The Case Study (part 4) – The End
“The disease of civilization is not so much the material poverty of the many as the decay of the spirit of freedom and self-confidence. The revolt that will change the world will spring, not from the benevolence that breeds ‘reform’, but from the will to be free. Men will act together in the full consciousness of their mutual dependence; but they will act for themselves. Their liberty will not be given them from above; they will take it on their own behalf.” (Erich Fromm, The Sane Society)
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When I was treated as a local woman in Albania, it didn’t incite anger in me. Rather, I was disgusted, and saddened by the reality of many Albanian women. When I first arrived in country, and took my kids to the compound playground, the Albanian women viewed me as the nanny. They accepted me as one of them. Until I opened my mouth and spoke.
When I shopped in the bazaars, older women would try to marry me off to their sons. Americans working in the Embassy wrote me off, by looking at me, and only introduced themselves once they ‘realized’ who I was. When I traveled to Morocco, shopkeepers assumed I was from the region. Even throughout Europe, I am frequently approached as a local, and met with confusion and sometimes chagrin when the truth be told. On numerous occasions over the years I’ve been told, “You are not American.”
You can probably infer from these examples my sense of identity was questioned. What is the face of America? Why do I not meet the requirement? Is that a compliment or an insult? Where is my place in this world?
Even though my experience may not resonate with every spouse, at a fundamental level, it is conceivable that we all share the same frustration. As trailing spouses, it’s very easy to lose ourselves. We become entwined with the system, dependent on the Department to fulfill our needs. We become ‘one’ with the officer, identifying our self as an extension of their position. We wait for the government to provide our housing, security, and education for our children. Oftentimes, we are in their graces for employment. We lose the autonomy we need to execute our own desires and will. We become children, the government our parents.
This dependence can manifest itself in unhealthy ways, and we find ourselves trapped in a culture of negativity and poor treatment. The few times I tried to assert myself and exercise my rights, I was met with hostility and an attitude of “suck it up, or get out.” Not only was that not helpful, or a disrespectful way to act towards me, but it’s also not sustainable. Research documented by the Harvard Business Review does not back up the ‘suck it up’ philosophy.
What I believe happens is that, in our depletion of freedom and a move towards silence, we hang on to the smallest things we can to retain any ounce of control over our life and situation. We try to settle our displeasures with complaints about the little things, living in a constant battle. In order to survive this environment we need to regularly check-in with our inner voice and remain true to our principles. The art of sacrifice does not mean the dissolution of our authenticity. We are still our own person. And, as Plato is so famously quoted, “Know Thyself.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201202/are-you-your-own-person
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The observations of my time spent at each post weighs heavily on my perception of the world. It can be a really ugly place. A sphere of injustice. I know why it was so easy for me to feel a victim. To understand why I reached the point when I had to make the decision to fight or flee. My automatic response was to flee. But, then my reasoning side questioned that choice. I realized I couldn’t answer the question to fight or flee until I could answer the question, Who am I? I had to lay the first stone, towards a path of truth.
I’ve done my best to research the topics of self-actualization, fulfillment, happiness, and authenticity. I’ve shared many of the facts of this life, leaving my personal opinions aside. I’ve been able to sit back, reflect on the findings, and work through the memories of my past. I’ve also had to ask myself how reliable my memory is. How has my experience overseas shaped the narrative of my life as a trailing spouse? In all honesty, I disclose to you that what I perceive of the past, the emotions rekindled and the images ingrained in my brain, reflect an ill-favored life. I cannot, in good conscience, say it was more good than it was bad. I can, however, acknowledge that beauty is often found amongst an ugly mess.
As a highly sensitive person, I can’t handle watching scary movies, or reading horrific details in the news. They give me nightmares for weeks. I still have a recurring nightmare from a scary movie I watched during a sleepover in fifth grade. Things affect me deeper and longer than most people. My central nervous system reacts to certain stimuli which makes me very sensitive to negative energy in this world. When I see or hear about pain, I not only cringe because of what I’m seeing or hearing, I’m cringing because my body feels pain too. And, the pain lingers until I can settle my nerves.
