"Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were."
Traveling to countries and cultures quite unlike your own changes you, but not always in the ways you expect.
I knew living in India would broaden my understanding of how other people live, love, and die. Walking along the concrete steps on the banks of the Ganges River, bodies burning for burial nearby, regularly exposed me to people who cook and chat enjoyably with their outdoor neighbors and foreigners like me all day long, and then fold out blankets to sleep on those same steps, under the moon and stars at night.
I also knew my perspective on how the US is seen by others would be rewired. Whenever Obama spoke of India (rare) it was covered in the Hindustan TImes and whenever Trump made some absurd pronouncement (daily), it was covered too.
Mostly the reports on Trump were written like a “Ripley’s believe it or not” laughable absurdity, except when it came to Muslims.
India has no love affair with Muslims, for sure. And since India gained its Independence from the British in 1947 and Muslims and Hindus split up the country into Pakistan and India, relations could at best be described as “rocky.” But even here the India government would never propose the draconian measures that Trump has proposed and on that, there is hot anger and disbelief about how such a candidate could be credible in America.
I knew working and traveling throughout India I would gain valuable insights into how to improve the international teaching strategies we were implementing and training university faculty on.
I saw firsthand in the three international collaboration courses I advised (with students engaging from University of Washington-Bothell, University of North Carolina-Asheville and the Central University of Tibetan Studies-Sarnath), how the India students got great value interacting in English, and how “leadership skills” and “confidence in talking with non-Indians” is what they sought.
What I didn’t anticipate, was how I would be changed through my own suffering.
I ran into an unexpected health crisis while here, alone, with all friends and family thousands of miles away. Over the years I have been exceptionally fortunate; in my personal life, my career and most certainly my health. So to have a major health crisis here, lasting weeks, without family and friends nearby, put me in new, uncharted territory.
As a result I have discovered some profound insights that were entirely unanticipated when I left for India some five months ago.
I have gained a much deeper appreciation for Hank Williams’ sentiments when he sang, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
While I was able to get help with this health issue, and I am going to be fine, I came face to face with my own mortality. I hope it is 50 years off, but realize, it could be next week. And moving that idea from an intellectual exercise to a heartfelt realization shakes my world like I used to shake my etch-a-sketch toy.
Throughout the ordeal, I encountered so many strangers who were extraordinarily kind and generous. People who dropped everything to get me transported to where I immediately needed to go. Doctors and nurses who made house calls and healthcare specialists who gave me their personal mobile phone numbers to call anytime. People who cut through all the usual paperwork and waived any financial costs because it was the care not the cost that was critical right then.
Friends and family who called, Skyped and wrote regularly to offer words of encouragement and became my crack research team. I want to be more like all of them.
I have learned that a crisis in which you do not control what is happening to you is a superb opportunity to practice serenity in the face of disaster.
And we need this practice, a lot, because as we get older, a lot more tough stuff is going to happen to us and to our world of friends, family and colleagues. And you either learn how to respond well, or your life just keeps getting worse.
“We can’t often control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond”. I get that a little mantra better now, and I am deeply appreciating this opportunity to practice how I respond.
Growing up in the outskirts of Spokane, my brother and I would spend countless hours in our backyard pitching golf-ball sized, plastic whiffle-balls to each other so we could better hit the curve ball in baseball games. We missed far more balls than we hit but it was great practice for the games.
Living under the harsh conditions in India and experiencing suffering alone has been a great backyard in which to practice for the big leagues in Life.
I got a lot of practice swings in this time, and I am sure there will be more opportunities to practice tomorrow.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.