In August, I took my oldest son to visit some good friends (adopted family) in Ghana, West Africa. I kept the trip to ten days because I didn’t want to overwhelm Xander in a place that is so unlike where we live, especially since he’s only seven. I prepared him as much as I could before we left for the way things would be, and showed him lots of pictures depicting what he might see on our trip.
Needless to say, the first five days of our adventure were tough for him. We flew to Ghana still both trying to recover from a wretched stomach bug that continued to plague us with cramps several days after we landed in Africa. And, as we disembarked from our plane and entered the terminal in Accra, Xander looked at me and said, wide-eyed: “Mom, you were right…there really are a lot of black people here!” I’m still chuckling about the look he had on his face.
Xander’s first couple of days of Ghana were safe exploration within the confines of my Ghanaian dad’s yard. However, when we left on a seven hour trip to his farm up in the mountains, Xander’s culture shock really began to kick in. The mixture of being tired, recovering from a stomach bug, and being in a wildly unfamiliar and different place led him to spend the entire car ride hidden under a blanket in the back seat. He avoided looking out the window at the scenery and interesting things we passed, choosing instead to force himself to sleep as much as possible.
My son’s initial experience in Ghana took me back to the time I had spent there years ago, and how I left Ghana the last time. Let’s just say I was a whimpering, sniveling runt of a mess….on the inside of course…I had too much pride to let all of that come out. The second time I went to live in Ghana I lived with Ghanaian families, seeing Americans only occasionally. My plan was to stay for two years, but by the end of one semester I was really depressed, confused, lost, and in the throes of culture shock for sure.
Of course, I couldn’t come back openly admitting that Africa was too big for me. So, I couched my return in rational excuses: the church denomination I’m working with is way too stifling, Ghanaians don’t need any white missionaries as they are quite capable on their own, I’m getting in the way, I should go back to grad school and come back to Africa with a more valuable skill, etc. Saving face was important….I’d already been called a quitter enough times in life and really wanted to spare myself any more labeling.
What strikes me now is how differently I left Ghana that time over a decade ago, and how I came back this August. I now had hours and hours of counseling under my belt, massive amounts of self awareness and insight compared to my early 20s, and was no longer burdened to the same degree by fear and doubt.
The thing that I did wrong the last time was that I wanted to avoid pain and discomfort. If I didn’t know what was expected of me or how to interact with people it was easier to hide away under a figurative blanket in the back seat. But in reality, all this did was make me more depressed, more unhappy.
What I knew this time, coming to Ghana with my son, was that when you feel discomfort, you’ve got to stay with it, feel it, probe it…not run. Staying present in the moment that is the scariest is what will get you through, teach you the lessons you need to learn. Because, I’ve also learned, God, the universe, whoever, will make sure and bring back around the same kinds of situations again and again until you learn the lesson…so you might as well spare yourself suffering and get it the first time.
In August, whenever I began to feel those pangs of culture shock coming back, I refused to let myself think about home, what is great and familiar about America, what I would be doing in the States. Rather, I asked myself questions about what I was feeling, looking for the core issues at play, and forcing myself to stay present.
So, in light of all this, may I encourage you to learn to stay present in your own painful and uncomfortable times. The boogeyman almost always seems scarier when we don’t look at him straight on. Maybe this is something you can’t do by yourself and you need a safe person or counselor to stand by your side when you proceed, but as I’m learning, staying in the moment and not avoiding pain and discomfort, can actually help decrease your suffering. Go figure.
Seeking to fully live,