PERSONAL FILE: When We’re All Where We Belong

IIMG_0052 sometimes forget I’m living abroad. You’re probably thinking, How is that possible? And it’s a perfectly logical question. I understand little to nothing that anyone says and I stand out–with my white skin, green eyes, brown hair, beard, and frequent flamboyance–sort of like a red prom dress would in a funeral procession. Nevertheless, now that comparatively little about Korea or Korean culture is unfamiliar to me anymore, I do sometimes forget, if only for a few moments or so at a time, that I haven’t always been here. Maybe that seems odd to you, and that seeming oddness might make sense if you’re the sort who’s always felt an integral part of something. I haven’t, though. This is a tired old confession, which it seems that everyone makes (honestly or just in a moment of depression) at some point in their lives, but, in fact, I’ve never felt as if I truly fit in anywhere. A fairly large part of that is due to the fact that I’ve spent all but the past six months of my life in the closet, but that’s only one reason among a vast multitude, the host of which I don’t intend to share with you simply because I’d like to maintain your interest in what I have to say.

I’m quite sure I’m a paradox to all who meet me, mostly because so many have told me as much. I can’t count the number of people who’ve confided in me, at one point or another in our relationship, that they can’t believe I grew up in the rural South, that I went to a fundamentalist Christian university, that I interned at an anti-gay hate organization in Washington, D.C., that I moved to Korea to teach English to little children, et cetera, et cetera. I guess I don’t necessarily fit the mold of the sort of person people initially think would have done all those things, which should go to show you that life is a complicated road trip, with many twists, turns, detours, roadblocks, and pit-stops. Sometimes, you’ve got to backtrack, and backtracking is something with which I’ve become intimately acquainted. The nice thing about backtracking, though, is that the more people are obliged to do it, the better they get at it, sort of like having to say, “I’m sorry.”

Speaking of road-trips, let me milk that metaphor further in saying that I’m definitely at a strange crossroads in my life. There isn’t anything I’ve done that I’m especially proud of and most of the things that were once a source of personal pride don’t really matter to me anymore. The story of my life up to this point has been one of repeatedly starting over. I wasn’t, for example, remotely satisfied with the direction things were going when I graduated from high school: I was prepping to go to a pointedly white-bread-and-mayonnaise university in Durant, Oklahoma, which was also going to be attended by a fair amount of people who had been classmates in high school, most of whom I didn’t really care to see again. That dissatisfaction was partly what spurred me to make a completely random decision to attend that fundamentalist Christian university you’ve heard so much tell about. If my life had been bland beef stew up to that point, the decision to go to ORU was like dumping a bottle of Dave’s Insanity™ Hot Sauce in the crockpot.

College was a deeply transformative experience for me–as I presume it is for most–but in ways neither I nor anyone could have anticipated. I’ve already written extensively about my time at ORU and don’t intend to relive it all in this post, but suffice it to say it felt like an entire lifetime, with all the commensurate triumphs, tragedies, and tumults, crammed into four brief years. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that, in the aggregate, making that decision to attend and later to stay at Oral Roberts was a mistake. I won’t sugar-coat it by calling it a “learning experience” or an “opportunity for personal growth” or anything like that; it was, quite simply, a mistake. When I was finally able to see ORU for what it was toward the end of my fifth semester–that being an utterly absurd institution ran by conniving spiritualistic charlatans, fundamentalist crackpots, and just straight-up morons promulgating a corporatist, quasi-fascistic version of Christianity beneath a veneer of kosher normalcy–I should have left. I really should have. But I stayed, so shame on me. In any case, I’m glad that there’s almost always a little good mixed in with the bad. I met some truly great people at ORU, many of whom I’m sure will be lifelong friends as we’re united in such a ridiculous shared experience.

