Back in 2015, a year in time which swept me off my feet with uncompromising force, I abandoned a vision of myself, my life, my purpose and was, instead, left with empty space.
Since I was 16, I knew I wanted to pursue a programme in Peace Studies and thus, I would follow that path of all these highly intelligent, adventurous, multiple language speaking people who lived their lives on projects in the field of international aid development. Already back then I knew that these people somehow also lived a highly flexible life, with little relationship commitment or at least enormous efforts to commit to relationships. Welcome to the career in the diplomatic service, or better, with the United Nations. That had been my goal since I watched “City of God” in my politics class in 11th grade and a documentary about the military regime in Myanmar. Both impressions left me disturbed; not only for the people, but more so for the rest of the world which obviously knew about it (I mean, it was on TV!) and still, nothing changed. What was wrong with humankind?
As I went further down that path accumulating several academic degrees, language classes and experiences abroad the list of topics that enraged me grew too. Even now, I cannot comprehend why we, as a human species, are doing all these things we do – from mistreating animals, to living on children’s workforce in other parts of the world so we can get the newest smartphone. The question never grows old: what is wrong with humankind?
In my academic endeavour to tackle the question what makes people tick I was introduced to religious traditions, concepts of political systems, the study of social groups and the classification of violent encounters. The latter still leaves me speechless – the number of deaths determines the category of violent encounter. Are we, as a human species, really that rational that we actually put individual fates aside? We clearly are. Our whole economy is based on the skill to ignore. Even though I was aware that I was part of the system, and, as a white European woman from a lower middle-class family, also member of the “winning team”, I was determined to make a difference. By joining the U.N. By going to places worldwide and doing…bringing…giving…what? I had learned ways of understanding the world. Yet, I had no tools to bring about change; not even the smallest relief. I was neither a nurse nor an engineer; both examples of professions that would have qualified me to actually interact with people in regions that were confronted with daily struggles rather than the epistemology of knowing.
Meanwhile, during the last three years of my academic training I fell victim to waves of excruciating pain and desperation that clearly had no physical origins. It was worse: my soul was bleeding. I was overwhelmed and could not grasp rationally what and why it was happening. To me overall philosophical question of what was wrong with humankind, another dimension was added: what was wrong with me? In addition to the world’s pain I was now faced with a more profound and fundamental question touching on my very existence. Whereas, at first, these moments of chaos came to visit every couple of months, I had to learn to live with the “down-downs”, as I called them, on a nearly weekly basis. They did not hold me back from functioning and participating in a standard everyday life, but the idea of something is wrong with me grew.
So what do you do when faced with a challenge that you know is far too big for you? I went abroad. Again. It is the year 2015 and I was spending the first half of the year on a working holiday visa in New Zealand, my already proclaimed second home. I should have known from my long-term stays in London and Seattle that a change in location does not automatically changes the person. Thus, besides my suitcase, I carried with me my accumulated and dismissed baggage. Still, I was not prepared for the intensity of what would come to light. In the fall of 2015, after a seven weeks world trip with my sister ending my overseas adventure, I found myself back at my parent’s place with a whole old-new set of challenges. At times, I was not sure which role I had to play – daughter, nurse, sister, night owl. Definitely unemployed! While still in the grip of a seemingly hopeless game that started a new round with every new morning, I had to go job hunting. And with this came the shift – not to the game – but to my vision of myself and my life. I was forced to finally acknowledge: the idea of me saving the world was a) pretentious and b) only in my mind suited for my purpose. I was simply too exhausted – physically and mentally – to get on the plane to do the internship on an office in Laos, the obvious and essential next step down the path to the U.N. After a rather boring Skype interview for the internship which left me feel uncomfortable, I was surprised that I had been chosen. Still today, I believe it says more about the other applicants than my qualifications – if they even were any other! To me surprise, I found myself declining the internship offer in a polite e-mail. From the outside one could have thought: well, yes – it is exploitation anyway. In the field of “doing good”, especially in the field of “saving the world” a.k.a. international aid development one is not only donating time to the project, but also the own financial resources; at least when you are a student who is gratefully soaking up all opportunities to play with the big kids. Consequently, it leaves the ambitious student as a bankrupt, multi-lingual, over-qualified applicant to the U.N. On that note, the business is brutal: you have set sails to save the world, right? So there is nothing you would not do for it, right? I mean, how do bad payment, if any at all, long hours and sacrificing your life compare to the suffering of those you need to save? Well, obviously, “they” lose; hence, you lose. All too often colleagues find themselves in a circle of outbidding each other with moral standards. However, this insight only came to me a couple of years later when listening to the stories of those who – according to my former standards – had made it: they were placing their role on the international floor.
At that time, back in 2015, I knew I was doing the right thing. I knew I was choosing myself. I knew I had to break through the circle of constant moving which I had practiced for the past four years. I knew I owed it to myself. I just had no idea how to own it. I did not know how to precede from here. What had I been thinking? Not in relation to declining the internship, I clearly knew why I made that choice! But all those years, I had been convinced of a version of myself whose purpose it was to travel the world in the service of helping others. That was the story I had told at family gatherings, in my application letter to universities – this was my self-definition and I quite liked it. It seemed so selfless and caring and thus, I defined as selfless and caring. Looking at it nowadays, I am perplexed at how readily I assumed the definition of selfless as mine. Was I only good when I had no self? But that is a whole different chapter.
For so long I did not want to hear the voice saying: Lisa, you cannot cope with various climate zones (past the latitude of Rome I am not fully functioning). Lisa, you cannot cope with too – let’s say – adventurous hygiene standards. Lisa, you cannot even stand the feeling of not, at least, being a half native speaker in a language (which would have drastically minimized possible operation sites to German or English speaking countries). And above all, Lisa, you do not need to prove how cool you are by making the world your home and you cannot hide behind the needs and suffering of other people forever.
No one told me how excruciating hard this finding a home with me would be and how long (life-long!) it would take. I knew pain before and I knew the phrase “no one said life is easy”. But no one told me how lost and lonely I would feel and that I had to feel all this pain, anger and sadness, acknowledge it and even invite them into my life on order to fully see myself. I am glad I did not know. Maybe I would have looked at it, had turned around thinking “screw this” and walked away. The day I let my idea, my vision of myself slowly vanish, dissolving with the winds, I did not find relief or inner peace. There was chaos, disbelief and anxiety. It was not a moment of clouds shifting and a light shining on my head. It was raw and painful and true. I only realized about two years later that this indeed was the starting point, rather than the end as it felt back then. I had to go through some more mud. But at least today I reached the shores were waves sometimes might crash over my head, but then again also serve as the sound that rocks me to sleep. It is still raw, at times painful; and it is true.