Analysis Paralysis and Burnout: When Loving Our Neighbors is Exhausting
“Are you trying to make us depressed?!” my peer interrogated, with an exasperated tone. My fellow PhD students and I had just been informed that we would be required to complete what is called the Intercultural Development Inventory. The survey, which only takes about 45 minutes to complete, is designed by a company who, according to their company mission, seeks to “facilitate personal growth and insight and collective change in ways that improve people’s intercultural competence and their efforts at bridging cultural differences so that relationships are strengthened and the human condition is enhanced.”  Dr. Steven Sandage, a Boston University professor who holds dual appointment in both the School of Theology and the Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, had just explained to our PhD cohort that developing intercultural competence often leaves a person susceptible to depression. Thus, the cause for my peer’s outburst. Dr. Sandage assured her that the goal is certainly not to induce depression, but that an earnest prioritizing of personal comfort and happiness may very well inhibit a person’s mission to become more intuitive and empathetic in intercultural contexts.
I have been thinking through this conversation for several weeks now. The truth is, I do struggle with depression. And while I do know that much of my depression is due to a family history of depression, I also know that I have wrestled more with it the longer I have dared to gaze upon the injustices, insanities, and neglected wounds of this world. The more I explore the heartache of those around me, the more sobered I become.
So, what is intercultural competence, and why does it put us at risk for “doom and gloom”? Is intercultural competence worth it, if I have to suffer? What motivation is there for people to develop this competency if it is so inconvenient for the individual who seeks it?
Let’s begin with a basic definition. In his book, Crossover Preaching, minister and scholar Dr. Jared E. Alcántara asserts that “to be interculturally competent means to possess the knowledge, skills, and habits required for negotiating difference effectively.”  I believe Dr. Sandage would add to that definition the acquisition and development of humility. Only when a person is humble, open, and willing to learn, will they be able to truly see and hear the experiences of others.
Why does the development of this intercultural awareness make us sad? In part, it is because even though human beings were created to do life together, we spend much of our lives fighting for our own personal security, happiness, and fulfillment. When our eyes are opened to the experiences of our neighbors, we are ripped away from the relative comfort of our selfishness, and thrown into a space of vulnerability and insecurity. When we open ourselves to the experiences of “the other,” we become even more aware of our own culture, background, places of privilege, and places of woundedness—and this journey can be exhausting. Navigating the space between the self and the other is a never-ending voyage that demands attentiveness and intuition.
So, I took the Intercultural Development Inventory, and I gave it my all. I wanted thorough feedback. Am I even remotely competent? How good am I at opening myself up to my neighbor’s experiences? How blinded am I by my own privileges (educated, middle-class, white, etc.)? Is there any hope for me, or will the sadness consume me? (Okay, I’m being a little dramatic, but I truly wanted answers!)
After taking the inventory, we were required to meet one-on-one with a trained specialist who would interpret our results and offer suggestions. As I met with the specialist I confessed, “I feel burnt out. I feel like I’m not doing anything right. Every time I try to enter intercultural conversations, concerns, issues of justice, or matters of peace, I feel like I’m blowing it. What is the point? How do I move forward?”
She offered a conciliatory smile, and said, “I think you have what we like to call analysis paralysis.”
What? What could that be? She explained, “The humbling journey of welcoming the other, empathizing with the other, and honoring the experiences of the other can be exhausting, discouraging, and well, sometimes you will feel paralyzed. Do you sometimes feel alone in this journey? Do you ever fear that no progress is being made in our society? Do you grow weary of speaking up because you question your place in these conversations? All of these feelings are normal, and they signify that you are indeed on the journey. I think the question you are wrestling with is, why keep going?”
How many of you, my readers, have suffered from analysis paralysis, as well? Maybe it happens when you turn on the news and feel helpless when confronted with the barrage of images of persecution and neglect. Maybe you feel it when you spend time reading books or watching films about injustice or oppression. Perhaps you experience burnout when you come to terms with your own limited knowledge and experiences, even after trying so hard to understand your neighbors. Do you ever grow weary of engaging family members during the holidays, because you cannot tolerate the racist talk of your relatives, or the dismissive selfishness of those loved ones who do not care to know those who are different?
You are not alone. I believe we were created to know and love those who are different from us. In fact, I believe it may be necessary to engage those who are different from us in order to better know God! Those neighbors are bearers of the image of God, after all. And perhaps, there is our motivation. As that well-known quote from the musical Les Misérables reminds us, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Aside from this theological impetus, I might also add that our society is growing more and more intercultural every day. Many of our churches have gradually, against the grain of history, become more and more diverse. Intercultural competency is rapidly becoming a necessary skill for all vocations.
So, if you, like me, desire to be interculturally competent, but you are tired or discouraged, allow me to offer some suggestions:
Speak with a counselor or a therapist, if you are able. Sometimes visiting with a professional can be a great way to air your thoughts in a safe space.
Do something you love. Invest in self-care. You cannot give love if you are not receiving love. When we try to run on empty, we run the risk of becoming embittered against those whom we seek to know and love. Don’t let your heart grow cold; take care of it.
Find friends who also desire to grow in intercultural competency. Find partners for the journey ahead.
Develop spiritual disciplines of meditation. Learn how to silence your mind and heart when you grow overwhelmed or anxious. You might rely on breath prayers, meditative reading of Scripture, or nature walks.
Ultimately, my answer is yes—the journey into knowing and loving our neighbors is well worth the heartache and exhaustion. This journey, not unlike the journey of our Savior, will be marked with difficulty and pain. But is that not our mission in following Christ, to lay our lives down for one another, as Christ did for us? Let us seek to see, know, and love one another as Christ has known and loved us.
 Jared E. Alcántara, Crossover Preaching: Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015), 192.