Reverse Culture Shock, Depression, and Perseverance

It’s been over 2 months since my trip to Haiti, which happened to be my very first experience in a third world nation. This is the first I have written about Haiti and is the first I’ve blogged since being back. A lot of that has to do with the crippling effect of depression, some has to do with being busy and/or lazy with writing. At any rate, I left a huge part of my heart in Haiti when I left. I have lots of friends who are missionaries and I’ve read lots of books on missions and many of them talk, to some degree, about a phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock.” Not everybody experiences it, but some do to differing degrees. I am experiencing some reverse culture shock. You may be wondering what “reverse culture shock” is. Put simply, it’s the inability to adjust back into your original culture after being introduced to a foreign culture. It is more common for people who live in foreign countries for long periods of time and then return to their home country. It does happen, on a smaller scale though, on short trips as well.

Reading about poverty and experiencing it are two very different things. We did house visits on one of our first days in Haiti and I was asked to “share something” (which means talk to, pray with, and hold people’s hands) at each house we went to. It took a few visits to know what was expected of me but I got the hang of it quickly. The house visit that made the biggest impact on me was one where we visited a church member who was a struggling, starving young lady. Mom recognized her as one of the ladies from the singing group at church. When I was asked to “share something” with her, she wouldn’t make eye contact with any of us. I immediately thought of the poor beggar at the Temple who wouldn’t (or couldn’t bring himself to?) look at Peter and John. Peter, in a very tender moment, “looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’” (Acts 3:4). I call that “finding the heart of others.” Through the guidance of God’s Spirit, I was able to find this woman’s heart. We were in a small concrete room and I noticed that every word had a slight echo. The acousitcs were amazing. I knew she liked to sing so I asked (through a translator) if we could sing hymns with her. That single question opened her heart to us and for the next 15 minutes we all sung together in 4 part harmony. Her voice was amazing and she asked if she could sing a song to us. She sang the song in Creole while the rest of us hummed in harmony quietly in the background. We went there to bless this woman but left having been blessed by her instead.

There is story after story of kind people who are stricken by poverty, disease, and broken families who taught me valuable lessons. When I am faced with adversity (which always pales in comparison to their adversity) I pray that God remove my suffering. I want it gone and I want, no–I demand, healing. When I was “sharing something” with people on our house visits, I always made it a point to listen to their stories and ask what, specifically, they wanted me to pray for. The most common prayer request was for me to pray to God for perseverance. Perseverance–the ability to withstand hardships and remain rooted in God’s grace. We met a woman who was so malnourished from lack of food that she was often too weak to walk to church. Mary Ann, one of our nurses, suggested that she eat 2 eggs a day to get much needed protein. As she lowered her head, she whispered in Creole, “I can’t afford it.” God tells us to rend our hearts. At that point my heart shattered. I momentarily turned away to hide the tears that soaked my cheeks and after regaining my composure I went back, held her hand, and asked what she wanted me to pray for. She hadn’t eaten for over a week so, quite naturally, I expected to hear a request that God would provide food. She said something quietly in Creole and Moise, her minister and my interpreter, said, “She would like you to pray for perseverance.” I broke all over again.

Looking into the eyes of people who have nothing and witnessing their faith in God in spite of suffering will change a person. I always heard that reverse culture shock is hardest after returning from a 3rd world nation. Now I know why. Of the hundreds of people we visited who all suffered from disease and poverty, we heard 0 complaints. Not one. Nobody said they were angry at God. They didn’t complain that life is not fair. They didn’t blame God for their lack of food, clothing, and shelter. I struggle with fighting bitterness right now. Bitterness at myself for being so selfish and demanding God give me more when I have far more than I deserve. Bitterness that our prayers mostly ask God rather than thank Him for what he has already given us. Bitterness that American churches are competing with sports and sports are winning the competition. Bitterness that people actually care what hair style Kim Kardashian wears or what clothes Pippa buys from week to week. I’m also struggling with a feeling of helplessness because there are so many kind people I met who I want to help long-term.

I thank God for the opportunity to go to Haiti and I long to go back one day soon. In the meantime, I pray for perseverance.

James 1:2-4 NIV “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

11 thoughts on “Reverse Culture Shock, Depression, and Perseverance”

  1. Jimmy,
    Thank you so much for writing this blog post which is most definitely “a piece of your heart.” Prior to leaving for Haiti, I prayed daily for several weeks that all of our hearts would be broken (those of us on the team), and God answered that prayer. Now, it is up to each of us to do something with that brokenness. And, I think the very beginning of “doing something” is by preparing our hearts just as you are — with thanksgiving in all things.

