On Struggle

A Brief Note

So, when I first sat down to write this post a couple months ago part of me vehemently resisted. I thought to myself, “Don’t touch those emotions! And especially don’t you dare post about it on the internet. It’s tender!”. But as I’ve said in other places, one of the main purposes of this blog is to share pieces of my story and attempt to encourage others. I’m likely not the only SALTer who has experienced feelings of loneliness and emotional turmoil on their assignment, and I’m certainly not the only human to ever feel it. Perhaps my shared experience will give language or perspective to another person’s feelings. Also, I’m exploring this new idea that vulnerability is not only a legitimate way of being in the world, but (when done responsibly) it’s actually one of the most authentic and life-giving ways of being. So, here goes. *gulp*

Life is beautiful. And life is hard.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate the people around me. My friends in Korea are kind and welcoming. My host-family frequently extends invitations to outings. My friends back in the States have done their part of staying connected. I’d even say that my connection with God has felt on point. However, in the midst of all of this I still experienced a deep feeling of isolation. It wasn’t only loneliness though. I found myself more prone to frustration, sulking, cynicism, insecurities, existential anxiety, and a fluctuation in moods that I couldn’t tame, all of which I tried to just swallow. I tried to figure out the cause. Is it stress? Is it the degree of relationships I have in Korea? Is it loss of autonomy in a foreign country? Is it cultural fatigue? I think all this played a part, but I’ve also come to realize that humans just aren’t always rational creatures when it comes to our emotions.

A simple fact about moving to a new place with a new language is that I have fewer friends and acquaintances than back home. It’s a fact that is accentuated by no longer living smack dab between my socially vibrant church and my buzzing university. I mean, I’m not Matt Daemon from The Martian or anything, but at times I’ve convinced myself that I feel equally stranded. It’s also true that no one in Korea has known me longer than 7 months. This doesn’t mean that these friendships aren’t authentic or rich, but they just haven’t had the same time to grow the deep roots and thick textured branches like my relationships of 3, 4, 5 or 10 years. Additionally, like any new experience with a team, there has been typical tensions—both at work and at home. These things make up the context, not that I blame, but which I inhabit.

I had heard about the “new self” that would come out of my SALT experience, but I naively thought this new self would grow like a pretty flower emerging from beneath the soft earth. I had no idea that new selves do not sprout like flowers, rather they are often formed like diamonds, under immense pressure in the darkness. During this year there has been moments of pressure and feelings of darkness. I have critiqued, discarded, and re-formed—more than once—my understanding of what it means to be a person and how to make meaning out of my daily life (shout out to John Green, Brené Brown, and Ernest Becker for helping with hard questions). I reached out for professional counseling for the first time in my life. At times I wanted to just quite everything and run home to construct a life that is easy and full of comfort. And there were occasions when I needed to escape my own thinking so much that I resorted to drowning myself in Netflix and Choco Pies. One of the hardest pieces was feeling guilty for struggling: I haven’t suffered trauma or anything; these feelings are too trivial to share. I’m too privileged to be sad. You’re ruining your host-family’s expectations. Just get over it Austin, you’re bothering everyone.

I’d like to tell you that I prayed really hard and heard a good sermon that made everything better, but that’s not true. Often, as soon as I’d wake up I’d be thrust into the fight for the day’s joy. Sometimes I lost and the day felt like shit as I was chewed on by my own thoughts and emotions. Other times I’d feel like I was balanced on my feet, but then I’d get knocked down. And then there were days that were filled with dancing, sunshine, and glee.  It was truly tiring. I didn’t feel like my normal whole cheerful self. At times I’d have to fight the sudden unexplained urge to burst into tears or rage-quit an activity. I became too well-acquainted with the little nihilistic monkey that would hang on my back and throw feces at life. Sometimes being consumed by struggle and allowing everything around me to be burned down with indifference had great appeal. In a previous posted I said that, “Korea is teaching me that I am who I am”. I think there is a degree of bullshit in what I meant. I’ve learned that no self is unbreakable or self-sufficient. All I can say is that I refused to remain smothered in grey. I sought out those who could help and continued wrestling God in uncertainty and frustration until dawn broke.

I don’t have a grand solution to loneliness or a spirit that sometimes feels too heavy to carry. I wrote a few notes in a moment when I was feeling particularly downcast, which I’ve found to be helpful since. But frankly, being a person is hard, and dealing with loneliness is a sizable part of that—be it as a foreigner, as an elderly person, as a single-parent, as an empty-nester, as a suffocating grad student, or anyone else who has ever felt disconnected. What I can say is, we continue walking through deserts not because it is pleasurable, but because there is hope of water on the other side. Keep reaching out. Keep investing in the relationships you have. Take delight in the minute beauties. Know that God’s vision encompasses your life in ways beyond your sight. And remember that you are indeed loved.

Below are some resource for those who may currently feel trapped in the labyrinth.

Reality – A refreshingly raw and honest post about marriage, mental health, and the struggles of life by my friend Grace Benavente.

My Loosened Rule of Life – A post about going through life in a way that emphasizes grace, communion, and vulnerability. I enjoyed it so much I printed part of it out and stuck it on the wall in front of my desk.

What a Prostitution Survivor Taught me about Joy – An article emphasizing the need to feel our own brokenness and meet God in it so we can construct wholeness and joy in our lives, remembering that, “paradoxically it is the trauma and death of Jesus that liberates the world. If we want to reveal the story of Jesus, we will be asked to confront the traumas that surround us.”