A few days ago, I posted about my short-lived love affair with Lucerne, Switzerland. In truth, these entire three months have been one giant love affair. And if you’ve ever been in love, you know that it can be wild, the time of your life. It can drain you to the point where you are left with your hands outstretched to the sky asking, “Why is this happening to me?” It can leave you feeling overwhelmed, suffocated, each emotion inside your body wrapping its calloused hands and sinking its bloody teeth into your heart and your mind until your very core is in shreds. And then, it can be beautiful. It can give you the power to float above the highest mountain. It can make you invincible. It can teach you things that you could never learn in a book, in a Hollywood rom-com, or in a world where you isolate yourself out of sheer terror from this pain that hurts oh, so good.
This past Thursday was the day of the Lipscomb in Vienna students’ final projects. (…yes many tears were shed). Everyone presented, in their own unique way, how we each have been shaped academically, spiritually, and personally by this experience. Some wrote poems that had us laughing so hard we cried. Others shared personal statements and pictures in slideshows. Still others compiled video and sound so we could all relive our greatest moments traversing this incredible continent. For days, I could not think of how to express in only a 5 to 7 minute time span what these past three months have done to me.
I am technologically challenged and hopeless with video and picture editing. I am no poet, and I know it (Obviously). I can’t compose my own original song. And I can’t reenact Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Yes, it was done; and it was brilliant). As the hours to presentation time drew nearer and nearer, I began to lose hope. I asked myself first, how can I make this as simple as possible so I don’t take over the presentation room for three hours?
How can I describe my academic experience here in an image? Learning is my biggest passion in the world. If I could stay in school forever and learn everything there is to know, I would do it. Or I would have…before this experience. EUREKA! What has this experience taught me about learning? It is no longer something that I can hope to attain only from books and classrooms. It is a beautiful, enticing vision that I want to chase to the ends of the earth, a free-spirit that knows no boundaries, no limits. Knowledge can be gained from simply getting lost in this vast amazing, world and soaking it up like a sponge, the history, the people, the culture. In my mind, this took the form of a beautiful young man grabbing my hand and saying, “Let me show you the world.” (Aladdin reference completely unintended).
Spiritually, I can’t say that I have ever been much for traditional mysticism. Organized religion makes me cringe. I only saw two paths in the matter: bask in your ignorance as you ignore the realities of the natural world; or discard all notions of a supernatural realm, and use real empirical knowledge to make life make sense. No, I am not a Christian. I have not been “reborn” from this experience. But spending three months in the closest of quarters and community with many people who are, not to mention taking a course directly addressing the apparent controversy been science and faith, made me take a closer look at the fork I saw in the road. And I was finally able to realize that the world isn’t as divided as it seems. Being spiritual can mean many different things, and one does not have to discard any scientific fact to attain any sort of spirituality. There are many different paths in between, and there’s always room to pave another.
The last question I had to ask myself was, who am I now? What am I going to take back home with me when I finally leave Vienna in a few days? I thought about how stressed I’ve been this semester. Study abroad, I will say again and again, is not what people think it is, at least not this program. I started with 16 credit hours this semester, and I, a straight A, honor’s college, OCD perfectionist, could not do it. I had to drop a course. And I have never had to do that before. I have had to say no to experiences here in Europe in order to finish assignments and meet deadlines, and in the process I forgot what I want for myself in light of what everyone else in my life, my parents, my teachers, my friends, wanted for me. That is no way to live. One can never please everyone, and when you start to try, you begin to lose little pieces of yourself one by one until you don’t even know who you are anymore. I realized that I have been doing this my entire life. And I am ready to stop. Grades, deadlines, others’ expectations for me, yeah they are important to an extent, but they are NOTHING if they take away from what I want from myself.
