Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Oscillations in a New Situation

Don’t look back hoping for the same,
Cause from where I’ve come I’ve changed.
–The Herd – A Thousand Lives

It may come as little surprise that a fundamental shift in your life situation causes stress and instability of emotional state. There’s a graph I’ve that a traveler once sketched out for me just ahead of my move to Australia. She had moved from the US to Austria for a few years and had somewhat recently come back home. At the left of the graph, at time zero, the emotional state is at baseline. It doesn’t matter if baseline is a happy or less-happy state, merely that there is an average. And once you get on the plane to head to your new place, that baseline is knocked with a sledgehammer. Are you excited? Sure. Are you nervous? Sure. Are you ready? Maybe.


But as much as you prepared, can you ever be completely and fully ready for a new place? No. That isn’t where you’ve been. You’ve been comfortable in your life as it was, and the person that you were there is not identical to the person you will be or need to be in this new environment. And so the oscillations start. You are in a new place, full of new adventures, new friends, and excitement. The highs are very, very high. But you are also in a new place, full of unknowns, strangers, and excitement. You have no or little security, and you are, at times, in freefall. The lows are very, very low. But as you set up a life for yourself and find your routines, find the things that make you comfortable, the oscillations dampen. Over time the peaks and troughs decrease until you find a new baseline. It may not be the precise one you had before, but it often is within a margin of error.

This pattern holds for moving from your home to a strange new city or country, where you have to learn a whole new set of systems and maybe language. The pattern also holds true for moving from your home to the road. You don’t have to be replacing like with like. You can be giving up static living for always being on the go. But whatever new adventure you are on, there are a set of coping mechanisms, skills, devices, and tricks that help. And as you go, you learn them. You get good at them – whether that is knowing the best hour to shop at the market down the street, or the way to find the best food at a market in each new city you arrive in.

The pattern seems a reasonable one to expect when you move from your home and your comfort zone to a new and unfamiliar place. But it may be less obvious that once you have moved away, whatever new reality is yours, that has become your home. New city, new country, new language, new job, no job, no set place to rest your hat, no home, no clue what tomorrow will bring, no clue what country you are in or what day of the week it is. Whatever you are doing, that is your life. And you adjust to it.

The x axis of the graph is time, and time always moves forward. But the point where x = 0, the point where the hammer hits and the oscillations kick on high, that point is any big shift in living situation. That kick is when you leave home. But that kick is also when you leave your new home to come back to what was once your home. It is no longer the place you live, and the version of you that existed there before has been lost to the aether and the langoliers. The person arriving is the one that has lived the new reality, has been shaped by it and is adapted to it, not to the town where you grew up. That which was one familiar and comforting is now, in some ways, not.

This needn’t be a solely alienating and upsetting experience. The highs – seeing family again, going back for that local dish that nowhere else can quite get right – are very, very high. But even the lows can be a learning experience. And the strangeness of that which was once familiar has an interesting edge to it. This is the time to view the inside like an outsider. To find all of the quirks of a place that had been so commonplace that you hadn’t taken notice of them for years. To address the annoyances that you’d just accepted in the past. To see with fresh eyes.

The transition is an adventure whichever direction you are heading.

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2016 by in Laos and tagged , , , .

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