When I went abroad this summer, I expected something to happen to me. After spending months – no – YEARS working and saving on a student budget towards my dream trip of going to India, I expected the flood gates of the world to open. I expected grace, satisfaction, pride, perfection, worldliness and most of all – VALIDATION to GUSH out of those holy doors and soak through my pores and into my soul and make me whole and good. And I mean, if any of that was going to happen – if I was going to have a holy, life-changing experience, it was BOUND to happen in India, right?!
Only that didn’t happen, not even close. If this sounds a little too personal and like a little too much, may I suggest that I think we all do this, only with different things depending on our personalities and pathologies. Once I get that job, that dress, that girl, that man, that car, that promotion, once I get my partner back and into that grad program – we will be repaired and whole and not feel bad anymore. After years of being surrounded by other students talking of exchanges and world travel (that was typically funded on their parents dollar), returning claiming to have found some deeper profound understanding of the world, I thought travelling the world was my golden ticket to wholeness. It would be tangible proof that I was of value to this world.
After saving and planning to go for years, I went to India only to have my constructions of what “India” was shattered, my certainty questioned, and my patience put to the test in every situation. The history of India has been so heavily co-opted by the global tourist industry that it’s almost entirely removed from what daily life there is really like. After only spending a few months in India, I know I’m hardly an expert on saying what ‘life in India’ is like, so all I will say about beautiful, beautiful India is this: it was nothing like I expected it to be, and it was more than I could have ever imagined. Ill leave it at that.
India is a place where its majesty and its chaos is so unrelenting there’s nothing you can do but give in and take the day as it is. If your resist, you’ll go crazy. And resistance is futile! How can you resist what is completely outside of your control? This was something it has taken me far too long to understand.
There were several expectations of the world, other people, and myself that I had promptly shattered upon my stay in India. First, you may have guessed, was the grass was not in fact, greener on the other side. Travelling abroad didn’t fill me with a sense of purpose and validation – it didn’t fill up all the empty holes in me that I needed so desperately to attend to. It didn’t give me a holy glow that I had projected onto other world travelers. Instead it gave me diarrhea and mosquito bites – lots and lots, of mosquito bites. Secondly, the other people I was travelling with weren’t too spectacular either. Not to say that I’m the shit, but these were students who were the kids of senators and parliamentarians and entrepreneurs from all around the world. They had scholarships and summer homes, they spoke 5 languages and interned at the Whitehouse – but when faced with language barriers and people soliciting business? I saw too many instances of people responding with racist, derogatory remarks. I met so many people, granted – mostly other white people – along the way that seemed totally blind to unique beauty of their circumstances. I saw people respond in hatred out of fear and confusion, instead of with curiosity and compassion. I saw people respond with harsh tones and raised hands instead of probing questions and open hearts.
I was shocked and disheartened. I mean, these were EDUCATED, WORLDLY people. From top schools! Ideal Families! Where was the curiosity? The compassion? The humor? The patience? After all, if you have money and prestige in your job, but you cannot hold space for someone who is pain or sink into the joy that is your life – whats the point of anything else?
It was out of these experiences that I learned some key fundamental lessons on taking responsibility for what I bring with me into the world. And I carry them with me today. I spent years planning for this trip – avoiding parties and restaurants to save money, denying time with my friends and family for work – all to go away so I could start living my life. It took me spending thousands of dollars and going around the world to finally be able to be present and grateful for where I already was and to realize I was already living my life. My adventure didn’t start when I got into that plane or when I graduated university, it starts everyday, with me.
So here are the main things I learned. I hope you can relate in one way or another, or would like to share your own:
- Your life and your attitude and your perspective is a CHOICE and you choose it every damn day. You see and experience the things you WANT to see and experience. There were so many fucking amazing, beautiful, unique and overwhelming things, people, monuments, scenes of nature we saw and while some people were moved spiritually and overflowing with gratitude and energy others went: “meh”. You could literally be standing in front of the Taj Mahal (I’ve seen it happen) and see nothing but bricks and carvings. Or you can stand in front of the Taj Mahal and feel its presence; its gravity. You can stand in the ruins of kingdoms and palaces and feel the history in the sandstone, and hear the voices of the dead in the wind or you can see rusted metal and a tourist attraction. You can wake up in the day, burdened with routine and angst or you can wake up EXCITED to live another where you get to experience the sacredness of everyday life, its trials and tribulations, with the ones you love, on a beautiful planet, and laugh at how ridiculous and wonderful and painful and crazy it is. What you experience is UP. TO. YOU.
- Be kind. Say yes. Be kind to everyone, even if they’re not kind to you. You have nothing to lose by being kind, it hurts when someone doesn’t return the favor, or sees your kindness and open heartedness as weakness, but don’t be deterred. And say YES to things. Just say yes! You’re feeling unsure about leaving your house but your friend wants to go out? See a movie? Have dinner with your family? Unless you have explosive diarrhea just GO! Go for that weekend trip with people you don’t know and have no idea if you’ll have a good time. When you say yes life starts to open doors for you. That was one of the hardest things for me, and still is, we’re all a work in progress, but just saying yes to situation is hard for me when I feel scared and overwhelmed and thus vulnerable (and I always feel this way, it happens everyday, with conversations with my roommates or boss or friends – always) just saying yes to the awkwardness, and uncertainty of things. Like “yeah, this could be hella awkward and shitty but I wont know if I don’t try!” so just go. 9 times out of 10 its going to work out in your favor and you’re going to have buttloads of fun.
- Take fucking chances. I feel like a broken record player about anything cheesy anyone has ever said but just do it. You WILL regret it if you don’t. I can promise you one thing you will totally regret it. What do you have to lose? Maybe some body parts depending on what your doing, but if you try something new and it doesn’t work out, there’s a great saying I love and say to myself in times of doubt “experience is what you get, when you didn’t get what you wanted”. It’s so true. So just do things. Even if its hard work. Even if it’s scary. Actually, no! ESPECIALLY when its hard work! And ESPECIALLY when it’s scary! Get your shit together dude! Do something!
- Laugh at yourself. If you can’t laugh at yourself then who will. Have some self-compassion. We’re all trying; we all fail. That’s all there is to it.
- Get to know yourself. And from there, get to love yourself. It is a hard, uphill, and long life battle but it is worth it. Because the things you have and the things you think are important that are outside of yourself will fall away and eventually you will be alone with yourself. When you travel you’re stripped of your friends, your family, your culture, your safety net, and you are alone with yourself. It is one of the most enriching and challenging experiences. And there will be other times in your life where you’ll be stripped of everything and how will you handle that? It’s like in the poem The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:
“it doesn’t interest me where or what or
with whom you have studied. I want to
know what sustains you from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be
Alone with yourself
And if you truly like the company you
Keep in the empty moments”
Get to that place, settle there – set up camp with a little fire and stay there. Get to know yourself. This strength will guide you through the toughest parts in your life and make you present in the good times. From this spot is where you will draw on your authenticity, courage, and bravery to be vulnerable and engaged in your life. This is the most valuable thing you have, this is the most precious thing you have to offer the world. Know it, sculpt it, strengthen it through adversity. This is what will sustain you. It will get you through the bad days, and in times of pain and desperation it will allow you how to thrive.