As my first week abroad comes to a close, I realize that that I am a firm believer in the idea of getting lost. When I first arrived in Brussels, stepping into an unfamiliar airport on an unfamiliar continent, I had a deep seated nervousness that approached irrational fear. How would I find my way in this new country? What was in store for me in my journey throughout Europe? How would I even find the train station?
All of these fears swirled in my mind for the first couple of days. I felt like every experience was something brand new, and that I was growing up all over again, very quickly. Small tasks that gained little bits of independence felt like major milestones to me. The first time I found the train station by myself. The first time I made it to the classroom. The first time I got lost and found my way home. These experiences are the ones that most vividly color my memories, and feel like going to school for the first time, or the first time my dad handed me the keys to the car and said “You drive.”
Now when I talk about getting lost, I am not talking about recklessly losing a moral path, or even a physical one. I am not advocating decisions without proper planning. But this type of lost, the lost that I felt when I stepped off of the plane 6 hours ahead of my clock a home, is different than anything I have ever felt in my life. It was terrifying.
And that is why I strongly advocate for getting lost. Having felt very alone in an unfamiliar place, and then overcoming that feeling, made me grow in profound ways that I don’t know if I will ever fully understand. It is a terrible feeling, like a growing pain. And like a growing pain, it is constantly pushing me in little ways that will eventually become my foundation, fusing me into who I will become.
Human empathy helped me overcome my loneliness. It is one thing to say that humans everywhere are similar, it is another thing entirely to see it for yourself. Just seeing a man play with his children, or a couple laughing at a table in a corner café, made me feel more connected to the world than ever before. We all basically want the same things: food, water, shelter, better lives for our children, laughter, to be loved. That was a comforting thought for me. These people are not so different than me. Sure, they speak another language, they wear different clothes or see the world in a different light; but these were people, and I can get along with them.
The second thing that helped me overcome my loneliness, and something I didn’t quite expect (I don’t know why) was the routine of life in Brussels. It was so easy to settle into a normal routine that now living here feels similar to home. Maybe being a creature of habit, at least in the basic framework, is one of the most comforting things about being human. That way, when all of the details change, you are still able to make it fit into your outline and adjust. I suppose I would stress that point to someone who was about to travel. Keep some of your habits, doing the small things gives everyone comfort.
So after a week in Brussels, I feel much more confident in myself. My world is broadening. In this single week, I have met more people from different places than I did in my entire life in the states. I have had conversations with Argentinians, Ukrainians, Polish, Spanish, Albanian and too many other nationalities to name. This flood of worldliness has overwhelmed me a little, but gradually I am learning to swim in it. I hope that soon I will be able to take it in stride, speaking with the ease and genteel confidence of someone who has seen many things.
Getting lost, pushing your limits, or expanding your comfort zone all have the same result, they make you grow. Sure it may be painful, scary, or embarrassing at the time, but at the other end of it you are a more complete person. The edges of your own personality become sharper, like a picture coming into focus. In 1997, Mary Schmich wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” This week I have been doing just that. And let me tell you, it’s been incredible.