Accept the unseen changes
Letter to the Editor | Monday, August 31, 2015
We shook hands awkwardly, which turned into a hug, and then I stepped back and looked him in the eyes. In that moment, I realized I had no idea what to say to my best friend.
How do you compress six months’ worth of catching up on life into one afternoon? This has been my greatest challenge since returning from study abroad: a semester packed full of strange customs and weekend excursions, accents butchered and pisco sours drunk. Yet most of my friends experienced none of these things. The Chilean metro, the Argentinian tango shows, the Peruvian mountain paths — all memories of mine that will never be seen or felt by anyone else, Facebook photos notwithstanding.
Instead my friends lived, laughed and cried their way through other events which seem just as foreign to me now: capstone seminars and early rings-by-spring and editorial board elections.
For weeks, I vacillated over even attempting to make friends comprehend the depths of my abroad experiences. Before long, I’d told most everybody about the time I accidentally hip-checked a blind man. The one where I get chased by llamas is another crowd pleaser. Those snapshot stories are funny and easily explained. But how could I possibly communicate the overwhelming sense of abandonment I felt while walking in the slums of west Santiago? How do I explain the renewed purpose I feel in my college major after seeing firsthand the harmful effects of income inequality?
I made it through that first conversation with my friend by sharing in fits and starts. We’d take intermittent stabs at relating the more complicated bits of news: his internship successes, my host family fiasco. Other times we’d fall back on the old-but-new-again inside jokes and comments which sound so stupid spoken aloud but somehow become the glue that holds a friendship together. Over the course of that afternoon, I decided it was probably foolish to try to make him — or anyone, really — understand the full effect the semester had had on me.
Living in Chile taught me many things, both foreseen and unexpected. But those lessons were mine to learn, formed by my presence in the moment and the personal history which had led me there. No one else will ever grasp, perfectly, what it was like to be me in all of those instances; similarly, no matter how hard I try, I doubt I’ll ever understand completely the developments that occurred at Notre Dame while I was away.
But that’s not really a truth exclusive to going abroad, is it?
I’m learning that you can’t expect to make other people understand “What It Was Like” in every circumstance. We use the lessons we pick up along the way to shape our character and inform our actions; other people will witness the fruit those experiences bore in making us who we are, even if they never experience the situations in which those fruits were picked.
So I continue telling my llama story and laugh at my friend for getting terribly sunburnt at a surfing competition. I’m sure that eventually we’ll more or less mesh back into our normal routine and relationship. Until then, I’m content observing the ways that all of us have grown while we were apart.
Maybe the lessons from study abroad aren’t quite over, after all.