Bridge Fatigue

by Chantelle Todman Moore, Intercultural Leadership Coach

(left to right) Hendy Matahelemual, Marta Castillo, and Chantelle Todman Moore, Franconia Conference’s core intercultural team.

The three people in this photo look happy and hot and we are both.

We are also tired, myself in particular.  After I arrived late to our meeting and plopped myself into my chair with a big sigh, I was immediately encouraged to get a coffee by my dear colleagues.  As our conference’s core intercultural team, we are both energized by the work and exhausted by the work.  This mix of energy and exhaustion is part of what it means to be a bridge person or to be doing intercultural bridge work.

What is a bridge person or bridge work, you ask?  Let me unpack this further. First, it would be helpful to define the term “intercultural.” I like the definition given by the Spring Institute:

Intercultural describes communities in which there is a deep understanding and respect for all cultures. Intercultural communication focuses on the mutual exchange of ideas and cultural norms and the development of deep relationships. In an intercultural society, no one is left unchanged because everyone learns from one another and grows together.

There’s another helpful description of intercultural on the conference website. The thing I want to underscore is that to be intercultural is to be grounded in mutual transformation and, if you have ever experienced transformation, you know that it includes work and disruption.

Part of deepening your intercultural work is beginning to function as a bridge between two or more cultural realities or groups. One of my mentors, Dr. Calenthia Dowdy, so wisely told me that one of the challenges of being a bridge person is being walked on by both sides. I would also add that, much like an actual bridge, a bridge person carries and holds a lot of tensions within intercultural work and settings. We are often the ones in the room who first notice the ways we are talking past or at each other, the need for a cultural or linguistic translator, and the creative insight and energies needed to co-create new ways of being together.

Being a bridge person comes with its frustrations and joys; it is at times exhilarating and, when it all comes together, it is a beautiful mosaic. Other times it is disorienting, the challenge of staying firmly grounded in your own sense of identity while being open to and creating spaces for mutual transformation across cultures. My encouragement and reminder for myself and anyone embarking on intercultural work is to tend to your fatigue; don’t try to keep pushing yourself when you are clearly at your limits. 

Here are some signs that you might be experiencing “bridge fatigue” and some ideas on how to restore yourself:

  • Sign: Increase in frustration and irritability and a decrease of enjoying intercultural spaces/work. Restore: Spend time with an intercultural colleague/friend who can encourage and commiserate with you; reconnect to an aspect of your own culture that you value and enjoy; rest—take a break from the work so that you can return with energy.
  • Sign: Increase in apathy or lethargy about the need for and your role as a bridge work/people. Restore: Listen to a podcast or music or read a book or article that celebrates the multi-hued tapestry of humanity and inspires your values for diversity, inclusion, and an intercultural society. REST. Engage something that brings you pleasure just by its existence. 
  • Sign: Increased disconnect between your spirituality and your intellect. This type of spirit and mind/body duality encourages us to see our intercultural work as merely an intellectual exercise instead of as a holistic transformative process. It also cuts off our ability to ground our intercultural work in ways that nourish and replenish us.  Restore: Create a rhythm that ensures time to connect your faith and spiritual life to the interpersonal and systemic intercultural work; take time for practices that ground you in your faith, whether that be prayer, working in your garden, cooking, creating art, or reading a sacred text.