We’re all familiar with that classic Disney song “It’s a Small World After All,” and the cosy, idyllic notion that the world is not actually as big as we may feel it is. People take this message at all different levels: the physical – the world is small now that we can fly around it in such a short time; the metaphoric – we’re all under the same sun, so we can’t be too different; and the cultural – “a smile means friendship to everyone.”
A friend of mine was recently traveling internationally and discovered only at the end of her trip, after smiling cheerfully at everyone she passed and receiving nothing in reply, that a local proverb declared, “Only a fool smiles at strangers.” Oops!
And, while the notion of everyone living under the same sun is frequently used as a call to draw humanity together, one doesn’t need to be an experienced traveler to realise that even though we all inhabit the same planet, cultures vary greatly and often significantly. To strip our impression or understanding of another culture down to only the aspects it has in common with our own (in order to make our world “smaller”) is to devalue a system of beliefs and way of life that has just as strong a foundation and history as ours.
Is the world really small then? Well, yes and no. The world is a big place with many different people, cultures, faiths, social issues, political perspectives, landscapes, natural phenomena, and so on. It is filled with ideologies that are mutually exclusive, lifestyles that adhere to opposing values, and daily activities that are normal to some and intolerable to others. Yes, with the easy access of flights to distant lands, the world may feel geographically smaller, but when you land, you can easily feel as though you might as well be on another planet! A five hour flight can land you in the middle of another world.
It is important to have a healthy respect for the “bigness” of the world. Whether you are on your home turf working with people who have traveled to you, or you are the one travelling yourself, approaching cross-cultural experiences from the perspective of “the world is big and I am small” can be the single most important factor setting you up for success.
When you are small, you know you don’t have all the answers. You recognize that you are only one person in 7 billion and that each of those other 7 billion people are just as real and complex as you are. When you are in a new land and a new culture, and you are small, you know you need others to help you make sense of what you are seeing and experiencing. You know that you have more to learn than to teach. You understand that applying your Western “answers” to foreign challenges is not likely to be as successful in reality as it is in your head.
It is good to dream big. It is noble to want to do big things – solve world hunger, find a cure for AIDS, resolve the debt crises in Africa, see all of the lost find salvation. Those are noble aspirations that you must pursue if God has placed those on your heart.
However, we can never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of seeing things backwards – that the world is small and we are big. Only when we understand our smallness next to the world’s bigness are we in position for God to take us on a journey to both change and be changed by the world we live in.