“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” – David Mitchell
In some ways, I expected studying abroad to change me automatically. Any prospects of hard work would be bypassed and a better adjusted human would be deposited at the JFK airport come November. The experience on its own seemed like it would be enough of a catalyst for change. During the first half of this semester, I spent a lot of time changing how I see the world, inviting it into my life as a playground for exploration and an endless well of opportunities. I saw many incredible sights, met the most carefree of friends, and discovered a new direction for not only my future career but also my personal lifestyle. All good things.
However, I was looking outward this whole time hoping that I would find something in South Africa that could sustain my happiness and the initial euphoria of this semester in perpetuity. For the last two months, the thought of leaving Cape Town behind scared me because I didn’t think I would ever find what I was feeling ever again. Every spare moment we crammed with activities, in hopes that the feelings of freedom and exhilaration would continue. When they didn’t, it was as if the whole of Cape Town had let me down. I took it personally.
When it was announced that classes were suspended due to student protests, I didn’t expect to spend 2 weeks lying low (read: sleeping) and thinking in near constant rotation. I figured I’d be out on adventures, finding pieces of my soul scattered all over Africa because that’s apparently what you do when you travel. Instead of picking up the pieces, I took a break to see that I was never broken to begin with.
Two-ish months ago, I jet set off into the world to find myself and happiness (mostly just happiness but I figured I’d learn a bit about myself along the way). Finding it was a momentarily satisfying high, losing it an unbearable low. I let myself be convinced that happiness could only come from the people I met and their friendship, the experiences I documented and their lasting impressions on me, and finally the pieces of myself I thought I had to find. When I made friends or got home from a memorable adventure in Cape Town, I clutched onto anything I could to keep it from fading away into becoming “a time when I used to be happy.” Because everyone knows that my next best talent after writing is being nostalgic.
It’s hard to break old habits because it’s easy to live life on autopilot, even in another country where day trips are made to some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and nights are consumed by the festivities happening on the balcony of a South African bar. So despite being in the Southern Hemisphere, I carried on looking for happiness like I always did, remaining forever unsatisfied, disappointed, and let down. I kept trying to find my elixir of happiness, only to end up causing more hurt and confusion than I planned.
That’s when I realized, as I surveyed the mess I created, that sometimes you don’t come to know and love yourself by traveling the world or by making an abundance of friends. Sometimes, especially when you’ve lost sight of yourself in the complexities of your life, you rediscover yourself by going home or by being alone. Given that I’m 7,856 miles away from home, I opted for the second option which meant catering to the demands of my feelings and calling my mom and dad (hi family, I love you).
Between sleeping, eating, and the occasional solo outing, I used the two weeks off to get reacquainted with myself. Since the beginning of the semester, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed having time to myself to think, create, dream, and just do nothing. So much of my time had been spent in the company of others, crowding my mind with the complexities of everyone else’s lives. During those two weeks, I thought a lot about the source of my unhappiness and patterns slowly emerged.
It became obvious that my dissatisfaction with who I was on my own had slowly made me resent and reject myself. I searched for happiness in people and experiences because I distanced myself from the value I saw in myself and my own capabilities. I overextended myself to people who never intended to do the same for me, prioritized friends who weren’t capable of understanding how sacrificial that is, and invested myself in friendships that had clear expiration dates and insurmountable dysfunctions. I chased people because I figured friendships and popularity were the missing pieces I was in need of and during the first few days we had off from classes, I felt really lonely. I couldn’t sit still with myself and my thoughts for long without feeling restless, inadequate, and ultimately guilty for wasting a perfectly good day in Africa by myself and on myself. However over time, being alone became clarity.
Which is why it’s finally clear to me that no matter how far I travel and how many people I meet, no experience or person is going to “complete me” in perpetuity. Not only am I already whole, but those people are not guaranteed to stay and every experience will ultimately end. The only thing certain is that I’m going to spend the rest of my life with myself so I might as well like who I am and take good care of her. I mean realistically, how can I manage to sustain healthy relationships with others if I can hardly manage to sustain one with myself?
“People seem to think embracing life means to jump off cliffs and kiss strangers. Maybe it’s just slowly learning to love yourself.” – Unknown
South Africa has yet to see my best self. Although only 7 weeks remain in the semester, the adventure has only just begun. There is plenty of time to choose happiness and explore more of South Africa. Even though I am stressed out about my college credits and the possible outcomes of this semester, I must not lose sight of how fortunate I am to be here.
Because at the end of the day, I really did find happiness. I just didn’t find it in what I expected to and now I know that it can never be lost nor found, only called upon. *big smile*
All my love,
You can see more pictures of my adventures by following me on Instagram: @shawna_117.