Friday, December 20, 2013

Identity Re-Formation [Guest Post: Peter Eckert]

This is the second in a series by Peter Eckert on Cultural Transition. I would share more about my own revelations but I haven't found my own words for this process yet in a way that will help others. For the other Fulbrighters out there or other going through a parallel renegotiation, may these words encourage.

We all hate uncertainty. The grey parts of life are uncomfortable, so we establish ourselves around the “certainties” of our lives - for some it’s family, or intellect, or beauty, or community, etc. And in a way, we all know that. What we don’t always acknowledge is that our culture is no different. It’s the silent pillar upon which we construct our world. It gives us clear rules for self-expression and quietly chisels out the shape of our identity. For example, in my case, as I mentioned in the last letter, being friendly was culturally encouraged and a safe way to express myself. When I got to America, that was no longer true, and something that I’d rested my sense of self upon disappeared. 

In some way, culture-shock is the loss of that security in our identity. What made you you makes you you no longer, or makes you something a little different than it used to. Drastic mood swings, which you’ve mentioned, stem partially from that loss of clear internal standard; everyone else is doing something different from what you know, and it’s working for them, and you can’t just wake up someone else tomorrow. We take a lot more for granted than we realize.

Some people hole up in a little shell and protect what’s left of their sense of security; their transitions are drawn out and rocky. I’m frequently numbered among them. Others realize the security connection, decide to accept it, do at an intellectual level, and wildly immerse themselves in the new culture. They normally crash violently a few weeks later because… because Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s taken 20+ years of continuous affirmation and repetition to create your sense of identity - will it really be malleable enough to change in a month?

There’s no easy way change. Shock of some kind is inevitable as you redefine who you are. But if you have the willingness to accept being wrong and learn from it that your blog gives off, you’ll be able to roll with the punches and get up a stronger person. That’s what the transitioner does - they suffer through the process of being recreated without taking short-cuts and emerge new, a beautiful blend of their past and present, because they embraced the pain and bowed to it instead of fighting or avoiding it. So in sum, I don’t know that you’re a Transitioner, but I think you have one in you.

And I think there’s a very fundamental pattern here that shows up all over the place. The process I just described is very similar to how I understand the process of Christian sanctification, for example, or the process of learning a new sport or discipline, or even taking a class. What you once were isn’t cutting it anymore, so you break yourself down and change into a slightly different person/physique, whatever the situation, by taking one step back and two steps forward. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most breath-taking spiritual and personal growth I’ve ever seen in any persons was what I saw in my parents during two pretty awful cases of culture shock. God’s interested in making new people of us, and I’ve never known Him to waste opportunities.

It was very hard to write that out, Dana. I’ve been experiencing waves of culture shock since 2006, but the worst so far has been the current one. I’m in the process of self-recreation and identity-seeking just like you, so I caution you to read what I’ve written in that light. I don’t have the answers, and I’m hardly a disinterested party in culture-shock. With that being said, I don’t have a problem interacting about it. Just remember that I take what I think with a grain of salt, so I recommend the same for anyone else.

In looking over the last seven years, I think in regards to culture shock, as important as it is to know what’s going on, excessive knowledge or reliance there-on is a really bad thing. Identity crisis is one of the inevitabilities of life where some intellectual preparedness really helps, but the emotional impact needs to be lived. It’s like the death of a loved one - you can prepare yourself for it, but the sorrow and loss will come regardless of mental preparation. In a strange way I think that’s an apt illustration, since the cultural transition is something of a death and resurrection of the identity.

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