The person I was 10 years ago was very different from the one I am today. Development and change are intrinsic to living and growing, but what’s happened to me over the past decade has been more than typical maturation. I’m still me, to be sure, but so many things that I thought defined me have slipped away or morphed into something different. And the primary cause of that has been travel.
In the first half of my 20th year, I was finishing up my university studies, working a decent job, involved in church life, and dating a girl I thought I might someday start a family with. I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and didn’t have too many friends from other walks of life — whether those be religious backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, etc. I was vehemently anti-immigration, anti-homosexuality, and convinced of the righteousness of the path I’d walked my entire life.
And then it all changed. My relationship torpedoed. My job evaporated. I became frustrated, angry, and exhausted. Then, in the midst of it all, I left for a study abroad program in Siena, Italy with my best friend, Brandon.
It was a wild month. You know what they say about sheltered kids swinging waaaay to the other side of the spectrum when they achieve independence? Well, there might just be some truth to that. I drank too much and partied too hard, but I also fell deeply in love with all things foreign.
The food, the language, the architecture, the history… the people. Everything was new, intoxicating, and fascinating to me. When I returned home less than 3 months later, I was a different person than when I’d left.
But I stagnated back home, working crazy hours for a company that didn’t care, and the free and wild future I’d caught a glimpse of withered. I became lonely, desperate, bitter. Over the next three years, it got to the point where I looked in the mirror and hated the person I saw. I knew I could be better.
One day, I decided to change. I’d grown disenchanted with my path — my addiction to work, the way I looked at people different from me, the faith which had defined me until then. I realized those things had slowly become suffocating, and I wanted out. So I made arrangements to leave the life I’d built and move to Korea.
My first year in Korea was perhaps the most volatile time of my life. I still made mistakes and did things I wasn’t proud of, but I still changed slowly, surely, mindfully. I knew the man I wanted to be, and I made an effort to be more like that ideal with every day that passed.
And you know what? It worked! Not quickly, not easily, not even perfectly — but it worked. I look at myself now and I’m proud of who I’ve become — the things I believe and choices I’ve made. I’m proud of all that I’ve learned.
I’ve learned that people are the same the world over — they have the same hopes, dreams, fears, and needs. Just like people are the same, so are religions. Religions have many beautiful ideas and affect the world in positive ways, but they are also the cause of much dissension, strife, and intolerance. I’ve learned that ideologies, philosophies, and political affiliations are as imperfect as the people who hold them, and should never be absolute. Most importantly, I’ve learned that love is transcendent. It can bridge any divide, and should never be gainsaid.
I’m not finished with myself. I’m still too selfish, too proud, too lazy. I’m impatient, reckless, and irresponsible, but I’m working on it. I’m still trying to become more and more like that person I saw almost 10 years ago.
I see all the division in the news — the intolerance, the ‘us versus them’ mentality, and the fear. It’s contagious, it’s rank, and it’s cancerous. I see all of the hate and know it draws its strength from fear and ignorance. I don’t have all of the answers, but I do think I’ve got part of the solution.
I used to be like the terrified, bitter, angry people I see now. I hated and was wary of those different from me — the ones I saw as imposters, sinners, and pagans. I know how it feels to hate and fear, and the ugliness those feelings bring. I also know that those feelings aren’t permanent. They can be overcome. They can be transformed into acceptance and understanding.
Know your neighbors. Embrace diversity. Open yourself to new ideas, to critical debate, to accepting those with different viewpoints. Desire to be better than you are, even if you think you’re good already. Travel — whether it be in the physical sense or purely in terms of your mentality.
Know the world you live in and embrace the wondrous diversity it contains.
It worked for me.