First, if your experience does not form itself into an intelligible personal narrative, do not nurture feelings of frustration, inferiority, impiety, or whatever. You may have no idea where this story is going, or at what point you’re at in it. If someone tells you that your life has to be a good story, and that it therefore follows that you should outline that story in advance, tell him that when we make plans, God laughs, and the same is true of some of our sillier attempts to make half a chapter into an entire novella. It won’t fit that way. Go write a bit of fiction: it’ll make you feel better (and be really hard work, which is good for a distraction from your own Personal Life Journey angst.
Second, if you’re asked “what you learned,” and all you can think to say is “I learned how to make xinkali, a new alphabet, a bit of linguistics, some history, and slightly better interpersonal skills,” and the asker looks disappointed, get over it. You do not need his approval in this matter. Staunchly resist the urge to feel inarticulate and shallow. He probably wanted to hear about something intensely personal, and if you trusted him that much, you may have been able to do so. If he’s worth trusting, he’ll understand, even if you come back three years from now with “I finally figured out what I learned from that trip you asked me about!” and he’s confused, having forgotten all about it.
Third, don’t be afraid to use your own emotional range; don’t discount it because you’re worried about disappointing people. Honesty is more valuable than sensationalism, and sensible people respond to that. A good strategy is to avoid hyperbolic and unfair comparisons. You don’t have to say that this was the most amazing experience of your life. If you’re honored and grateful for the opportunity to participate, that’s enough. You don’t have to say that people there are so much more — free, selfless, joyful, whatever — than Americans. You appreciate the graciousness with which they responded to your presence — and that’s probably all you had an opportunity to witness, under the circumstances. That’s enough. When people ask seemingly unfair questions, like “what’s better, Georgia or America?” (I have been asked that often enough for it to constitute a cultural peculiarity), they probably do not really want an accurate comparison. They want to know that you appreciate them and their country. So just say so, and it’ll probably be all right. To take a Jane Austen reference, Marianne may be more exciting, but Eleanor is just as valuable, and if there weren’t people like her, the world would be far too emotionally crowded.
Fourth, and related to the last one, do not feel compelled to exaggerate your own benightedness prior to this event. You haven’t been living in Disneyland all your live up till now? You’re reasonably comfortable with some discomfort? You’ve never had occasion to distrust God before, and haven’t yet even now, and so you haven’t so much changed in that respect as continued under his previous gentleness? In general, you were on this road before, and have perhaps moved a few steps down that path? You’ve always enjoyed silence over the blaring of the media, and felt right at home in a little host village in the countryside? It’s all right. Your personal constitution was not created for our entertainment. You surely have plenty to repent of already without having to repent of pretending to repent about imaginary conditions. Life will continue, and what are you going to do next time you’re pressured to discount all prior experience, including this one? Don’t be a spiritual hypochondriac.
Fifth, do not compete for emotional space or envy the attention others are getting. This one is sometimes difficult for me, actually. We all want attention, but we don’t necessarily want the same kind of attention, or to the same extent. Depending on the mix of people and what each of is going through at any given point, one can end up feeling “crowded out,” and so resist giving appropriate attention to the person or people you feel to be sucking all the emotional energy out of the room. This is probably how the older son felt in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and that didn’t work out for him so well. Now, some groups do handle these situations very poorly, and end up teaching members that you have to concoct some personal crisis or epiphany in order to have your value as a person acknowledged, but unless you’re the group leader or a close friend of the people attention garnering, you should probably just spend some extra time with someone else who’s uninvolved in the theatrics and resulting compassion mob.
Sixth, try to keep in mind that it’s not all about the group dynamics. At least, if it is, there’s something seriously wrong with the activity you’re engaging in. There are Syrians who care how American Orthodox comport themselves. There are Moldovans who want to hear what you have to say. there are Georgians who want to know that you genuinely appreciate their culture and endurance as a constantly invaded Christian nation undertaking a religious re-construction. There are undoubtably Africans who want to know that you know that they are more than their poverty and pictures in magazines. There are Mexicans who should be more to us than simply the impoverished, neighbors, to be pitied, taught, admired, or whatever, as The Other. And so on. If the Team is taking up all the emotional space, something is seriously wrong with that team. Don’t make it worse by focusing all your energy on internal group dynamics and you own personal Stuff. This is even true after the event is over, because you’re going to be conveying not only your own experience, but also an inside look at the people you visited, and so it’s really important not to let them get “lost in the shuffle.”
That’s all I have for now. Anything else?