Friday, February 24, 2012

The Crying Game: Growing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Can we just go hooooome!?

The other day our seven-year-old, Piper, said out of the blue, "I really, really miss Ecuador, more than I ever missed Colorado when we were in Ecuador." Which is of course, baloney. But we have a drama queen on our hands and everything tends to come in hyperbole. That said, however, the comment came over a dinner with some friends who were talking about their travels in Africa and intended future travels to other parts of the world with their son, and undoubtedly that conversation ruffled the thin veil separating Piper's memory of Ecuador and her life here at home. And so it seems finally, that everything is going according to plan. Mwaa ha ha ha haaaaaaaa!

In the initial parts of long-term travel, before their will has been broken, children (or at least our children) know only that everything is different and not at all what they are used to and want. So nearly everything you do or say, anywhere you go, anything you eat, will be met with rolling eyes, looks of disgust, and claims of generalized malaise. It is after just a few days of such behavior that the inexperienced and deeply caring parent will wonder what is wrong with their children and just what the hell they've gotten themselves into.

But perseverance and patience are still the most essential parental traits here, particularly because you too are out of your own comfort zone. Where's grandma to tag in when you're taking an emotional beating from these adorable little monsters? Where's the neighbor's pre-teen to play mommy's helper so you can go to your room and lock your door for just an hour, or maybe an afternoon…or month?

It's as true with this experience as it is with any other in life: true growth happens only outside your comfort zone. Well, well done, Admiral Shackleton, you've certainly paved the way for massive growth for you and your family. Now you can at least be comforted by the fact that growth itself is nearly always painful. Heh. Heh heh. So really, patience and perseverance are your tools to keep your emotions from mutiny and taking the helm from rationality.

We had prepared ourselves for the discomfort and complaints in Ecuador. No, scratch that—we had expected the complaints; there is nothing you can do to prepare for them outside your own personal spiritual practice and a firm but smooth wall to bang your head against. But if the whole family makes it through that "adjustment period" alive, the number and frequency of complaints reverts back to a level you're accustomed to, and you can get on with day-to-day living.

You will be tempted then to maintain the surroundings to which they (and you) have now grown accustomed. But do not forget that one of the greatest things extended travel can accustom them (and you) to is change. And so, just when the gales of uncertainty and unfamiliarity have stopped rocking their boats, you should consider blowing new winds in their sails and exploring this strange new land you are trying to call home. Force yourselves in situations with locals so you have to speak the language, embarrass yourselves violating customs, travel and get a little lost, eat weird food.

"We don't live in Ecuador; we're just visiting for 21 months," Piper would remind us from the background. Fair enough. Call it what you like; life here is like this. Or at least it is if you (parent) win this battle of wills. Children do not yet understand that that which does not make you kill them makes you all stronger. And you are all truly enjoying your experience. But no matter how happy they are or how much they enjoy an experience, their natural resistance to change will remind them that it's not home or what they are used to, and this whole adventure business was not their idea (which you can largely avoid by engaging the kids in the planning process early on), and they will complain.

But you, the wise parent, the sage, the patient sensei, know that regardless of what they say or seem to feel about it, this experience will forever change them in profound and positive ways. And someday they may even realize this and thank you for it.

Piper expressing (however over-the-top it may have been) that she misses Ecuador is the very first sign we've seen that she appreciates our sabbatical. It was honestly much sooner or more explicit than we ever expected. Time will still tell how profoundly they were affected by the trip, but it warmed the cockles of our hearts, nevertheless.

No matter how your extended travel with your family goes or ends, you and your family will be better prepared to experience change in life, not as pain, but as adventure. This is not delusional coping; change is merely that. The good or the bad of it is entirely our own internal coloring of what is; and when you have traveled hard, your own palette will be equipped with brilliant colors and not just shades of black and white.

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