Language Learning and the False Self

In the the first few months of learning a language cross culturally even a small trip to the grocery store can become a game of “how much stress will I have to endure this trip?”

One day as I was finishing putting all my groceries on the conveyor belt, the person ahead of me had just finished. The checkout lady turned to me.

“Salve, – (Insert a whole slew of Italian words in rapid succession here) – Ce l’hai?”

“Ce l’hai?!? Wait, what did you say?…Oh shoot, she’s staring at me…um…let’s see…’ce l’hai’…’ce l’hai’…oh wait…that means, ‘do you have it?’ I think so…shoot…wait, have what? Man that line’s getting long…hold on…um….’Si.’

“Ok.” (the cashier holds out her hand waiting for me to put something in said hand).

“Shoot…I don’t think I’m supposed to give her my credit card now…but…ok…here it goes.” (Places said credit card in hand).

(A look of confusion mixed with indignity appears on her face as she places my card on the counter and begins to scan my groceries.)

“I think she was asking about something else.”

Language learning whilst living cross culturally is one of the most frustratingly difficult and taxing things we’ve ever done. There have been few spaces or seasons in life that have forced us to face fear, confusion, and uncertainty with such laser focused precision. Language learning in a different culture has a way of pinpointing every. single. insecurity. that you hold in your heart and systematically poke and prod them relentlessly.

Situations like this one in the grocery store regularly force us to make decisions. When learning language cross culturally, one is regularly faced with answering the question of what’s more important: to pretend I understood something that was said to me so as to not look like an idiot or, to be honest and just admit I missed what was said and don’t fully understand?

Read: pretend so as not to look stupid or be honest and look stupid?

The irony is that pretending to be something we are not in order to avoid fear actually often leads to more embarrassment and doubles down on creating fear in us. When we choose to function from a place of falsehood we are functioning from a place of fear. Often this is a result of not being centered. When we forget who we are and whose we are, we easily shift and function from a false understanding of ourselves. When we live out of our false self we fear that our lack of a true center for our identity will be revealed and that weakness will be exploited by others.

Our false self will almost always try to compensate by finding our identity in performance – “I am what I do.”

In language learning our false self says:
“If I can just speak better, then I’ll be good to go!”
“Don’t let them know you don’t understand, they’ll think you’re dumb.”
“Fake it till you make it.”
“If they at least think I understand, then they’ll think I’m really doing well at learning language and will like me more.”

In language learning it’s easy to think that because we can’t speak well we won’t be valued. If our false self is rooted in value, then our ability to perform (or speak) is directly related to our value. Every time I fail to understand or articulate myself, I’ve failed. To the extent our false self guides our life, we fear others. Life with others is a constant threat to our false self. Others may see through or expose our facades of competence, confidence and control. Others may discover and disclose that we are a person without a firm center. And so we get stuck. If everything and everyone is a threat to my value then I might as well just stay inside and never leave my house.

Anytime we try to root our identity in anything other than God we’ll find ourselves trying to fearfully protect an identity that crumbles at the weight of its insufficiency. In language learning, and in reality, most things – when I try to uphold an image that I’ve created for myself I will undoubtedly, out of fear of losing it, do whatever I can to keep that image afloat. We are learning what it looks like each day to let go of the images of perfection and achievement and trust that we are valuable because of who we are in Christ and not our ability to speak well.

Our identity must be centered in Christ. Mulholland writes in his book ‘The Deeper Journey:’ “The life hidden with Christ in God is one of such growing union with God in love that God’s presence becomes the context of our daily life, God’s purposes become the matrix of our activities, and the values of God’s kingdom shape our life and relationships; God’s living presence becomes the ground of our identity, the source of our meaning, the seat of our value and the center of our purpose.”

We have to daily choose to be honest with ourselves and with others with where we are at in the process of learning the language and trust that our value comes from Christ and is enough to sustain us even if we look like idiots, fail to understand something, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

It’s easy to say our identity is found in Christ and not in our ability. But each day we are given countless opportunities to actually live that out by making choices that allow us to live in freedom from the need to uphold something that we are not. It’s in the little moments like the grocery store interaction where in a split second I can choose to live freely or hide. Do I trust that I’ll be ok even if I admit I don’t know something or apologize because I can’t say something correctly?

When I’m confident in who I am, I don’t have to pretend to be something I am not, I can be honest with where I am at in the process and relax; trusting I’ll get it…eventually. The lady at the checkout counter becomes a lot less scary when I don’t need her to assign me value.

These days when I’m asked if “ce l’hai?” I can politely just tell the checkout lady the truth…”L’ho dimenticato” (I forgot it.)