I decided to share these thoughts in the form of a creative story. It was a blast to write, and while I attempted to explain some of the symbolism above, I suppose it may not make complete sense unless you were present here with me for these three months. I hope that it can at least provide all with a temporary source of entertainment:
Once Upon an Adventure
There once was a young princess from a faraway land. Everyone knew that one day she would become queen and lift the kingdom into an age of happiness and prosperity. She was sure of herself too, confident in her ability to be a successful queen. She was at the age where it was almost her turn to take over the kingdom. But all she wanted before this was to have an adventure.
She had heard of young people venturing into the dark forest and coming back with amazing stories and a new appreciation for their world. And the princess wanted that too. So she told all her family, her friends, and her mentors in the kingdom that she was off to the forest to have the adventure of a lifetime.
It is true. The princess saw many amazing things. She traveled far and wide. But this is not a story about a traveling princess. This is a story about a princess who went into the forest as a girl ready to take on the world, but learned three very important lessons about herself.
One day in the midst of her travels, the princess was sitting upon the branch of a tall tree, reading a book. Reading was one of her favorite things in the world. The more she read, she thought, the more she knew, and the better she was for it. Suddenly, she heard a rustling in the leaves, and when she turned, she saw a beautiful young man who had sat down on the base of the branch. He was smiling at her, his blue eyes deep and glistening. He was holding a book in one hand and an apple in the other.
“Knowledge is something that you strive for?” he asked enigmatically, taking a bite of his apple.
“To know everything and to understand the whole world would be the greatest gift,” answered the princess.
“What is this knowledge that you have trapped in that book?” he condescendingly inquired, moving closer to her to examine it.
Feeling threatened and rather insulted, the princess moved further down the branch and looked at the strange, but beautiful boy in the sternest way she could muster. “And you? You don’t think that there is knowledge to be gained from that book in your hand?”
The boy laughed. “This? This is a journal. It only knows what I want it to know. And what it knows I already know. Would you like to go somewhere with me?” he asked the princess.
“Why should I go anywhere with you?”
“Because I can show you how to learn, princess.” He grabbed her hand and jumped down to the ground.
As they walked, the boy began to ask the princess questions about history, her kingdom, and about music and art and culture. When the boy would ask her these things, her first instinct was to reach into her bag and pull out one of her many books in order to give him the perfect answer. This is what she had always done when her teachers and mentors would ask her questions in school. She was surprised, however, when she could not find the answers to the boy’s questions in her books.
“You’re going about it all wrong,” he said. “How do you learn a language?” he asked.
“I have taken language classes my whole life,” answered the princess, confidently.
“Ah, but what have you experienced?”
“What are you talking about? What does that have to do with learning?”
“Princess, there is so much out there to know. You can learn everywhere, not just in a classroom. Learning shouldn’t be about getting a grade or mastering a test. Learning should be about exploring and experiencing, engaging with other people, and reflecting. Why do you think I carry this journal around with me? It is because the things that I have really learned are the things I have seen and touched. And one cannot find those lessons, in my words, in a textbook.”
“But what if you are wrong about something?” asked the princess.
“You cannot be afraid to make a mistake. You cannot be afraid to fail, because the most beautiful way to learn is through people and experiences. And sometimes this is hard, like learning a new language. One can never learn language from mere theory. You can’t become fluent in a language unless you speak!”
“I want to learn with you forever,” said the princess.
“Ah, but that wouldn’t really be learning would it? When you become too comfortable, you stop challenging yourself,” he said. “So you should go, continue on your journey. Now you are better equipped because you know how to learn! Here, I’ll point the way for you, head down this path until you come to a fork in the road. And take the path that makes the most sense.”
“What does that mean?” asked the princess, confused.
“It means something different to everyone,” he smiled and disappeared into the trees.
The sky was slowly beginning to darken as night approached. But the trail she was on was too narrow to pitch her tent, and the woods lining the path were too thick. She came to a fork in the road, two paths veering in opposite directions. She stopped, unsure of how to continue.
“Which way are you going?” whispered a voice. The princess was startled. She couldn’t tell if the voice had come from somewhere in the trees or if she had just heard it in her mind.
