Bother Nicholaus Wilson has submitted this reflection from Ministry in a Multicultural Church, a course taught by Ms. Kathy Akiyama. Another reflection on this reading can also be found on the journalism blog.
The Stumbling Block of Superficiality
by Brother Nicolaus Wilson
In an article entitled "Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication," LaRay M. Barna addresses issues that arise when persons from different cultures meet. Barna identifies six obstacles which can inhibit clear communication across cultural groups.
One of the obstacles identified how smiling is interpreted by various cultural groups. If we assume that all cultures interpret a smile in the same way then it can lead to problems. In American culture smiling is seen as a common courtesy. Barne's quotes one Vietnamese student's reaction to the way smiling is interpreted differently in American than in Vietnam. The comments are too lengthy to repeat here, but the main point is that the student saw the casual way in which Americans smile at one another as a reinforcement of the stereotype that Americans are superficial. This comment gave me pause to reflect on my own superficiality.
I recently flew across the country to vist an old friend of mine whom I served with in the military. We stayed in touch after we both left the service, and so I was looking forward to seeing him again. I had thought we would catch up and tell each other all about the changes and challenges in our lives since we last met, but we didn't. We ended up reminiscing about old times. We never went deeper; we just reinforced that stereotype of superficiality.
The worst part is I was actually kind of relieved. A part of me didn't want our relationship to go too deep. I felut guilty and sorrowful that, deep down, I didn't want him to know me too well. I realized that it wasn't just my old friend but that I don't seem to want to have too many deep and meaningful friendships with anyone. This is not in keeping with what it means to be a loving Christian in community with the body of Christ.
I think that the individualism and self-sufficient attitude of the "American spirit" is partially to blame for my attitude. I think it has to do with not wanting to loose control or having to rely on others. The Vietnamese student from Barna's article said that in Vietnam friendships are developed over time and tight bonds are made in ways that Americans tend not to. This closeness feels like it requires a dying to self and giving up part of oneself which is something no "true American" wants.
Jesus' words in the Gospel of John came to mind while I reflected on these problems. Jesus said, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend" (John 15:13), and again "I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father" (John 15:15). These words need not be taken literally. We can see the death that Jesus speaks of in a more symbolic way referring to the kind of death to self that is required in building a truly deep friendship.
It requires an openness that is uncomfortable for me and for many Americans. Jesus' words call me to leave aside my fear and die a little to self so that I can truly enter into relationships that are deep and lasting. Such a death requires that I open up and tell others about my worries and fears, my dreams and my deepest regrets. As Jesus said in John, without knowing this my friends are more like slaves and I like a master controlling them.
What I need to do to take this insight and put it into action is to talk with those in my life and not superficially. I need to cast aside my fears and open up in the great risk that is at the heart of love. Only then can I begin to grow deeper in my relationship with God, for if I can't be in relation with the other how could I be in relationship to the supreme other?
Editor's Note: As of 9 a.m. on June 9, 2012, the spelling of Br Nicolaus' name has been corrected.