Transition: Finding Self and Christ in New Situations
by Dean Marshall
Most people have experienced at one point or another transition shock, or more specifically, culture shock. The transition to a new home, a new job, or a new way of life may elicit feelings of fear and inadequacy, driving a person to psychologically retreat from the outside world. Many people do not even realize that this phenomenon occurs, and go throughout their lives being unaware of the intricacies of adjusting to new cultures and situations. In her article “Transition Shock: Putting Culture Shock in Perspective,” Jan Bennett shows that culture shock, like other types of transition difficulty, consists of the “emotional and psychological reaction…brought about by sudden immersion in a new and different” environment and situation (216). To avoid the situation of culture shock in the Catholic Church of the United States, both for other individuals and ourselves, we must learn to adapt and learn from other cultures. In order to avoid culture shock, individuals must not only be willing to adapt and learn from other people, but also recognize the God-given talents and gifts that all groups, including themselves, bring to the Faith.
There are several symptoms of cultural shock, which are similar to the symptoms of other types of transition shock. As the “virtual infinity of variables” that surrounds a new situation a person finds oneself in begins to manifest, they coalesce into an “individualized impact” (217) that may have negative consequences. There are a wide variety of factors that affect how a person reacts to a particular situation, and each personal experience in new cultures and environments is different. Symptoms may manifest as “feelings of helplessness and withdraw, irritability [or] fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured… [often leading] to communication problems,” resulting in “psychic withdraw” (217). Just as a person in a new cultural situation is a unique human being, so are the various reactions that each individual has as he or she adjusts to their new circumstances. Sometimes these reactions are negative. The challenge, then, becomes how to counteract these negative reactions so that the individual may grow and thrive in the new environment, rather than retreat into an imagined comfort zone.
In order to respond positively to a new culture, the individual must be aware not only of the culture itself, but also of his or her attitudes and presuppositions. As Bennett explains, one must be “very attuned to [his or her] own cultural values and beliefs so that the contrast culture is more understandable” (220). To resolve symptoms of culture shock, the affected person must be open to learning about who he or she is as an individual, and how their prior beliefs affect their actions and attitudes. In addition, the person cannot continually make judgments about the new culture if he or she is to integrate into the new environment. A newcomer to any culture should learn to “withhold evaluation, refrain from cultural absolutism, and accept rather than reject” (220). In other words, one must endeavor to develop an open mind towards one’s own attitudes, and to the surrounding culture that they are preparing to engage.
Priests and seminarians must remain acutely aware of culture shock, not only in their parishioners and other people they may encounter, but in themselves as well. My most recent encounter with culture shock occurred when I entered seminary in August 2010; in fact, my experience could possibly be more widely classified as transition shock. I had quit a successful career in education, and had returned to school to study philosophy in preparation for entering Mount Angel. By the time August 2010 came around, I had already lost much of what was familiar in my life: a comfortable apartment, resources to live on my own, a bright-looking future, and the so-called independence to go and do as I pleased, when I pleased. Upon entering seminary, however, the reality of the situation came into sharper focus: I was in a completely different environment with new parameters, new expectations, and I felt like a fish out of water. I was homesick and I felt as if I was always under scrutiny from those around me, particularly from the formation team. I believed that I would never be able to survive in this new environment. For the first week or two of seminary, I was ready to pack everything up and go home, leaving the task of seminary life and priesthood to those that were much stronger and more capable than I was.
While I still believe that there are those that are much stronger candidates for the priesthood than I am, I obviously remained in seminary; this was possible because I was able to adjust to the new environment. I knew that I was starting to withdraw from the community, and that changes needed to happen or else I would have left and returned home. Several factors kept me here, including, but not limited to, supportive staff, great friends, and immersion into the seminary culture. As I continued on, I tried to become more engaged in the community and participated in many different events. I came to the realization that there must be a balance in culture assimilation: I needed to retain who I was and be myself, while at the same time adapting to, and learning from, the seminary environment. Keeping these strategies in mind, I believe I was able to adjust to my new environment and discovered that I became a part of seminary culture. In addition to learning more about myself as a person, I was able to learn about, and adapt to, the seminary environment.
While my experience does not focus on an ethnic culture, it gives an example of how the Church has a wide variety of different types of culture. One part of Bennett’s positive response to new cultural situations includes seeing these different cultures and being willing to recognize them as integral forces within the Church. The article “Many Faces in God’s House,” written by representatives from different cultures, shows how these cultures interact and some of the difficulties and opportunities that the Church faces. “Each brings the experiences of a people which, shared around the Lord’s Table” (Elizondo 1), brings new life and vitality to the Church. In order to avoid culture shock, whether as an individual or as a group, the gifts of each must be recognized and valued, and the groups themselves need to be open to others. Throughout the process of recognizing each other’s gifts, centered around the Eucharistic Sacrifice, both the individual person and cultural group will grow with the Church, and be more effective in evangelizing the message of the Gospel.
In the early Church, this need to respond positively to new situations and cultures was recognized by Christians. In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Saint Paul states, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all of the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). This passage demonstrates the process of positive enculturation that Bennett describes which will help prevent culture or transition shock. Implicit in the above passage is the fact that members of the Church must recognize the diversity around them, and learn to grow and learn from it. At the same time, they must also be open to learning about themselves. The process of enculturation is one that occurs on the exterior and the interior: while learning and adapting to the culture on the outside, the person must recognize the unique gifts and qualities that are within.
Culture shock can be a jarring and discouraging experience for any person. Feelings of fear and inadequacy can interfere with one’s life and negatively affect not only the individual, but those that surround him or her as well. Only by withholding judgment, being open to new situations, and recognizing that everything must be centered on the Gospel will a person successfully overcome the trials that are inherent in new cultural environments. Through the recognition of all the unique members of the body of Christ, and how one fits into that very same body, a person will be able to learn and benefit from new cultural experiences within the Church.