A Letter to My Younger Self: Lessons on Cultural Differences

Inspiring openness, understanding, reflection and growth through culture differences.

Acts 17:26 (TLB) He created all the people of the world from one man, Adam, and scattered the nations across the face of the earth.

If I were to write a letter to my younger self, I’d remind him that despite the many different cultures and walks of life that abound on this Earth, humanity has shared experiences and emotions that bind us together. Furthermore, when approached with an open mind, exposure to cultural differences can create rich opportunities for hope and resiliency to bloom even in tragic loss. 

The letter would be scheduled to arrive on the day that I ended up in a Catholic home for boys after losing both of my parents. I was alone and frightened and now at the risk of losing my identity. I had to learn to trust people who didn’t look like me and certainly didn’t share the same cultural background. I had recently begun attending a predominately Apostolic African American church, but now that I was living in a Catholic home for boys, I was required to participate in Catholic school and mass. Imagine, if you will, the impact of these cataclysmic changes on a young mind. The only culture I had ever known was ripped out from under me with the violent loss of my parents and the lack of access to the church community I had grown to rely on. The stress and anxiety of having been placed in a home and living with strangers was unsettling. It took much running away, being brought back, and inner turmoil before I was able to begin to adjust. I wish I could tell myself that the best solution was to talk about what was going on in my mind and the gnawing feelings that were ever present in my stomach. Sharing one’s thoughts and feelings puts life into perspective, reducing anxiety and stress. If only I had known earlier that speaking my truth and reflecting honestly would allow me to broaden my horizons and foster a greater appreciation for the richness of human experience.

It was on this journey that I was introduced to Michael, a first-generation Lebanese immigrant who was married to an Irish Catholic woman. At the time they had no children, and I’m unsure if this was some sort of parenting experience or simply an act of kindness. Nevertheless, the couple took me into their home and raised me. My life was richly enhanced by my time with them, being shaped and molded from a young teenager into an adult. The things that my family valued were different from the things that they valued. Many of the habits and principles I still hold dearly today were inspired in me by interacting daily with the unique perspectives they brought to our family dynamic. There was always a conversation to be held about the differences that made us who were individually and shaped our identity collectively as a family. 

Living in a multicultural family wasn't always easy. There were moments when misunderstandings or cultural clashes arose. While I don't believe there was any malice intended, it did highlight for me the importance of open-mindedness and understanding different cultural practices. Learning to appreciate cultural differences from a young age became a lifelong journey that has improved my mental health and well-being in countless ways.  Experiences like this taught me the importance of open communication and helped me develop the cultural awareness to navigate similar situations with more confidence.

There were several key life lessons I learned about cultural differences throughout my life. Even as a child growing up feeling isolated and alone in a multicultural family, I struggled with depression but one of my greatest challenges was trying to decide which culture, if any, should I embrace the most. What I wouldn’t give to ease that inner turmoil and let my younger self know that I didn’t need to debate over this. The only thing I needed to choose was Jesus. I had to think like Jesus and place myself in His shoes. If I was offended or felt resistant to someone else’s point of view, I needed to ask myself how Jesus would respond in a situation like mine.

Still today, the memories of my first Christmas Mass stick with me. The shared traditions and beliefs I was able to find helped me to understand that we are all share in the human experience. Now, let me tell you why our cultural differences are an imperative part in our daily lives. As Apostolic believers, our quest to become more like Jesus means striving for a well-balanced life; that starts with accepting, acknowledging, and appreciating cultural differences. If I could give advice to my younger self and to you, the readers, it would be this:

  • Ask questions and initiate dialogue about the differences to dissect and truly understand
  • Encourage curiosity and a willingness to learn. If you cannot accept, then at least know why you cannot. 
  • Understand the importance of listening, respecting diverse viewpoints, and finding common ground. There is where we build, in a world that seeks to separate and destroy. 
  • The next time you feel a knee-jerk reaction to something unfamiliar, take a breath and ask yourself, could there be another way of seeing this? Consider what advice Jesus would give you, or what advice you would give your best friend in the same situation. 

There are more healthy benefits to culture diversity than one might think.  In the creation story of Genesis 1, the phrase "and God saw that it was good" appears seven times. The setting depicts that God is the source of all that is good and that His creation is orderly and intentional. The Bible supports a universal ideology that all cultures deserve respect and should be valued by all as His creation. Our cultural differences are not designed to cause us anxiety; instead, they are a reason to celebrate and honor God’s design to make us unique. Differences are not a reason to separate or condemn. The Bible implies that we should separate from sin; it mentions nothing about separation by skin. Learning from and embracing our cultural differences enhances our quality of life. I challenge you to consider the benefits of experiencing cultural differences. 

  • Expanding Perspectives: Exposure to different cultures challenges our assumptions and helps us view the world with greater nuance and understanding. This can reduce prejudice and biases.
  • Enhanced Problem-Solving: Different cultures offer diverse approaches to challenges. Learning from those outside your own culture builds a wider toolkit for problem-solving, innovation, and resilience.
  • Greater Self-Awareness: Encountering and appreciating cultural differences promotes self-reflection and understanding of your own identity and biases.
  • Reduced Anxiety: Intercultural experiences can help reduce anxiety in new situations, promote adaptability, and build confidence in navigating unfamiliar settings.

The trepidation, anxiety, and stress that I felt after the loss of my parents was only exacerbated by how little cultural understanding I had. As my cultural awareness grew and my previous mindset was challenged and expanded, I was able to prioritize both my emotional and spiritual growth. Although I still wish I could tell my younger self what I know now, I know that all things work together for His glory. I thank God that I can share this knowledge with you.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How has your cultural experience highlighted the challenges and potential benefits of encountering a culture different from one's own? 
  2. What are the spiritual implications of cultural differences, and their impacts on mental health?
  3. How can we become more open-minded and understanding of different cultures?
  4. How can encountering a culture different from one's challenge a person's sense of identity and self-perception?
  5. How can we challenge our stereotypes and biases?

Originally published in Pentecostal Life.