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Love What’s Right Before You Instead of Hating What’s Missing

Friends Jumping

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” ~Walt Whitman

I take stuff for granted. I suspect you take stuff for granted.

It’s almost as if it can’t be helped. When things—family, friends, health, amenities, or money—occupy a place in our lives for years, we naturally begin to view them as commonplace; we assume they’ll forever be, just as they’ve always been.

Yet this mindset—this “Oh, of course that’s there; that’s always been there” perspective—often seems to prevent us from realizing how much it would mean to us if that something wasn’t there anymore.

Hello, Asia

In August of 2013, I moved to Busan, South Korea to teach English for a year to a bunch of elementary school kids (lovable rascals, these kids). Three months later, I can tell you that this experience has been everything I imagined and about 10,000 things I didn’t.

For a while it was similar to what I’d envisioned—like freefalling through some sort of mythical dreamscape. Everything new and interesting, bright and foreign, so much happening, so much to learn, so much to take in. It was experiential overload, at once intimidating and blissful.

After a few weeks, though, the feelings of novelty and adventure began to wane slightly; a discord had been created.

My romanticized visions of my new home were coming into conflict with a feeling I’m sure most of you know very well—the slog of routine, the all-too-familiar, the grind. 

What happens is this: you begin to get used to the new country; it loses a certain sparkle. You start to notice its flaws, its funny odors, its unsexy idiosyncrasies. You realize that a full-time job in a foreign land is still a full-time job, except 95% of the people around you don’t speak your language.

You realize, “Wow, I’m going to be gone for a while—a whole year! And I’m going to see exactly zero people I know. Nada. None. For 12 months. Oh.” In terms of culture shock, you’re experiencing the end of what’s known as “The Honeymoon Phase.”

I had read about these things. I thought I understood that they were going to happen. I thought I knew how long a year was. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into.

I didn’t. Not really, at least. Turns out it was near-impossible to know what an enormous decision it was to move to a foreign country until I was two months in and questioning what in God’s name I was doing here.

Lonely? Me?

As someone who usually enjoys solitude, I’ve been surprised at how lonely I’ve felt at times. You discover a special kind of alienation when you’re in a city of five million people and can’t communicate with anyone. It’s easy to dissociate yourself from your surroundings.

You start talking to yourself. You feel like you don’t exist. You end up shouting to the music in your headphones (“People will know that I’m here!!”) while walking down the sidewalk as you’re drenched head-to-toe and getting wetter by the second because, as you just found out, there are typhoons here. (Okay, maybe that was just me).

It’s during those periods that you realize you’d trade your big toe for a few days at home with the people you’ve known for years. To do nothing but laugh a few hours away with those irreplaceable personalities whom you know about as well as your own reflection.

“Man, that’d be heaven,” you think.

Sure, you can “connect” with loved ones via Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Gmail, and a trillion other online mediums. You can even indulge in a pretty convincing illusion of face-to-face conversation with Skype or a Google Hangout.

But as you do, it becomes clear that these substitutes can never duplicate a sizable bear-hug, or an eye-contact-followed-by-uproarious-laughter moment, or the glorious interplay of energies when you’re actually in the same room with people.

While living in Korea, I’ve realized what an invaluable gift I sacrificed to come abroad—namely, being a car ride away from most all of my favorite people in the world.

Before coming here, I’d known that I loved my family and friends endlessly—that they meant everything to me—but I don’t think I quite realized the extent to which being near them and being able to see them were vital to my well-being (and sanity).

I feel I’ve gained a renewed appreciation for those precious people who’ve been there for years and will continue to be.

When I do return home, I’ll love them just the same as before, but I’ll truly cherish the time I get to spend with them. I’ll try to remember what it was like without them.

Gratitude is Slippery

Simply imagine for a few moments what it would be like if all of the people you loved were just gone, so far away that you couldn’t see them. It’s likely difficult to put yourself in my situation, but my hope is that you can sense it—how you would miss the familiar comfort of just being with them, of just sharing a space or a smile.

One wouldn’t think that the good things in our lives need to disappear in order for us to understand their worth, yet so often this is the case.

It seems a bit of a paradox, that what is nearest our hearts can be hardest to see. I humbly submit to you that we ought to be attentive to what lies just below our oblivious noses, lest we recognize the value of things only after they’ve left us.

I’d be a fool (more so than I already am) if I didn’t understand that this don’t-take-things-for-granted spiel applies to me right this moment.

In a few years, I’ll look back on my time in Korea and know what an incredible opportunity I was given and how much was here to love.

If I overlook the wonders that surround me in this place and constantly pine for my home, I’ll set myself up to feel only a sort of wistful gratitude later on, when all that remains of my time abroad are patchwork memories.

So while I now grasp more fully what I left behind to come to this country, I’m focusing on remembering that I came here for what I couldn’t find at home—a different environment, new friends, fresh perspectives. And those things are all around, plain to be seen, so long as I’m not looking through them, at what isn’t here.

I’m reminded of a sentence Vonnegut once wrote: “A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” I like the whoever especially, but I’d also add whatever, wherever, whichever. 

