket, find something resembling milk and bread and return home. They talk about the need to occasionally ‘escape’ from the stress of it all and how simple things feel overwhelming. Missionaries and expats of all kinds are familiar with the dislocating (and exhausting) experience of attempting to come to grips with a new kind of cultural reality. This is not unlike what we have all experienced living through a year in which Covid19 has turned our world upside down. Having to learn to operate in a new and uncertain reality has caused many people to undergo something similar to that of missionaries suffering from culture shock. So if you are feeling a bit stretched and weary, this is an absolutely understandable response.
Earlier in the year when the similarities occurred to me, I wrote a short note to some of our Carey Post-Grad students. I wanted to name and acknowledge the unique challenges of adjustment they were facing and to encourage them to seek true rest and refreshment. In my experience the default setting for most people when trying to cope with the deeply disorienting effects of an uncertain and difficult context is avoidance. The most common ‘go to’ is the distraction technique which at the moment most commonly looks like binge watching (insert your favourite show and media provider here)! While it is true that this form of escapism will offer a temporary reprieve, it is ineffective in the medium and long term. It is often over-utilised and crowds out much needed time and space to pray, reflect, problem solve and then re-engage in healthy and productive ways.
To thrive, missionaries have to work through an enculturation process, (assuming the stance of a learner, listening and observing, changing and adapting), so that they can see with new eyes and engage well in their new space. Likewise, as we continue in largely uncharted territory we also need to undergo a process of adjusting and adapting. We need to build and test new routines, reflect on and address issues, seek mutual support and encouragement, and find new rhythms that allow adequate rest. This all takes time and energy, and we need to acknowledge and account for this as we put in the hard yards.
Central to our success as we seek to reflect and adjust is connection. We need to be intentional about connection with God and with each other.
Let’s start with our connection to God. We all have our own ways of doing this, but if you are open to considering a spiritual disciple that could be particularly beneficial during this time, let me point you towards the Examen. The Examen is a prayer that helps you to review your day, evaluate your heart and find where the Holy Spirit has been at work in and around you. More than that, it develops the discernment to find and respond to God in all things. Father Aschenbrenner puts it like this:
In countless ways God reveals Himself and His wonderful plans for all humankind in Christ. In prayer I experience His personal challenge to me. Examen is prayer; it is a preparation for other forms of prayer and flows naturally from them; it helps me to sense God’s action and to find Him not only in times of prayer, but in every incident of my life.
Developing a practice of daily or weekly examen provides both the time and space for much needed Spirit-directed reflection in our lives. This is deeply formative. Better still, it helps us to become more aware of the way God is at work in the world and invites us to respond. It helps us to see with much greater clarity what must be faced, understood, decided and acted upon. And this is more important now than ever before. Let’s search our hearts regularly.
Search me, O God, and know my heart.
Try me and know my anxious thoughts,
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Let’s also consider our connection with each other. This is a great time of year to book in a coffee (or beverage of your choice!) with a good friend. Take turns reviewing what the year has been like. Discussing the highs and lows and perhaps what you think God is teaching you through it all can be cathartic. If you are able, you might also consider reaching out to someone else who could do with a listening ear or some other practical form of encouragement. Everyone could use a bit of extra support and encouragement this year.
The ‘stress’ that we are experiencing right now differs from culture shock in at least two significant ways. First, we are not just adjusting to a new cultural environment that is relatively fixed, we are in the midst of a process of transitioning into a new way of living that is as yet undefined. This is a liminal space; we are on the threshold of something new and it is not clear yet what things will look like. Second, our goal here is not acculturation. We do not need to be swept along into whatever comes next, we have agency, and we have some capacity to help shape what the future looks like.
I would like to suggest that we let go of the story that says if we just keep moving, we will eventually get back on ‘the map’ and we can carry on as usual. What if goal is not to find our way back onto the old road, but to chart a new one? The consequences of this pandemic will be far reaching. At the very least we are going to have to face the repercussions of significant debt, and the reallocation of people and resources into new and different areas. This is inherently painful, dislocating, and difficult. We are also inhabiting a moment when our general sense of being a global community has become a lived reality in ways we have never experienced before. This heightened sense of connectedness has also raised awareness of the forces that threaten to disconnect us. We have been freshly confronted by the ugliness of racism and violence and seen in response the rising of many to call for a more just society. This moment represents an opportunity for us to genuinely seek to understand God and each other better, in love and humility, and to find new ways of doing things that break down old structures of power and privilege. Let’s create space in our lives, and wherever we are able, that encourage voices that have previously been silenced to instead be welcomed and heard.
What would it look like for the Church to use their Spirit-inspired imaginations to conceive of new ways of being and doing? What would it look like to regularly and prayerfully seek discernment not only as individuals, but to intertwine this inter-generationally, corporately, and cross culturally? What do we need to confess, repent of, forgive, let go of and learn so that we are positioned to listen and see things we didn’t appreciate before? What possibilities and opportunities can come to fruition if during this time of recalibration, we examine ourselves deeply, ask new and better questions, see further, and connect more deeply. Into what new spaces is the Spirit of God calling us to join him?
Let’s recreate the map.
 If you want a quick read about some of the underlying neurological reasons why operating in a context like this is taking its toll on you check out Peter Olsen’s excellent article. Peter Olsen, “Covid and Culture Shock Feel the Same to Your Brain — and Here’s Why,” A Life Overseas, 25 August 2020, https://www.alifeoverseas.com/covid-and-culture-shock-feel-the-same-to-your-brain-and-heres-why/.
 You can read about this and other common responses here: Colleen A. Ward, Stephen Bochner, and Adrian Furnham, The Psychology of Culture Shock, 2nd ed. (Sussex: Taylor & Francis Group, e-library, 2005), 47.
 You can find an abbreviation of Father Aschenbrenner’s article giving a brief summary of the practice and an outline of an Examen prayer here: Father George Aschenbrenner SJ, “Examen,” ed. Father John English, 2007, 5, https://thinkingfaith.org/sites/default/files/examen.pdf.
 There are numerous resources available online, but if you’d like a place to start, you can be walked through an audio version of a variety of examen prayers here: https://pray-as-you-go.org/article/examen-prayer.