A friend recently directed me to an essay about the restlessness of an expat’s life. It prompted me to reflect on what is so unique about being an expat and why this experience touches so many people so deeply.
As I look back at my own transitions of leaving ‘home’ (twice – first from India to US and then decades later from US to UK) to move on to pastures new, I notice that the first few years after my moves created the most intense friendships and the most memorable experiences. Why is that? Reason dictates that it cannot be that I did not meet more interesting/warm people or did not have any more engaging interactions in other stages of my life. Then why does the brain cling so dearly to those particular years of life?
I think that it is during these first few years after any transition that we are at our most vulnerable. As we move into our new world, we are completely stripped off of our confidence of knowing what to do. It does not matter if the transition is during the teenage years or as the CEO of a global corporation many decades later. Either way, we face many situations where it seemingly takes eons to formulate even a few words of basic response. The brain simply does not have enough data points to calculate the optimum next step. This vulnerability, although scary and disconcerting, turns out to be the most valuable ingredient for forming the intense memorable experiences. When ‘I don’t know’ state is repeatedly forced on our brain, it has no option but to adopt ‘I am eager to learn’ as its normal modus operandi to survive. We morph into psychological infants who are ever hungry for input and ready to give anything a shot. This open and expansive mental state provides perfect conditions for growth, fulfillment and high emotional satisfaction. It seems to me that a sustained state of ‘I don’t know AND I am eager to learn’, is what creates the deep imprints on our minds that we so dearly hold onto.
Now if we add a peer group to this state where the vulnerability becomes a shared experience with other lost souls who are also barely managing to keep their own heads above water in a similar way, then we have a very fertile environment for life-long relationships and friendships. Just a few years ago, I have laughed at the shared experience with my expat friends of not knowing how to get a cart (or trolley) out of a cart-line at the grocery store and having to ask for help from a stranger who was probably not even born when I first started doing my own grocery shopping. Nothing will cement a friendship more than the quiet understanding of fake confidence exhibited by a new immigrant and her friend who can identify with the ignorance of the newcomer as well as the desperate attempt to overcome that ignorance. When we are stripped naked of our identities/roles/labels that we all get so used to, we bring out our best in forming intimate and authentic bonds just like kindergarten kids.
For me, the follow-up questions are – how do we continue to garner these benefits in our normal lives? How do we hold on to open and expansive mental states borne out of our vulnerability? How do we keep the love of learning to continue to make us feel alive? How do we keep the labels and facades of our everyday adult lives off so we can always connect with others at a deeper level?
No, I am not recommending uprooting our lives geographically and moving across continents every few years (although I have friends who would definitely vouch for that). I am also not advocating adventures for short-term thrills to numb the monotony of humdrum life. I am also too much of a wimp for whom bungee jumping off of Victoria Falls would be an idea of simulating vulnerability.
However, I AM proposing that if we use the expat life (or any other major transitions such as moving out of home/going to college/becoming a first-time parent) as a metaphor, we must learn to continuously push ourselves beyond our comfort zones in many facets of our daily lives.
So how do we do that? The biggest challenge we face is that we are unaware of the restlessness lurking underneath our everyday life activities, its non-stop logistical needs or well-entrenched life patterns. We are exhausted by the routine of life and are, therefore, unable to even sense that we need to reinvigorate our life. Sometimes even when we do sense a void, we consider it to be something abnormal with us, get scared and fill it with some short-term pleasure but then find ourselves back lost in the wilderness in a very short time. We do not give that void enough of a chance to inform us about the message in that restlessness. Therefore, the first step is to become aware of the void, if there is one.
If we do find ourselves in an environment where something is continuously tugging at us, then it is time to explore and identify the aspect of our life that is yearning to stretch. It could be developing a personal interest, more time with family, less time with family and more time for yourself, more energy invested in work that is more satisfying or less energy at work, more time for a project or less time on a project but increased time to focus on health and fitness. There are no standard answers for these questions and we cannot cheat by observing and copying the options from others’ lives. There are different answers for each one of us and they change over time. The only way to find these answers is to slowly dig into our own restlessness. This is a very subtle but sure way to find the right path to our own unique north stars.
Once we have an inkling of the direction of our north stars, we need to face the fear and step out of our comfort zone. In my experience, the scary part of this phase is that it unsettles all our beliefs about what our life should look like. Detaching from the pictures in our heads of our ideal lives is VERY hard. The uncertainty, the inevitable short-term chaos, the letting go of the familiar is disorienting and very unsettling. However, this is where MAGIC happens. This is where our minds and souls are at their most fulfilled and this is where the purpose of our lives starts to take shape.
I would recommend that we weigh our decision to step out of our comfort zones with this sentiment in the background – “If it’s both terrifying AND amazing, then you should definitely pursue it.” The cost of not pursuing it was so beautifully captured by Paulo Coelho when he said, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it is lethal.”