In the end, it seems, loving what’s right before us does far more good than hating what’s missing.

I’m not always keen at seeing what’s near to be loved (so it goes), but here’s to looking a bit closer. Here’s to noticing the important things, before they’re no longer there to be noticed.

Photo by Antoine Gady

About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a tenacious fellow who loves novels and freestyle rapping. He’s a writer and activist who’d like the world to think more and fight less. You should check out Refine The Mind, his online treehouse.

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  • Hey Jordan, I can 100% relate to your expectations meeting the dull repetition of routine and feeling completely underwhelmed, even though deep down you know you are responsible for said underwhelming. The next time I go somewhere I will focus on always trying something new, especially when I’m feeling like “ugh, this place isn’t very interesting after all”.

    I am terrible at gratitude, and I have tried the mantras and affirmations. Every time I start thinking about it I just remind myself of people who are a lot less fortunate than me. People who died before they had a chance to deal with the “problems” I’m dealing with. And instead of feeling grateful I just start wondering how I fit into the equation of helping said people.

    But I am getting better at what I like to think of as applied gratitude. Taking advantage of your current situation to the fullest. So in a sense I guess it all works out.

  • Brenda Clark Hamilton

    That was amazing, Jordan. I was so moved by what you wrote. I assume it’s okay to share on my blog. I think it’s far more powerful than anything I could share this Thanksgiving Day. Kudos for a powerful piece.

  • Savannah833

    Great article, I needed a reminder of taking stock of what I have vs. want.

    Regarding your experience, one thing you can consider doing is trying to immerse yourself even further into the culture. Take a Korean language class or learn from a book–you’ll gradually feel more connected once you know more phrases. Next, explore the city, country, and beyond. Make a local tea shop a regular stop off so everyone will literally “know your name, visit national parks, or step outside the country to a neighboring one. Traveling can be very cheap if you’re ok staying in hostels. Don’t pressure yourself to do things, gently push yourself to make the most out of this time-limited experience you were so lucky to get.

  • Hey Jordan, great post! Resonated a lot for me, particularly the experience of being alone in a large, foreign city and feeling isolated. Really brought back memories of how much that experience made me appreciate life, my loved ones, my blessings even more, and how easy it is to get caught into looking for what isn’t there, and missing what is right in front of you. Even the challenges of an experience like that are gifts if looked at from the right perspective, and it took me a little while to get that. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  • Bernadette, glad you enjoyed the post. Great to hear from another person who knows what it’s like to be in a large unfamiliar city. And wonderful to hear that your experience was very similar to mine!

    It certainly takes some time to understand the blessings that come from moving a very foreign environment. I feel I’ve been “getting it” more all the time these past few weeks.

    Thanks again for the positive feedback. All the best to you.

  • Savannah,

    I appreciate the tips. I’ve been doing most everything you’ve said (or plan to, with regards to traveling).

    Happy to report that the last few weeks (I wrote this about a month ago) have felt really great. I feel I’ve found my groove here and begun to integrate/appreciate this environment more than I was.

    It’s a good feeling, especially to feel like I took my own advice (which can be very hard to do).

    Thanks for the comment. Regards to you. 🙂

  • Thank you, Bren! What a nice compliment. Very much appreciated. 🙂

  • Ragnar, nice to hear that you can relate. I don’t know if I agree that we’re necessarily responsible for how we feel. Feelings come and go, sometimes inexplicably. I think our control over them only goes so far (and may be entirely an illusion).

    I don’t think I’m “good” at gratitude in a formal sense either. I don’t like the idea of mantras or affirmations very much. What I have done before is to list the people I love, either in my mind or on paper. This seems to be one of the best and sincerest and most *spontaneous* practices in gratitude that I’ve done. Gratitude is paradoxical. It shouldn’t be forced, and yet it requires some intention to feel. I’ve also thought before about using one’s relative comfort as a source of gratitude, but I actually think this can be counterproductive. We can make ourselves feel bad by telling ourselves that our problems are insignificant compared to others. We can drive ourselves to guilt with thoughts of, “I’m such a little baby to think I even have real problems”. Everyone has their own struggles and sufferings, whether external or internal, and I think those struggles should be respected. I feel like this somehow relates to my reply to your comment on my recent David Foster Wallace piece on RTM. Maybe.

    As far as how we fit into the equation of helping people, that’s partially for us to decide and partially for us to never know. I mostly focus on trying to ensure that I really *am* being kind (or at least courteous) and generous (or at least less selfish). I feel as if I have no need of knowing my true position in it all (I don’t think this can be known) if I have a sense that my position is a “positive” (word has some hokey connotations but I’ll use it here) one. I think it does all work out, if we see it correctly. It isn’t our job to work it all out, but rather, to know how to work with it and let go of our resistance to it. Those are my Taoist aspirations speaking. Thanks for the comment. As usual, really insightful and stimulating to me. Peace, sir.

  • It’s inspiring Jordan! All the very best to you too!

