Blog - Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. - 1 John 2:15, KJV

I have been stewing in these ideas for so long, but I never know where to begin, other than at the beginning.

This past year has been an exhilarating experience, allowing me to grow, learn, and mature in ways that I had never before imagined. But the premise of this year - as a single year of work sandwiched between college and graduate school, was peculiar to begin with. I would be moving to a new place, staying there for just about twelve months, and then immediately moving onwards to another new place.

One solitary year is not a long time. Being in a new place for a short period of time is not new to me - I have lived in eleven different houses during my twenty-three years of life. But for all that I had moved around the United States, I had always settled into a certain area for at least four years, if not more. There were some deeper connections that I was only able to appreciate and unlock through the passage of time.

Even for the temporary periods of high school and college, at least everyone is in it together. Sure, it may only be for four years, but at least those around you are synchronized to the same schedule. In fact, the entire institutional structure of the school is oriented around that timeframe, so it doesn't feel abrupt or out of place. Even if senior spring is bittersweet and nostalgic, you get to share that nostalgia with your classmates along with the excitement for what is to come. Because your community is commiserating together, the leaving doesn't have quite the same bite.

Being a transplant for merely one year means that you don't have the opportunity to celebrate any anniversaries - anything that happens during that year, you only get to experience once - one fourth of July, one friend's birthday, one Christmas. I only get to experience the first nips of winter once, the blooming flowers once, the soaking thunderstorms... admittedly more than once, as those seem to be a regular occurrence in the DMV summer.

I knew all this prior to arriving in Maryland, and it scared me. In both college and high school, freshman year was difficult because of how new everything was. It takes time for me to be rooted in a community, but here, time was in short supply. I didn't worry about creature comforts - I told myself that I could grin and bear just about anything for only one year - but I was terrified of being adrift, not finding a solid church community, or friends to count on, or things to care about. I prayed, incessantly, for a soft heart that would allow me to welcome more strangers into my life.

I didn't want to view this chapter of my life as merely temporary. With such a short time horizon before I left this area, there was the danger that life could feel like just a consequence-free game. In some sense this was true: if I embarrassed myself in front of the neighbors, or got into a big fight with my boss, I would not have to suffer the effects of my actions for that long. This could be liberating - I could take greater risks in reaching out to strangers and friends - but also very draining at the same time. If I could just "grin and bear" anything, does that mean I would just walk away from confrontations for my own comfort, or not think as carefully about what is right? Avoiding consequences can often lead to voiding the meaning in your life.

But at the end of it all, life still happens, one month, one day, one hour at a time. Not only did my fears come to pass, but I found myself actually enjoying life more than any other time. The end of this season of life did not negate meaning from my actions. Yes, it is hard to leave a lasting legacy in a short period of time. But does that truly give life meaning in the first place, to create something bigger than yourself? Or is it just the simple act of living, day-to-day, in community with others, building and working on something together? Instead of finding that I was less motivated to do work because I wouldn't be able to fully reap the benefits or see these projects bear fruit, I found that I was more motivated for my own intellectual curiosity and the pure joy of just being a good friend.

This process also freed me from having to sweat the small stuff, even if I had wanted to. To borrow from Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, I had found myself knowing playing a finite game as an infinite player. The fact that I was playing a game didn't detract from the joy of being able to play - I was still able to understand and seriously consider the regular incentives and consequences that come from living life. However, the stakes were no longer bound by the framework of this limited game. Now that the regular incentives of gold and glory fell away, I could be free to earn money without worrying about every cent, and to do interesting things without worrying about how it represents my greater legacy. I saw any earnings from this period of my life as merely transient, as ethereal as memory.

I didn't need to play any kind of political games with coworkers or neighbors simply because I didn't need to. I didn't need to worry about accumulating things in my household that would make me look good, because eventually, I would have to pack everything and move it to Chicago. And I didn't need to remake myself just to impress other people.

That last point still has some asterisks on it. I feel that most of my life, I have lived in anxiety over how others perceive me, modifying some of my behaviors to fit in better with my peers. I can't say that this is wholly a bad thing to do - socialization is something that is incredibly human - but being able to step away from that persistent peer pressure was very freeing. Yet, it was not like I had just shut off that aspect of my brain. Instead, I still feel beholden to be a good friend, but the overall process became so much less transactional than it had ever been in my life. I wasn't helping someone with the expectation of getting something in return - more likely than not, there would not even be a chance to get anything in return. Instead, I tried to be a good friend because that is how I feel like my good friends deserved to be treated. Call it contractialism, or the golden rule, or any other ethical framework of your choice - in the end, it still feels like that little voice that tells us to be kind to strangers, to look out for one another, to behave altruistically even if behaving altruistically doesn't seem to really make sense. It was the freedom to pursue this mindset that helped me both mature the most and enjoy life the most.

Instead, even though I was a stranger in a strange land, I found myself living with greater joy and greater purpose than ever before. Living on a deadline only sharpened my senses and helped me more acutely appreciate what I had rather than long for what I did not. I often find myself hoarding resources - favors from friends, time off of research, small daily pleasures - in preparation for some drought in my life that may never come. However, having a time constraint helped me to spend more on myself, and to more easily forgive myself, than I ever had done before. I was finally taking that pointless bike ride, doing that drive out to a deserted beach, watching the slowly rising sun off in the southern tip of Maryland. This didn't solve any deep issues in my habits or personality, but it did help me take the rough patches of life more in stride.

Christian teachings often emphasize the temporal nature of earthly existence, compared to the infinite existence in Heaven with God. Our true homes are with God above, and gold that we store for ourselves in warehouses on Earth will decay and become worthless. In fact, most of the messaging from College church groups tended to explicitly focus on that point, as we foolish young people tended to prioritize other idols. In the competitive atmosphere that is Yale, how could we not see everything as a zero-sum game? But reflecting further upon those lessons, I see that so much time was wasted in college in pursuit of something, rather than in appreciation of something that was here. Rather than listening at Christ's feet, I was rushing to finish the dishes, in expectation of being given greater responsibilities afterwards. The precious little time where I did stop to (literally) smell the roses are among my greatest memories, whereas the periods of manic productivity still feel like a dark cloud that I try to suppress.

I now know that life is truly experienced in seasons. Each of these periods of life have shown me something new, and even the painful times have served to bring the great joys of my life into more sharp relief. Even the times of joy must have an end - trying to artificially prolong a good thing eventually leads to it souring. Expecting a season to last forever would defeat its very purpose.

But with these lessons, can I apply them to living a better life in graduate school? For I already foresee myself falling into the same old bad habits. There are many analogies for grad school - as a pressure cooker, as drinking from a fire hose, as locked in an ivory tower - and none of those really seem to have room for living as a stranger. If anything, the six years I am expected to be in Chicago at minimum seem like an eternity compared to all of my past experiences. Most of the advice I solicited from friends and coworkers seemed to only reinforce this paradigm further - that graduate school is a small window of opportunity, and that it will sometimes (or most of the time) be hell.

Will I buck the trend? Do I even want to buck the trend? That is a question that only future me can possibly answer. But for now, I am happy with where I am, and I hope against hope not to lose this inner joy.

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