When I was sixteen I wrote a poem called “Discovery” which in retrospect was really an appeal to adults for acknowledgement, and maybe even an indirect expression of anger. One of the stanzas was, “I am sixteen and lost–because teenagers are–I am seventeen and found–because at eighteen I become you. –I am the lost and found.” At this age I was in the field, if you will, of beginning to understand how we move in and out of our true selves as a result of programming and socialization. These are topics that continue to compel my attention ceaselessly, topics which I understand for others are likely regarded as simply stultifying. If you are one of those people, this post will put you to sleep!
One aspect of this lost and found dimension is that we actually must lose something to find it, or that we find something else buried under the metaphorical rubble of our lives. Last week I blogged about a sense of grief overcoming me, and in doing so, recovered a sense of refreshment and energy that I hadn’t felt in several weeks. I lost my composure for a few moments and gained a more authentic experience of myself.
Adjusting to a new country, or a new job or anything at all can impact us in this way. My sister is about to embark on a new job within her vocation and I wonder what pieces of herself will become more effervescent as a result. My dear friend Michele with two young girls is juggling the demands of work, marriage, and motherhood and I already see the solid ground rising in her as a result of these new changes. I’m ready to move into a new apartment, after these months of getting my sea legs back and nothing could feel better. This moment I’m in, which feels so good, has not surprisingly flown in on the heels of so many things I initially felt I lost in returning to life in the states.
When I arrived to Spain back in the Spring of 2009 what I had clearly, and I felt, tragically lost was my profession. But the months of living without it gave me a completely new perspective on who I am. Here’s a personal essay I wrote while I was there with the aim of describing the lost and found en vivo. Have you heard there’s a new book out with that title also? Could that be the butterfly effect?
On Being No One Important
The little sign taped to the glass door of the jewelry hutch read, “Es agradable ser importante, pero es más importante ser agradable.” I translated the words into English and felt my metacognition revving up for an analysis. I always had to think about how I was interpreting the information I read in Spanish in order to understand what I was reading: It’s nice to be important but more important to be nice. I thought it was a thoughtful sentiment to find posted inside a downtown jewelry shop.
A girlfriend had come to visit me in southern Spain and we were trolling around for the perfect ring to add to her collection. I had been living in a little city called El Puerto de Santa Maria for five months and still didn’t feel at home. Of course, I was aware of the stages of cultural adjustment and expected the transition to take some time, even up to a year. But my professional credentials were taking a long time to process and this new dialect of Spanish was giving me verbal paralysis. Sometimes I stayed inside all day just to avoid being misunderstood during simple exchanges at stores and in my neighborhood. What was most shocking about the move to Spain, however, was how unessential I felt as person.
As a Midwestern American, raised with a myriad of messages about proving my self-worth as a worker, I expected I might wrestle with my sense of personal agency in a new country. I had traveled in other parts of the world and knew that the United States had an obsession with professional identity and success. “What do you do?” is one of the first questions we ask upon meeting someone. We seem to feel more comfortable when we can put things and people in their proper “doing” categories. Americans who travel abroad, however, quickly realize that this is not the burning question on most people’s minds in other countries.
In the province of Andalusia, for example, people want to know if you like Spain, if you speak Castellaño, and if you’ve tried the fried fish. They ask about things you like and don’t like, and when they tell you about themselves, they don’t discuss their profession. Someone might say a man is a buen tío (a good guy) or that a woman is friendly. They usually don’t ask about your career, and may even be offended if you ask about theirs.
I certainly noticed these cultural differences, but understanding them conceptually and applying a new way of being to my personhood were not the same things at all. I was becoming aware of the possibility that perhaps my move to Spain was going to be more complex than I had anticipated. But since I had always believed that external changes can bring about positive internal changes, I could hardly run away from this belief now. Being a non-working foreigner in Spain was going to deepen my understanding of who I was. No longer having a professional identity to rely on, I would have to allow other parts of myself to emerge. And I would need to relate to myself and to others differently. It seemed like a perfect fit.
But as I waited for my friend in the jewelry shop, I noticed how uncomfortable I was with the notion of just being, for example, a nice person. It didn’t seem like enough. I could feel my chest getting tight as my breathing became increasingly uneven. Even though the words I had read on the jewelry hutch seemed to offer a very gentle truth, I could tell that being nice wasn’t going to do it for me. Simultaneously, I felt embarrassed about this recognition. Was I just some seemingly educated but hollow vessel relying on my job to make me feel worthy? I was ashamed to admit I felt invisible and forgotten, surrounded by a new language and a new culture where nobody knew who I was and probably didn’t care what I did for a living. Who was I without my profession? If I couldn’t name the category to which I belonged, then what? It was a difficult subject to digest on a Saturday morning stroll through the jewelry shop.
The store owner’s son waited patiently while my friend sorted through the rings and tried on each of the sparkly possibilities. He chatted with us, smiled, helped other customers, and easily followed his parents’ instructions as he manned the jewelry booths. They stood quietly by and watched the customers shop. I wondered whether the announcement hanging on the hutch behind the son had seeped into his values like the need for a professional identity had seeped into mine. I watched his response as my girlfriend decided against the rings and we turned to leave the store. There was no discernible disappointment or chagrin in his face, but he had been very nice to us. I had the sense that if he didn’t sell one piece the entire day, his countenance wouldn’t change.
I stepped outside the store and looked down the narrow street ahead of us, like the months ahead of me I would adjust to this new terrain. I wondered if I could learn to feel at peace with being kind or thoughtful, and whether it would be enough. Suddenly, I tripped on a patch of uneven stones that had popped out of their cobblestone pattern and I laughed aloud. If I was going to learn to be a person with some meaningful inner qualities instead of someone with an important career, I might as well go down in a truly klutzy fashion as well. I laughed again as I watched myself already trying to turn this new opportunity into work. I was going to have to fumble around for several months before I finally started feeling at ease with being no one important. And once I did, I noticed that I was calling Spain my home.