So, in May 2012 after I got my degree, I went home simply because that’s all there was to do. None of my job prospects were working out and no window of opportunity opened that would have allowed me to stay in Tulsa, so home to the hills of southeast Oklahoma was the only option. For the next six months, I wandered in the doldrums. It was oppressively hot and I still had no great hope of finding a job soon, despite continuously sending out resumes, making calls, and sending emails. Home is also interesting because, though I love my family dearly, I definitely don’t belong there. I’d spent my entire trying to get away from the provinciality and cultural backwardness of southeast Oklahoma and I’d gotten a taste of diversity at ORU which, despite it’s ample flaws, is actually quite cosmopolitan. A beacon of hope emerged in August when it looked all but certain that I would have a job, and a nice one, too. My life was nonetheless shaping up to be quite vanilla as, once I got the job, I’d move back to Tulsa, buy a car, and start a state job. Though the money was enticing and outwardly I was quite excited to get started, on the inside, I was definitely conflicted. The job would have been doable and I would have been good at it, but it wasn’t remotely what I wanted to do with my life and I could see myself being eventually unwilling to leave it, much as I might dislike it, as the money and benefits would’ve been hard to give up. I don’t believe in fate, or in its Christianized cousin “predestination,” and had I gotten the job, my life wouldn’t have been necessarily better or worse, only different, but definitely boring. As it turned out, though, I didn’t get the job and so I once again hit the reset button. Not two weeks after I got the phone call saying, “We’ve selected someone else for the position,” I had a job in Korea teaching English to children.

So, here I am. I’m sitting in a coffee shop in the middle of downtown Daegu, South Korea. It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m trying to decide what I want for lunch. Today is a very important day for me; in addition to being both my Orthodox name day (pray for me, Aidan) and my half-birthday, it’s my six-month anniversary of being in Korea. I also have a blind-date, but that’s another story. Korea isn’t my home as it won’t let itself be a home to anyone who isn’t Korean. I am nevertheless quite content in this place, which I recognize as a brief stopover toward my longer-term goals. Who knows, maybe being used to not really belonging anywhere has made me more open to the idea of living and working abroad. That’s certainly why a lot of the people one meets abroad are the sort who’ve always struggled to find a place where they belong. When a person moves to a foreign culture, it’s a reset that, if nothing else, creates little to no expectation of the person fitting in. In many ways, and for many people, it’s one of the most liberating feelings they can experience.

It’s difficult to describe my feelings at present. While I often feel quite content with my current state of affairs and occasionally have intense bursts of excitement for the future, I also have random and unpredictable bouts of melancholy. Given that my current long-term plans don’t involve me settling down anywhere for very long, I occasionally fight feelings of intense loneliness. At the same time, I’m quite afraid of getting too close to anyone as I’m doubly afraid of having to let go when the time comes for me to move on. Letting go of people is painfully hard for me to do, but, then again, I’m not sure it’s easy for anyone. I know what I want from life, but it’s still so very hard to express those wants in words that can be understood by anyone other than myself. A lot of what I want is completely irrational, too, and I know it is, which is sometimes depressing. That doesn’t make me want it any less, or make me any less willing to work for it. In any case, I’ve certainly rejected so-called conventional wisdom. The way I see it, conventional wisdom can kill you, or at least kill your joy.

As far as we yet know, the incomprehensibly vast universe lying beyond the world we call home stretches away into a vast and immutable silence. Despite the best efforts and deepest wishes of many among us, no other form of intelligent life has yet been discovered. We are, in a peculiar way, quite alone. Sometimes, the knowledge that I’ve been given an entire lifetime with which I can do whatever I want is terrifying. What makes it even more terrifying is the knowledge that, in the end, no one really knows what the hell they’re doing. I really think ignorance of that fact is what helps children not be terrified of the world. When we’re young, we’re afforded the luxury of believing that all people who are older than us have everything figured out and know exactly what they’re doing. Nevertheless, there does inevitably come a point when, one way or another, that belief is shattered.

At this point in my life, my greatest wish is that, one day, I won’t feel a need to start over anymore. Maybe that’s naïve of me, and, if so, I’ll certainly admit it once I’ve figured it out. As I’ve now decided that I want to work for the Foreign Service eventually, starting over every two to three years will become a fundamental part of my life as I’m moved from one country to the next. Even so, my hope is that there will come a day when I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, where and to whom I belong. I notice that some people seem to have a far easier time of that than I think I will, and that’s all right, I guess. In the meantime, it affords me the opportunity to experience the world without the hindrance of being tied down anywhere or to anyone. Here, at the conclusion of these thoughts, let me add one more hope to my list: more than anything else, I hope when I find the place where I belong and the person to whom I belong that I’ll have good sense enough to see it and not run away for want of courage at a new and different sort of adventure. What a shame that would be, to look so hard for buried treasure and yet be so addicted to the wandering and searching as to put it back in the ground once found. That, I’m convinced, would be the saddest thing of all. So, here’s to hope, and to belonging, and to the hope that when I when I find the latter, I’ll have good sense enough to kick off my shoes and be long.

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