What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.
-Hunter S. Thompson
My last day in Delhi, I wanted to know how I would remember my time in India. At the time, it didn’t look so good. I was reeling from a summer of emotional dissection. I did it to myself, which was probably the most interesting part about it.
The thing about self-dissection is that you begin to strip away all that superficial stuff that you put out there for other people. And the stuff that other people put onto you and you accept as “who you are.” I mean, who knows if it’s true or not, but if that’s how other people see you, it must be part of who you are, right?
This summer I took a good hard look at what is real and what is not. Did I find myself? Not really. This wasn’t Eat Pray Love. Not even close. I mean, I didn’t even see a single elephant! Or Julia Roberts!
The mind is a really messy place. It’s full of all sorts of crazy ideas and constructs about who we are, how we should behave towards others, and how they should behave towards us. I am no closer to discerning “my true self” than I was 3 months ago, 4 years ago, or even back when I did my first abroad trip almost a decade ago.
The points I’m about to make are probably going to seem a little trite to you. I know, I’ve heard all this before too. I guess there is a big difference between hearing something and actually directly experiencing it. But this is as much a note to you all as it is a note to myself. I need to remember what this feels like.
Here 4 things I figured out after a summer in India:
You cannot control what other people think of you.
You also can’t control how they’ll treat you. People can be really mean. Sometimes we like to think that if we’re nice to others they’ll return the favor. Maybe they’ll even think of us in a favorable way. Sometimes that’s true, but ultimately, this is out of our control. How they see you and how they treat you is a choice that they make. The consequences of those feelings are for them to witness and feel alone.
I know revenge sounds like a great plan and sometimes I think about it too. I mean, how can mean people just get away with acting like that? Shouldn’t they be punished?
The thing is, I’ve realized that I’m not in charge of what they think, and I’m certainly not in charge of how those thoughts affect their lives. But I do know this– negativity is a terrible carry-on. Let them carry it themselves.
How other people see you and treat you is their shit to work through, not yours.
You can only control how you react.
And most of the time that’s really hard. We’re raised in a world where reactions become like uncontrolled habits. We swat at each other like we swat at mosquitos, without even thinking. And then we scratch. And scratch. And things become swollen and red and itchy welts. They last for weeks, and the whole time we’re blaming this mosquito when really we’re doing it to ourselves. Anger is the exact same way.
Attempting to control how we react means taking full responsibility for ourselves and our behavior. It means examining where emotions come from, how they feel physically, and even how the physical feeling can affect our relationships. Do you know how your body feels when it’s angry? How about happy? Each of these emotions not only manifests in our relationships, but also on our physical bodies. Sometimes they show up physically before you have a chance to express them verbally. Examining the source of our emotions with a bit of curiosity is a great way to put a pause in before we react automatically.
The nice thing about this is I’m told it gets easier. Eventually your automatic reaction won’t be automatic. It will be a conscious choice. And choices are good.
Remaining true to your values is the best thing you can do.
I struggled a lot this summer with the notion that I’m too nice. I still kind of think it’s true– I don’t speak up when I should, and often that gets me into trouble. But my silence isn’t because of low self esteem, like I initially thought. It’s because I know that I’ve got a lot of anger in me, and that when I’m treated unfairly, my instinct is to react with fire and fury.
I had a great conversation with a friend of mine the other day about this. He had this beautiful way of talking about reacting to anger with more anger and I’m going to
butcher paraphrase it here:
As much as it sucks getting hit with a stick, it sucks even more to be the one doing the hitting.
Now, you might think “Hey wait a minute! It’s good to let it out! Put that person in her place!” Personally, that kind of behavior just isn’t not consistent with my values. Sure, I slip up sometimes but I’d never intentionally allow my emotions to take control. Ever see someone out of control? It’s not a good look. No one walks away from that situation happy.
Reacting to violence with more violence doesn’t do anyone any favors. I’m not denying my feelings– there’s a lot of anger in there– but I’m not going to let them dictate my behavior either.
If someone is unkind to you, imagine how they must feel. And if they don’t feel anything, imagine what kind of life they have that has lead them to be so out of touch with themselves.
You don’t have to explain yourself if you don’t want to.
When I studied abroad in Spain, there was a moment where I first experienced feeling truly accepted. I was having tea with a flamenco singer. We sat in silence, watching traffic and pedestrians whirl by.
“I’m sorry,” I started, feeling self-conscious for not speaking, “Sometimes I just space out–”
“Don’t apologize for yourself.” She replied. “You don’t owe me or anyone else an explanation for how you are.”
For the longest time, I’ve felt like I’ve had to explain my path. I’ve realized this comes out of feeling self-conscious about how my life is different than other peoples’. I felt like I had to justify my decisions, and any time someone would question them, I’d buckle into a pile of anxiety. I don’t know where this idea that other people have a better plan for life than I do, but I’m starting to come to terms with calling that BS.
Make your own decisions. Make your own mistakes. Fix your own messes. No one can tell you how to live your life.
In a sort of summation of all the above lessons, the biggest one I learned is that a lot of what I’ve felt and struggled with is self-imposed. Sure, mean people suck. Sure, I still have my insecurities. Sometimes I still want to
hide rotten eggs in my ex-boss’s apartment confront past injustices. But life isn’t about controlling everything, and it’s also not about reacting like some sort of wild animal. There’s a balance to it. There’s a freedom in choosing how to behave.
At the end of the day, the only person I’m choosing to help or hurt is me.
You are the prisoner. You have the key. Set yourself free already.
-Some Buddhist Guy