Living in underdeveloped nations for the first seven years of our overseas life, the accounts of human rights violations and the witness of poverty on the streets was difficult to face on a regular basis. The weight of suffering was not just a reaction of the wrongdoings done to myself. The heaviness of it all came from the acknowledgement that how I felt in those moments were the reality of life for many around the world everyday, all day. I knew better. I knew that was not the life I left behind in Oklahoma. I knew there were more resources and better opportunities for me back home. The burden of carrying personal knowledge of the havoc wreaked on the lives of innocent people was too hard to just ‘suck it up.’
Every child beggar became a point of focus for me. Even when they hung themselves from the roof rack of my SUV, my heart broke, conflicted on the proper way to help. We were guided to never give them money, but then also told they suffer severe abuse if they don’t collect enough each day. By giving, at least I knew I saved them from some pain. The worst days of my life overseas could have easily been the best day for someone living on the street. My sadness originally stemmed from a sadness for the state of the developing world. Is this what makes me un-American?
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Growing up, my go-to book was Little Women. I must have read it at least a dozen times, and now looking back, I see how it has shaped my views of being a woman and how it even prepared me for life as a trailing spouse. Four flawed sisters enduring hardship, giving of themselves for a greater cause. Losing all they have and managing to live a meaningful life. A dedicated mother, honest and patient, guiding her children towards a life of truth and acceptance of their choices. An absent father, off fighting a war. http://www.thecultureconcept.com/little-women-by-louisa-may-alcott-having-a-meaningful-life And, Jo, the character I related to the most; blunt, keenly aware of the world around her, feeling events and situations deeper, and most assured she held the greatest burden in the family. We can learn a lot from this book. The lessons and wisdom of life are written on every page. We can relate to the themes of family, love, independence, and poverty.
As modern spouses, it’s tough to accept our hopes, dreams, and pursuit of happiness just won’t quite happen the same way, or with the same ease, once we leave the soil of America. We venture to the unknown, willing to sacrifice parts of ourselves for the greater benefit of our country. We suffer knowing our children and spouse are gaining much more than we are. And, we endure the hardship as well as we can manage. And, yet, some of us still lose. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, tells us his research findings reveal that a minority of the population endure the majority of the suffering.
Our road to self-actualization is the road of enduring the heartaches and losses of life as a trailing spouse. It is certainly not an easy life, or one that everyone is willing or capable of living. But, it is certainly a noble one. One that leads us to the true meaning of life.
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As I wrap up this project, conveniently at the same time I’m wrapping up my time in Germany, I ask myself, What do I want to do next? How do I want to help? Leaving in just a few short days, I will begin making plans for the future, my career, our own home. How can I best to use this reflection to make the world a better place?
While I take a necessary amount of time to answer those questions, I must not forget the life-changing lessons I learned along the way. To reach self-actualization, I must:
- Be selfish, and unselfish, in my decisions, knowing there must be a possibility of regret.
- Choose my battles wisely.
- Defend the most precious thing I have, my identity.
- Be courageous.
- Remember resilience is about recovery, not endurance.
- Be willing to be broken.
As Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”
P.S. Thank you for joining me in this personal project. If you feel comfortable, please connect with me on social media. I’d love to hear from you, learn more about how you’ve survived over the years, and find out what the future holds for you.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘The Little House on The Prairie’ and the Art of Self-Disclosure, The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/little-house-and-the-art-of-self-disclosure/487361/
Anne Lamott TED Talk – https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing
How Comforting Others Helps You with Your Own Struggles –http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_comforting_others_helps_you_with_your_own_struggles?utm_source=Greater+Good+Science+Center&utm_campaign=f938b9b3df-GG_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_06_06&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5ae73e326e-f938b9b3df-50901287
Albert Einstein on the Interconnectedness of Our Fates and Our Mightiest Counterforce Against Injustice, Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/06/08/albert-einstein-human-rights/?utm_source=Brain+Pickings&utm_campaign=4bbdb148ab-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_06_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_179ffa2629-4bbdb148ab-236866509&mc_cid=4bbdb148ab&mc_eid=f5bcb9a269
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11468377-thinking-fast-and-slow