Sometimes the universe hands you an insight and you just go, “No, seriously, is that what it is?”
That happened to me today. I attended a presentation by a colleague on adjusting to a new culture. Considering the title: “The Honeymoon is Over – Now What?” and my status as a 25-year veteran of this city I was looking forward to enjoying my role in the room as an observer and supporter. Then he put up this diagram:
And suddenly all of my sadness, frustration, listlessness and second-guessing of the last couple of weeks came into sharp focus. That dip on the graph, the one labeled “withdrawal”? That was me, or better, that’s where I saw myself so clearly, so evidently: In my one year leave from school, in my new role as an independent leadership coach, on my own, self-employed and really wondering if I am on the right track after all. On this curve I could see myself inhabiting that special valley reserved for explorers, travelers, pioneers, tag-alongs – anyone who must leave one thing, place, situation and adapt to a different one – perhaps in another country but, and, or quite possibly in a new field, a new organization, in a different role, on different terms. This was not necessarily what I came for but the universe seemed to know better why I needed to be in the room seeing what I otherwise could not, would not see on my own.
Coping with a significant drop in social contact has been the toughest part of my current transition. Leaving behind my people-intensive days in a bustling school community to spend the majority of my time at home alone with far fewer face-to-face contacts presents me with a new type of challenge. While I savor and appreciate the time to myself – the quiet, the freedom and creative license – I have now reached a place where I deeply miss the camaraderie of working in a team and teaching lots and lots of kids. So when I saw this graph, I could give my situation a name: “culture shock shock.” Since I hadn’t ever remotely considered the possibility of culture shock, my shock was doubled.
I haven’t left the country and at the same time I really have left home. My honeymoon of industrious engagement and wild abandon are past. I’m experiencing a phase of withdrawal; of missing what I knew so well. I have grown weary of having to invent and adapt and adjust to so much that is unfamiliar, different, and strange. Culture shock. Being on my own all day on most days was really cool until it became kinda tough. And lonely. And only marginally rewarding. In this phase of culture shock my energies have become sluggish and my persistence a bit rough around the edges. I bet my grit is enjoying a sunny vacation somewhere.
On the other hand, the curve goes on. “Withdrawal” denotes a phase of the process rather than the full extent. I can believe that recovery is up ahead even if I can’t make out its shape just yet. One advantage to slowing down and even grinding to a halt is that once you open your eyes, there’s quite a bit to see. India Arie sings: “When you’re in that valley you can see both sides more clearly.” And that feels like just the reminder I need right now. There’s “Value in the Valley” according to Iyanla Vazant. So while I may not feel particularly productive or of great use to the world at this moment, if I can just stay in this uncomfortable place for a bit – feel it, live it, allow it – I am confident that whatever comes after will belong to me. “It” will become a part of me, of my learning, of my journey – a piece that, down the road and in hindsight, I wouldn’t trade for the world.
And while I am on the topic, what kept this dip from becoming a deeper, darker tailspin: People, people and people. On a walk I called a friend I haven’t spoken to in weeks. Our chat was like manna from heaven. On e-mail and social media I paid closer attention to how I was responding to friends. I figured that even short messages to say “Thanks, I got it. Will write more soon.” let folks know that I value and appreciate them. When getting out and about, I am learning how to respond more honestly to the query of how I am by saying, “OK. It’s a little tough now and then, but in general, it’s pretty good.” Which is a great way to capture these precious weeks and months of free range: tough now and then, but in general, pretty good.