Saturday, September 3, 2011

More than two months have passed since I returned Stateside, two bittersweet months filled on the one hand with family time (including a wedding, but not mine!) and an exciting new job but culture shock on the other as I adjust back into American society.

As I restart my blog from this side of the pond, I want to pretend that I am a foreigner in the States - a stranger in a strange land, if you will, and comment on the cultural idiosyncrasies of our people as if I were not one of them. I intend to explore also the day-to-day faith that transcends geographical boundaries as I talk through my own everyday life.

And so, to begin:

Shortly before I came back Stateside, someone (I cannot remember who) remarked how isolated Americans could be. I thought it was a strange remark at the time: Isolated? Really? Americans are famous - perhaps infamous - for being the most egregious people on the planet. Even on my plane ride home, I met a host of strangers: three separate men helped me with my bags as I navigated the airports with 100 pounds of luggage, I held a short conversation with the Detroit help desk lady, and the people behind me for check-in joked with me. How in the world such friendly people be considered isolated?

And then I started settling in.

It is still strange to me to walk through the neighborhood and see huge swatches of green yard in front of people's houses, to see whole buildings empty except for two or three of four people in a family. It is strange to me to take my personal car everywhere, to see no one on the ride to work but myself. In the Czech Republic, I lived in a flat with twenty other families; I had a permanent roommate or two. More than that, I saw a hundred people on my way to work in a crowded Metro every morning. I saw another hundred on the way back. 

However isolated are homes and commutes are, we Americans still have a reputation for friendliness - one that we've earned. However little we mingle with strangers, we are particularly good at hand-picking the communities we do mingle with. We pick our church, go to work, join a sports team, and then we overlook the people who are not part of these communities, simply because in American society there is no need to see them; they're not up against our shoulder in a packed tram.  

This can have unfortunate consequences.

My first church visit in my new city was overwhelming. I walked into a sea of strangers, all grouped about in threes or fours and chatting with excitement. It was several awkward minutes before someone (someone I'd met previously) noticed me and welcomed me to the service. Immediately after the service, the groups reformed, and I, left outside, made a beeline for the bathroom. Shortly afterwards, I left.

I am not telling this story to make you feel sorry for me. Part of the problem was me: I hate visiting new churches and do not do well meeting new people. But I think my experience does indicate that Americans, however super-social with people they know and have selected to communicate with, do not do so well with those who are strangers or who unexpectedly show up in their day-to-day life. We are out of practice. 

I cannot change American culture, just as I could not change things I disliked about European culture (What did I dislike? Let me think about that for a while.) But I can change me. I know me: Personally, I prefer spending time alone, dislike meeting new people, and limit my social interactions. This is important on the one hand, because that's how I relax after a busy week. But it can be dangerous if indulged too much. 

If I learned nothing else in Prague, I learned this: We cannot change people by being brilliant. We change people by loving them, by spending time with them. C.S. Lewis wrote of such love as part of our imitation of God, an imitation valuable precisely because it is so difficult:

Our imitation of God in this life - that is, our willed imitation as distinct from any of the likenesses which He has impressed upon our natures and states - must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions (the Four Loves).

This is my goal.

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