Eight Life Lessons
The COVID-19 pandemic has been reinforcing lessons I learned living overseas. Here are eight life lessons that continue to be reinforced in this season.
1. Laugh. And find joy in the small things.
The first time I went to Bulgaria, we landed in Plovdiv with the sound of clapping all around. Little did I know that this was only the first thing of many that would be different. I disembarked the aircraft and boarded a bus where there was no concern for personal space. I began to hear a language that I didn’t recognize. I looked at the directional signs and saw the Cyrillic lettering, which I couldn’t even begin to pronounce. While waiting in line to get my passport checked, I noticed that people around me were wearing clothes that looked different from the familiar American or Western European norms. I’d only been on the ground for 15 minutes and I wasn’t even in country yet. This experience of navigating foreign lands was one that I faced over and again as a missionary working in 16 countries. Finding my way was something that happened more and more naturally with time.
During the pandemic, everything looked different, everything felt different—the words I saw on the news and social media looked like a foreign language at times, the way we stood in lines, and even what people were wearing (face masks). As the months pushed on, I was surprised at how quickly I adapted and I was reminded of the moments just a few years earlier when arriving in foreign settings for the first time. The number one tip here is to laugh. Laugh when you get in the wrong line or when the line forgets you are there. Laugh, probably a little more quietly, when someone is wearing something very different from you. Laugh when everything around you seems foreign. Find joy even in the small things.
2. Learn the language.
Learning another language is quite an undertaking. While we used English quite a bit, a good portion of our work required us to learn German. Most people would say that this language is intimidating and hard to learn, but once I dove in, I realized the beauty of the German culture through their language.
During the pandemic, the number of terms that were vaguely or perhaps not at all familiar seemed to grow by the hour—aerosol, antibodies, ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome), asymptomatic, COVID, herd immunity, MERS, N95, PPE, R0 (pronounced R-naught), SARS, social distancing (for the curious, check out these terms and others at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid-19-terms). The reality is that navigating foreign terms and adopting a lifestyle of learning within the context of communication was vitally important to our integration into our community. The tip I would recommend within the sphere of language learning is don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, that’s when the best learning could take place.
3. Get outside regularly.
The weeks between week 3 and week 10 of living in a new culture were extremely difficult. I felt quite confined to our apartment in Berlin. Even though there was quite a bit of life happening right outside of our windows, actually taking steps outside were difficult. To overcome this feeling, we set a goal of getting out of the house once a day. Whether it was going for a walk, going to the store, or just to the play set out back, this did our minds, bodies, and souls so much good!
Whatever the context of your pandemic lockdown, find out what’s safe and within the context of good community health, set a goal of getting outside once a day.
4. Meet the neighbors.
In Germany, this was one of the saving graces of our family. It was our neighbors who checked in with us daily and who brought us life and encouragement on a regular basis. Time and again we’d ask our neighbors for help with this or that. We’d ask how the trash was to be sorted, what brands they used at the grocery, or where to find certain government agencies.
In the early days of this pandemic, we saw and met neighbors we didn’t even know lived on our little street. Seeing people walk the neighborhood was comforting and provided space for processing the influx of information and misinformation. The pandemic was a reminder of our days in Berlin and the importance of maintaining good relationships with our neighbors. Whether it’s getting encouragement, keeping a watchful eye, or borrowing a cup of sugar, you never know when a helpful neighbor might make a difference in your life.
5. Come back to the table.
Abendbrot (evening bread). I can feel the texture of the bread in my mouth, I can hear the crunch it makes in my hands, and I know the feel of the bread knife making its way through the brotchen. More than any of that, I remember sipping good coffee while sharing life-giving conversations with our neighbors and friends. It was amazing how this setting provoked conversations of grace, forgiveness, and joy-filled living. Time at the table was a time to learn, listen, and laugh.
The lockdown meant that times around the table with others who were not in our immediate family weren’t possible. I remember the first time we had someone in our home and the rush of emotion that came over us all. It wasn’t about the pizza, it wasn’t about the dessert, though both were fantastic. It was about the importance and need of table time. Sitting, sharing, laughing, listening, sharing the cup of humanity that we’ve been dealt in this season is so very important. You might have to go outside to do this safely these days, but oh how important it is.
6. Call people by name.
We had been in our new apartment for about a month and because we didn’t have a car, we went to the grocery store every few days. I was walking through the store trying to figure out where each of the things on my list was when I heard, “Joshua!” I about had a heart attack. No one had called my name in a public place in over a month, and this time it was said with a foreign accent. It was Frank, the owner of a local bicycle shop. We had many conversations over the years we lived in Berlin, but this one in the grocery store is cemented in my mind.
During the pandemic our experience at the grocery store has changed. It used to be that I couldn’t get out of our grocery store in the States in less than 30 minutes because inevitably I would see people I know. Now, even if I do see people I know, I find myself keeping my head down and carrying on with my list, wanting to limit my interactions with others and not wanting to intrude in the safety of others. That’s this is well and good, but, wow, calling someone by name and being called by name are so important.
7. Learn the tech.
Be it distance, cell phone plan limitations, cost of flights, too few vacation days, or a myriad of other reasons, our reliance on technology while overseas was heavy. We used Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime regularly with our families, while Facebook became the way we would keep track of our friends from a distance. Regular Zoom meetings for work were a given, and we had emails coming out of our ears. This doesn’t even include the connections with partnering congregations and individuals at weird hours of the day and night because of the time difference.
As this pandemic set in and we realized that we’d be working and doing school from home, we were ready to go. What an advantage to already know the tech. Our children were already familiar with the available devices and we had a working knowledge of most of the apps at our disposal. Of course, there have been some learning curves, but for the most part we’ve managed the transition to technology quite well. Remember, though, to take breaks. Get up from your computer screen at least once an hour. Give your eyes, neck, back, and core a break from a position your body wasn’t designed for.
8. Learn to spot misinformation.
Putin leber or Putin lieber. That’s the difference between turkey lovers and turkey livers in German. Early on we had this experience where we thought we had ordered one over the other. I’ll let you imagine guess which way we were surprised. Whether it was a mistranslation, lack of context, misunderstanding, or simply incorrect facts, we were constantly trying to sort and filter information in a way that would be most helpful to our lives, family, and ministry. Not everything was as trivial as enduring a strange meal; often it meant situations that were unsafe or the triggering of expectations that couldn’t be met.
Life during the pandemic has been no different. Whether it is the plethora of news articles or the rumors constantly circulating, we have found ourselves, again and again, examining and reexamining the sources, factchecking, and validating what we’re reading and hearing. Brené Brown got it right when she said, “We’re all susceptible to information that delivers us from pain.” Point of view is everything! Looking at things from many different vantage points is essential to make a decision that isn’t just good for me in the short term but good for the whole community in the long term.