    It was a honor and privilege to serve on this trip with you. You are a true servant and a true spiritual leader.

    Love,
    Claire

  2. I spent 2.5 weeks in Haiti in 1978 visiting my brother&sister-in-law who were missionaries in Borel with the Church of God. Although I was visiting and not on a mission trip as you were, I agree that the wonderful people of Haiti touch your heart for ever even after a short visit. Although they live in poverty and at that time under a dictatorship they never complained or asked for more. They made joyful noices unto the Lord every day and thanked us for every small thing that we did for them. I knew your mother would be very moved by her trip to Haiti and touched by the people.

    1. Linda,
      Thanks for your comments. It’s an opportunity I wish everyone would get to experience. It is impossible not to be touched in some way by working and serving among those fine people in Haiti!

  3. These experiences do change you. I’ve always found that the hardest part is returning home. You’ve built friendships with people you know you won’t see again anytime soon. Even though you’re exhausted and drained and could really use a break, you still feel like you’ve only just begun to accomplish something, that you’re leaving a job unfinished. And it’s such a weird feeling when you finally return home. There’s a hunger, an emptiness, that longs to be filled, but you can’t find it in the things that you used to enjoy. It’s hard to talk to friends who weren’t there because they don’t truly understand and they’re too engrossed in their own daily life. It’s hard to focus at your job because your heart and mind are still back there, and the work seems so meaningless. And your biggest fear is that eventually everything will return to “normal.”

    1. Very, very well put, Noel. I’ve been on several short-term trips and you are exactly right that the biggest fear is that things will return to normal. The real question I struggle with when I return from mission trips is, “Why can’t we do this all the time?”

  4. Hi, I stumbled across this of while searching for “depressed after mission trip.” And I can’t tell you how relieved I am. My boyfriend is going through this reverse culture shock that you speak of and it affects him immensely. He spent 3 months in Brazil from November to January and has been struggling with adjusting ever since, as he describes. I have such a hard time understanding because I’ve never witnessed it for myself but he is so negative and down and angry at the world. It breaks my heart that he is this way and it negatively affects our relationship which is difficult enough as it is since we live 5 hrs apart. I don’t know what I can do to help as he won’t seek any help. All he wants to do is go back and it makes me sad that he is so pessimistic about life here in America. I wish I understood. 🙁 any advice would be appreciated. Nancyptv@gmail.com thank you for sharing your story and I’m so glad you know that you fight the negative that comes with what you experienced. It was a blessing to read. Thank you.

  5. UNABLE TO RESPOND NOW, MY EYES ARE SWIMMING WITH TEARS…THANK YOU FOR HELPING THE PEOPLE IN HAITI.

  6. I am beginning to know what i am going through, now after reading some articles of P.M.S (post missionery syndrom), i like your way to put it as ‘Reverse Culture Shock’. I, however, think
    there’s more than just ‘Culture Shock’ as I am going to face this feeling from now.
    I just got back from our church mission trip to Thailand a couple weeks ago and have been feeling really unfit to my ‘normal’ life ever since i came back. My work-very busy! since i was away for 3 weeks!, seems so meaningless! , back to my church to attend the service on Sunday doesn’t make me fill my expectations at all…
    I just can’t focus on anything and even if i did, i don’t feel any acomplishment of it.
    This is a very weird feeling i have ever felt in my life.
    I can not even pray to God as i used to by feeling of not being deserved to ask.
    Thinking back of those poor children on the mountain village in Chian Mai, they don’t have enough drinking water let alone wash their dirty clothes.
    I feel really sorry for them even when I water my garden in the morning, today.
    Just deep sadness and meaningless of everything here, BLESSED United States I live in.
    How de we deserve to have this blessed life? Apperently, we don’t seem to.
    I just can’t make it understood for myself. I am having a very difficult moment, now.
    Lord, Help me!

    1. Julie,
      God bless your work with the poor. It’s fascinating how much Scripture has to say about taking care of the poor. Isaiah was Jesus’ food and over and over again God talks about how much he cares for the poor and the fatherless. This theme runs from cover to cover in Scripture. It’s amazing how much focus we Westerners really put on material things. I didn’t realize it (does a fish really know he’s in water?) until I returned from Haiti. A dear friend of mine said of the Haitians, “The only difference between us and them is that they were born here and we were born somewhere else.” It’s difficult to adjust, but it will happen in time. May your passion to help others never be extinguished. God bless you.

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