A Lesson from Epictetus
“He who laughs at himself will never run out of things to laugh at.” -Epictetus
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Living Cross-Culturally is Difficult
Consider this scenario:
A new missionary is living cross-culturally.
Surrounded by a new worldview and there the missionary is with all his/her personal habits and cultural biases.
Usually, this kind of scenario brings out the worst in people: over-reaction, impatience, self-preservation… and that is rarely, if ever, a springboard for humor.
But does it have to be that way?
As the above ancient proverb says, if humor is our default (instead of grumpiness, depression, a sense of superiority, etc.) things are going to go a lot better – at least for the missionary in question.
How to Laugh at Yourself in Difficult Situations
So that brings us to the hard part of the question: the “how to?”
How do you laugh at yourself when you don’t know how to eat an unfamiliar meal?
When you’re clueless about performing bodily functions in a local bathroom?
When you repeatedly run into frustrations?
Before we answer this key “how to” question, here is a list of my default responses I do not want anyone to follow:
- Poke fun at the locals.
- Sponsor pity parties.
- Write blogs about how uber-crazy things are here.
No, no, no. This is not going to launch any holy joy – especially the kind that is born at your own expense.
So what to do?
- When living as a cross-cultural missionary, always carry a mirror and look at yourself frequently. If the image staring back at you is a humorless, suffering martyr, then go on to step 2.
- Get over yourself. Humorless, suffering martyrs don’t make fruitful, happy missionaries.
- Take selfies of yourself at your goofiest and enter the results in a journal called “Another Great Opportunity to Laugh at Myself.”
A Lesson on Laughter from Language Learning
Janet is a good friend of mine. We were all living in Thailand and working hard to master the Thai language. Janet had a pet kitten named “Sammy.” If Janet was not careful when she pronounced the name of her kitten, it could sound like the Thai word for “husband” (samee).
Janet was a new Thai language learner, so when her language teacher asked about her husband, poor Janet thought she was asking about her kitten.
“Oh he is very naughty! Last night he jumped up on the bed, and when I pushed him off the bed, he went and made a mess on the floor.”
Janet’s poor language teacher was horrified and you can imagine the hilarity when Janet realized her mistake. She laughed until tears dribbled off the end of her nose, and then like a successful cross-cultural learner, she told on herself and we too laughed till we cried.
The outcome was a group of rollicking Thai and missionary friends. What could have been an absolute disaster turned into a “bonding” experience. Praise God!
I’m a Canadian guy, who grew up in a small, monolingual, lower middle-class town. We were not global people. But at age 19 I left Canada and went to live in a rural part of Southeast Asia. I loved it!
I lived with subsistence farmers, learned their language and grew to feel like this so-different-from-Canada place was home. Over the past 48 years I have mixed with many of the languages and cultures of the region, have made many friends and along with my wife have become “old uncle” and “old auntie” in our current community on a misty plateau in this rural country we love.
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