Closed?! Again?!

This week Italy celebrated the holiday Ferragosto. It is one of the oldest holidays in Italy celebrating the harvest and a long strenuous season of agricultural work (the date has since been adopted by the Catholic and Orthodox church and August 15th is today celebrated around the world as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary). With Ferragosto comes a complete slowdown and in many cases shutdown of cities throughout Italy. Perugia is no exception. In the windows of most shops and places around town you can find a little sign that reads, “closed for ferie.” Many of these places are closed for weeks. Not days. Weeks.

A few days ago we were planning an afternoon walk with our boys to the city center to get a little gelato and try to “escape” the heat of our home. As is customary for new missionaries on the ground, we’ve been systematically trying different gelato shops around the city – you know; to “learn the culture.”

This particular afternoon we set out to return to a shop we had tried before and really enjoyed. The boys were ready! As soon as the word gelato leaves our mouths, the boys shoes are on and they’re waiting at the door. As we approached centro, we quickly came up to our gelato shop of choice only to find that notorious sign hanging in the window, “closed for ferie.” Immediately we were to forced to come up with a plan B. Gelato was promised, we had to figure something out!

Now there was a time when we first arrived here in Italy, just a few short months ago, where any one of us would have been frustrated, disappointed, or angry by said closing. But this wasn’t our first experience of “surprise we’re closed for_____.” In fact this wasn’t our second, third or even fourth time.

There is an ongoing joke in our home that every time we get ready to leave our house to go do something, one of us will undoubtedly say, “well, we’ll see if it’s even open today.” Even our boys have learned to temper their expectations of what might occur when they’re close to getting what they want. Instead of getting mad that they weren’t getting gelato at their favorite place, Emerson, our oldest, simply shrugged it off and said, “well let’s find another shop.”

Life here in Italy RARELY goes the way you think it will. The thing about living in a different culture is that if you’re not careful, your expectations can sometimes be miles away from reality. And when expectations and reality don’t line up, stress builds. It’s easy to think that when things go the way you want them to, life is good. When things don’t happen as you’d like, life suddenly becomes negative and disappointing; stress builds. When stress builds (and is not dealt with appropriately) it can significantly diminish your ability to succeed and thrive. The closer our expectations are to reality, the better we are able to adjust to our cross cultural context here in Italy.

We laugh now when we say out loud, “well, we’ll see if it’s even open today.” But what that little statement allows us to do is to be aware of our own expectations (that things should be open when we want them to be) and connect them with the reality (that in Italy, you literally never know if something will be open or not). By doing this, we are able to close the gap between expectations and reality and in turn lessen the stress we feel when something doesn’t go as we think it should.

Handling expectations is key to life overseas. It’s important to be aware of the expectations that we bring to each situation we face and ask ourselves, “are these realistic?” If we don’t even know the expectations we hold, it’s near impossible to fully understand the myriad of reasons and places stress builds up when those unknown expectations are not met.

It’s also helpful to remember that part of serving, of ministering, of living life in a different culture is that we must be willing to die to our expectations (lay down our lives). If we hold our expectations with clenched fists we’ll almost always be disappointed and, in many ways, miss out on gifts God desires to give us through our faithful laying down of our selves.

When we are able to name our expectations well, and understand them in light of the reality we find ourselves in, we are able to better avoid the rollercoaster of “things go well, life is good, things go bad, life is bad” thinking. Instead, we can move towards better learning and understanding of our new culture and adjusting our expectations towards the reality of our new culture, which allows us to thrive…and find another gelato shop.

Scarves when it’s 90?

“Oh the food though…”

When Americans think about Italy they often have a very specific (and more often-than-not, romantic) view of what Italy is like. Many we have met have been to Italy on a vacation or two and had the time of their life. To be honest, Italy is beautiful, it’s charming, romantic, enchanting, and just about every other adjective you could imagine to use. Italy is a country with a rich and complex culture; but as we are learning everyday, there is a vast difference between traveling to Italy for the “vacation of a lifetime” and actually living here.

A while back, the author John Maxwell remarked, “All the best leaders in the new millennium will be missionaries.” Even for us, that seems like a pretty bold statement.

Why do you think he said that?

In a flat, globalized world it seems as though we are always crossing cultures–or at least we should be–and we need to know how to do that well if we hope to be fruitful. As our family prepared to move here and, as we live here now our prayer has been, “Lord, help us learn and understand Italian culture.” We recognized early on that our ability to connect the Gospel of Christ to Italian lives is intricately connected to understanding culture.