“Who are you?” asked the princess, frightened. She received no reply. “I don’t believe in spirits,” she said aloud. “I can’t see this voice or touch the source. It is a figment of my imagination,” she told herself, satisfied she had come to the right conclusion.
She looked at her two options. The one on the left was narrower and winding, and she couldn’t see very far along it. It looked like a recipe for disaster. It would be all too easy to get lost and confused and to lose sight of the purpose of her journey. The one on the right was wider and straight forward, but would she find meaning on this path? Would it help her grow?
“Look closer,” the voice reappeared. “Are there really only two ways to go?”
“But the boy told me there would be a fork in the road,” the princess answered. “I’ve always known that a fork in the road means two options. One is the right way and the other is the wrong way.”
“Sometimes, you have to examine things from a different angle, princess,” said the voice. “Step closer. Are there only two paths in the road?”
“You’re not real,” the princess snapped, annoyed that she would let her mind wander into delusions. “The kind of person that believes in spirits only does so for her own comfort,” she told herself. “She cannot grasp reality. But I can. I know the way this world works, and spirits just don’t make sense.”
“I might be real, I might not,” said the voice. “I might just be a figment of your imagination. I might not. If there is something beyond this forest and beyond your kingdom and beyond your own mind, it is completely separate. The laws of this world do not apply to the transcendent world, if that world exists. There is no reason why I cannot be perfectly real, even if you can’t explain me. The point is in the possibility.”
The princess stepped closer to the fork in the road and began to see options that she hadn’t seen at first. And then the princess began to think. “There are so many people in my kingdom that would have believed this voice came from a spirit. I used to think they simply lacked education or a profound understanding of the world, but maybe it is possible after all. I rely on my eyes and my hands and my books for truth, but I can now understand the people of my kingdom who may rely on something else. I can now see that their beliefs are not something to be scorned, because they are based in something that my eyes and my hands cannot detect. This will help me be a better queen.”
And as the sun began to rise behind the distant trees, the princess took a different path, one closer to the middle.
As the day became warmer, the princess grew tired. She walked into a meadow with soft grass and lay down underneath a willow tree. She was dreaming about exploring the world when she felt something lightly brush against her ear. She opened her eyes to find that she was surrounded by tiny, golden fairies.
One of them looked at her and said, “Will you help me? I dropped my wand in the pond over there, and I’m afraid to get wet. Would you get it for me?”
The princess thought the fairies were the sweetest creatures she had ever seen in her life. She gladly reached her hand down into the pond and retrieved the little fairy’s wand. But as soon as she did, all the other fairies started to ask the princess to do favors for them. She tried to help them all, but they kept asking more and more from her. The more tasks she signed on to do, the poorer the quality of her work in each task, and the more upset the fairies became with her. And the more upset she became with herself. This went on for days as the princess tried and tried to meet the expectations of the fairies, but she slowly began to realize that she was no longer enjoying her adventure.
Was doing all this work really important to her? Was meeting the expectations of someone else more important than fulfilling her own dreams and desires? She began to ask herself if she even wanted to be the queen of the kingdom. She grew up knowing this is what she was supposed to do when she reached a certain age, but now she was questioning whether or not she wanted to continue on this path. Being a queen would be much like serving these fairies.
“As a queen, it will be impossible to give everyone everything and make everyone happy. I don’t even know if ruling the kingdom is what I want anymore. Maybe when I am older and I have learned more from my experiences, but maybe right now I just want to explore. I am still young. Why do I need to have it all figured out? Why do I need to have a set path?” This is what the princess told herself as she stopped working.
“I’m sorry I could not help all of you, but it is time for me to go now,” apologized the princess.
“Where are you going, princess? Are you going home?” asked the fairies, disappointed, but understanding.
“I don’t know yet,” said the princess. “And for the first time in my life, I know that it is okay that I don’t know. Because this world is a beautiful place, and I’m going on an adventure.”
The End…is only The Beginning