I’ve never believed in the idea of going away to “find oneself,” or the notion that in a different country, you will become a different person.
We are who we are, no matter where we are — and while you may “find yourself” 20 pounds heavier after a six-month stint in Italy spent stuffing your face with pasta, pizza and panini; or find that you’ve acquired a taste for cow tongue in China; or discovered that the men in Holland really are as charming as their accents, and the men in Costa Rica have an eye for blondes — As a 20-something who's had the privilege to travel, I can tell you first-hand that you certainly will not “find yourself” at some neon-gilded full-moon party swarmed by sweaty locals in a foreign country.
It starts in high school — the breeding ground of post-graduation clichés. Your senior yearbook is full of the faces of future doctors and lawyers and teachers and scholars and, let’s face it, probably even some janitors (the world needs janitors, too). Your valedictorian gives a touching speech on what a pleasure it was to spend the last couple of years together, and what great things you’ll all go on to do.
In a musty brown office, your guidance counselor will pepper you with vague questions, like, “who are you?” and “what do you want to be when you grow up?” all the while expecting polished answers. And your inability to announce the rest of your future on the spot, while your advisor stares back at you — clicking her pen, tapping her foot — will send you into a frenzy that propels you on a path of self-discovery.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for traveling and full moon parties, the same. Experiencing new cultures and immersing oneself in new societal customs is a rewarding way to learn about our world and have a little (or a lot) of fun while we’re at it.
But what does it even mean to “find ourselves”? And how might we expect to do so in a place we’ve never been — as if we’re that naïve to believe that some “better” version of ourselves might be waiting for us in a train station in Rome, or along the great wall of China, or in an echo-y cavernous well within a cenote in Mexico, only accessible via a deep-sea diving scuba suit.
The truth is, if you want to “find yourself,” you must first get completely and utterly lost. Lost in a good book; lost in the eyes of the perfectly wrong person for you; lost in the ideas of a philosophy, truth or belief that challenges your own philosophies, truths or beliefs; lost on a back road, dusty trail; lost in a decision, a choice you don’t know how to make; lost in something you don’t understand; lost in the true sense of the word — as in you’ve lost all sense of direction, been turned around and backwards and senseless in circles and have finally thrown your hands in the air to say, “I give up.”
And then, like all good sense says, you stay there — lost in one place — waiting to be found again, even if the finder must be you (and most likely it will and should be).
Henry David Thoreau said it best. “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” And that’s really what we mean when we say, “find ourselves,” isn’t it?
The plain truth is that our lives generally don’t lead to one giant, ultimate moment where we come to say, “AHA! There I am!” Because we’ve been there all along.
It’s in the moments that challenge us that we truly find out who we are, how much we can handle and what we are capable of. And sure, maybe for some, that is far, far away in an untouched land — or, maybe it’s on your backyard swing, while you sway, squished between your siblings. It is largely our experiences, our relationships, and our choices that make us the perfectly unique individuals we are.
Travel, change and grow. Be wildly adventurous and wildly independent. Stop searching for yourselves in foreign towns and just enjoy the process of getting there instead (and I mean that both literally and metaphorically). Wherever it is, wherever you are, whoever you are — be that.
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