The author Annie Dillard once asked, “Why do people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” It’s easy to take a hurried and shallow look at God and miss the amazing. It’s just as easy to take a hurried and shallow look at culture and miss it’s depths. Each day, we try not to “do culture” like people “do God.” Rather, we try to allow God to open our eyes and our minds to see what “tourists” might miss.

Culture is a funny thing however. It’s a bit complex and can be difficult to get our arms around it.  But it’s worth studying because along the way we grow to better understand places, people, God and ourselves. One way of describing culture can be to identify patterns. Every culture be that a national culture or a sub-culture such as a particular business group or social group have engrained patterns that inform who they are…it’s our jobs as missionaries to learn and grow to understand the culture(s) we find ourselves in. 

As we approach our 4th full month of learning how to live here in Italy, we’ve been reflecting on a few of the differences in culture that we’ve experienced. Each day we gain cultural insights; and more often than not the assumptions that we brought over with us are not the whole picture. Here are just a few cultural differences we’ve experienced.

  1. Efficiency. “When in Italy – doubt” should be Italy’s catchphrase. When you move to Italy you have to unlearn everything you’ve ever known about things happening in a common-sense sequential manner and you have to learn the new system of nobody knows how things work, when, or why. It’s fascinating. Very little seems to be intuitive and you can’t easily figure stuff out without asking people. In order to thrive you really must hold EVERYTHING with open hands. Just because you can pay that bill at the Post Office doesn’t mean the next bill that you receive can be paid there.
  2. Space. The US is enormous so it’s no surprise that Americans are accustomed to space. Big cars, big houses, big yards, and about two feet of space between themselves and other people all the time. Italy is not gigantic and in most cities here the people live packed into a small apartment. They don’t require the same personal space. One of the first things that we noticed when we first arrived is that strangers touched me (and our kids) all the time and nobody says, “sorry” or “excuse me.” At first it seemed rude, but then we realized later that it’s because there is simply nothing to be sorry for. Sometimes you run into other people….and that’s that. We won’t even get into driving here…suffice it say…there’s no space…either go or get out of the way.
  3. Levels of neurosis. Italian culture is pretty calm compared to American culture (in SOME things). Things that would send a typical American into cardiac arrest usually won’t get more than a shrug from an Italian. For example, bad dinner service. If an American has to wait more than ten minutes to order he’s going to burn down the restaurant. In Italy? Calm down! The waiter will get here eventually (after twenty five minutes). Cutting in line…well, it’s just your fault for not protecting your space. It’s the same with chaotic driving (couldn’t resist) or an array of other things that seem like the end of the world to Americans. Italy seems to understands the concept of taking things in stride and choosing what you get up in arms over. Now…if a child hurts themselves…look out, you’ll have every parent in the room tripping over themselves to make sure that the child is ok.

To really understand culture, and to interact with it in a way that can bring profound change, but as we are learning, it’s not enough to simply observe the differences in culture. We must go deeper by asking ourselves, “Why do people behave that way?”  That question looks for meaning it looks for values that are held by a people group. Below the surface, below observing differences, are the things that influence behavior, and if we desire to see change and transformation that will be significant and durable for any of us, the change must take place below the surface – at a heart level. 

We recognize we have a ways to go before we enter into heart level spaces and conversations – but we continue to be students of culture. We are grateful for the cultural guides God has put before us who can translate culture and give us insight into the “why.”

But to be real honest some things may just continue to ever be veiled in deep mystery – like, how is it 90 degrees outside and you’re still wearing a scarf…and jacket?!?!

5 Lessons I Learned in the Desert

5 Lessons I Learned in the Desert

God actually brings people through the desert. On purpose. Because He loves them.

Let that sit for a bit.

The desert.

You know, that place where you’re all alone. That place where there’s absolutely nothing around for miles. That place where wild animals are looking for their next meal. That place where your deepest fears and insecurities seep up from the depths of your soul because you’re left alone with them.

That place where no matter what you do, you don’t feel God’s presence and nothing turns out the way you thought it would. That place where you’ve done everything you’ve been told to do in the past: pray, read your Bible, listen to hymns about God, go to church and it just doesn’t work.

That place is where I’ve found myself wandering throughout this past year. To say that it’s been exhausting, emotional, and just plain hard would be an understatement.

And yet, being led into the desert was God’s purposeful and loving path for me to be formed in the ways of Jesus. And through it, I’ve learned a lot.

1) God cares more about my heart than He does about the results of my “ministry”

God used the desert to show me the places in my life where I didn’t love Him. He began to strip away any semblance of productivity and success. God made it clear: more than the number of people I lead to Jesus, more than the leaders I’ve trained and developed, more than the partnerships I’ve forged, He cares about my heart being surrendered to Him.

2) Often times I live like I’m a Christian Moralist

When I didn’t see the results and “fruit” of all my hard work I felt guilty and shameful. In order to cover those feelings up, I worked harder. But what God began to show me was that it’s not my job to take away guilty and shame. That’s Jesus’ job. That’s why He died. God began to show me what was in my heart. Spiritual pride. “I can do it myself.” Instead God pointed me to a place of love and humility; the way of Jesus.

3) You can’t read and pray your way out of the desert

Scripture is full of verses that talk about “waiting on the Lord.” We often think that that the longer we’ve been walking with Jesus, the more “experiences” we’d have with Him. We’re often told that we’re supposed to “feel” God’s presence all the time. And so it’s confusing, we often think that the more character/maturity we have in Christ, the deeper the experience of God we should have. When we stop having the “feeling,” often our response is to go back to what we know. “But, I’ve read my Bible, I’ve prayed, I’ve gone to church…why does God still seem so distant?” What I began to understand is that God’s desire is to take us to real places of growth. Thats the purpose of the desert, to expose one’s heart. God strips us of what’s worked before to draw us into deeper relationship with Him. God brings us to places where all we can do is pull up a chair and sit down while we wait for Him to form us, grow us, and lead us out of the desert.

4) God desires for us to be vulnerable with Him

I was raised as a good Baptist.  I could never imagine telling God I was angry at Him. I mean, I probably told God I didn’t like something once or twice, but never dared to express my anger towards Him for putting me in a specific situation. And yet, this past year I’ve spent more time reading Psalms and Lamentations than ever before. Let’s be very clear: David and the writer of Lamentations were extremely honest with how they felt about their subsequent situations. They held nothing back. As I began to share the anger, frustration, sadness, and brokenness that was in the depths of my heart, I in turn experienced the invitation of God to draw near to Him in love and comfort. He loved me despite the smorgasbord of genuinely negative feelings I had towards Him. Allowing yourself to feel emotions in the midst of your situations and offering them up to God who in turn responds with love is a recipe for heart change. And that’s what began to happen.

5) We need community to point us to Jesus when we can’t find the way ourselves

The desert is disorienting, exhausting, and grueling. When you’re in the middle of the desert it’s hard to tell which way is up. I’m grateful that in the middle of one the hardest seasons of my life, God graciously surrounded me with people who knew which way was up. When I couldn’t hear God’s voice, they listened on my behalf. When I couldn’t “feel” God’s love for me, they showed me the love of God. When I couldn’t see God’s faithfulness they pointed out God’s gracious provision. They prayed faithfully for me, listened intently to the cries of my heart, and sat with me when I needed friendship and comfort. They pointed me to Jesus when I couldn’t find my way through the desert. A community that reflects the person and work of Jesus transforms neighborhoods and lives. That’s why community is so important.

 

Nervous in the alley

A couple weeks ago I was headed to a CRM staff meeting which was being held over at another teammates house a couple of blocks away. As I walked through our neighborhood that morning, for some reason I made a turn and decided to take the “back” way to his house.

As I began down the alley I instantly felt like I was being watched. I could see a man and a woman digging through the trash up ahead, their hands on the trash; but their eyes were locked on me. A little unnerved I kept walking. As I continued to walk, the man began shouting at me from the distance.

“Partner! Partner!” “Hey partner, how you doing?!”

I could barely understand what he was saying, let alone why he was shouting partner at me. I became a bit unnerved. As I got closer, I recognized their faces. I had seen both of them around Starbucks a couple of times. My experience with the man was of him being very volatile and getting pretty angry quickly.

Even before I could engage them the man turned to his friend and pointed to me, “He’s my partner, this guy’s helped me out.” I was still confused; he turned to me, “You’re my partner, you’ve helped me a couple of times before, thank you! God bless you!”

Stunned, I said, “yeah I’ve seen both of you around, I work at our Starbucks here in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah, that’s where you helped me – thank you for helping me,” he said again. I introduced myself and asked them their names. “I’m Jamaica, and this is my friend Red,” the man replied, extending his hand.

We shook hands and parted ways. “God Bless you brother,” Jamaica said as I walked away.

As I continued walking that morning, I was humbled. I replayed the few interactions I had had with Jamaica and Red at Starbucks in the past over again in my mind and realized how very little I had actually “helped” them. All I had really done before was be nice to them. As our neighborhood’s transient population comes in and out of our store, many people have little or no patience for their requests and lingering. I’ve simply tried to be kind and patient.

That morning as I finally arrived at my meeting I was reminded that even the most minuscule and seemingly insignificant interactions we have with people can have significant kingdom impact.