  • cailinbroga

    This is bang on! I have spent most of my working life teaching in other countries and I well recognise the scenarios you describe. You can understand in a theroretical way that whole sequence of excitement/ honeymoon-phase over/ dullness of routine/ loneliness etc but when you actually live it it’s a whole different thing. But you are right, it can kick you into appreciating both what you left behind and love, and what’s around you right now, some of which you will inevitably miss when you’re back home – and it can increase your appreciation of and gratitude for all of those. many times Ive thought “what the hell am I doing here?” in various lands, but there’s not one of those contracts that didn’t help me learn and grow and give me wonderful memories. Sounds to me like you’re on track, you’ve figured out more than many do at this stage – keep at it! And thanks for sharing your story.

  • Kelly Rodriguez

    You absolutely captured it perfectly! I am exactly where you are! I just moved to Seoul 3 months ago to teach English also. And it is incredibly comforting to read what you wrote at the exact time you are feeling it and it be the exact time I am feeling it as well. It reminds me that I am not alone and very normal in feeling this way. It is very difficult to explain this to people back home and I am just so happy to have read it, especially during this time of year. Thank you.

  • Keith Quiring

    Fantastic post Jordan. As someone living and volunteering in Chiang Mai, Thailand and overwhelmed with the pictures of turkey dinners back at home, I really appreciated this perspective and jolt back to the things that matter. Thank you

  • Thank you for sharing, Jordan. Your adventures really go to show that we don’t always realize what we have, until we don’t have it.

    Having an attitude of gratitude can be difficult, especially when life is less than stellar. Here’s a post I wrote on the topic: http://piercingthebubble.com/2013/11/27/an-unconventional-gratitude-list/ .

  • Nova Girl

    Thank you Jordan so much for this. I am going through this right now. I have been living in Canada for seven months now and am about to go back home to the UK for Christmas.. However, I have a choice to make now, as I was given a sabbatical in the UK and the chance of a full time permanent job here. I love where I am living, when I am not working, it is so beautiful near the Atlantic ocean and lakes etc….but at the same time I am so lonely and cannot wait to see my family as I have been so desperately homesick too. I am torn between going back to the UK to be closer to family or to come back out here longer term and give living here, alone, a bit longer…to do this would mean giving up my job in the UK and that is what is tearing me apart as I loved my job there, but I love being here too and cannot have it both ways….. So much to be grateful for and so many opportunities and I don’t know what to do….

  • BlueButterflyDf

    I like it when you said, “being near them and being able to see them were vital to my well-being (and sanity)” That is so TRUE. Esp the, “and sanity”, I get so lonely that sometimes i thought i will lose my sanity. I’m glad, i didn’t. Thanks for the great post, Jordan.

  • Shane

    Thank you for this reminder “Im focusing on remembering that I came here for what I couldn’t find at home—a different environment, new friends, fresh perspectives. And those things are all around, plain to be seen, so long as I’m not looking through them, at what isn’t here.” I’ve been traveling for 4+ months (of an eventual year) and have sat with loneliness and boredom at times. I knew traveling was what I needed right now – but started to forget why I left and this is just the reminder for me to remember why I am doing this in the first place. Lovely.

  • Shane,

    So glad you can relate. As time passes, it seems like it’s easy to forget that this was something we really wanted for various reasons. Remembering that, and remembering how unique of an experience we’re having, can bring us back to a place of appreciation. Thanks for commenting. Regards and best of luck to you in your travels.

  • BlueButterly, you’re very welcome! Since writing this post about a month ago, I feel I’ve gotten better at not missing everyone as much. I think finding new social circles in the new country helps tremendously. You just realize how much *people* in general matter to you. Relationships are everything–the real *stuff of life*, I guess. Thank you for the kind words. All the best to you.

  • Nova Girl, wow, sounds like you’re faced with a very difficult decision. For me personally, I don’t think I want to be working out of the country for longer than one year at a time. I have family members that are getting older, and I want to spend quality time with them before there isn’t anymore to spend. I don’t know what your situation is, but maybe that’s something to consider. Perhaps going home to work your old job for a while would give you perspective on whether or not staying in the UK is the right decision. You can always go abroad again–there seem to be so many opportunities. Anyway, glad the post could help you or resonate with you in some way. Best of luck making a tough decision. If it helps, I think either decision will end up being the “right” decision, if you know what I mean. Life has a way of sorting itself out after we take whatever leap we’re going to take. All the best to you. Regards.

  • Woah, Kelly, that’s crazy that we’re both in Korea and going through the same thing at the same time! How serendipitous that you would find this article. I think all of us ex-pats go through this to varying degrees. I think it’s important to see it as part of the cultural adjustment process and not blame ourselves or something we’re doing. We certainly can’t quite explain it to people back home (unless they’ve been abroad and felt it for themselves). In it, though, we’re becoming stronger, more independent people. Cheers to that. You’re very welcome, and I wish you the best.

  • Keith, you’re very welcome, my friend. I’ll be visiting Thailand and Cambodia over my winter break. Excited to get down to your neck of the woods. Glad the post could be a jolt back to everything rare and special about your current experience. Thanks for commenting. All the best.

  • cailinbroga: It’s great to hear from someone with a lot of experience working abroad. Glad you can attest to all of these feelings. Knowing that this is normal and even universal to feel to some extent is really comforting in a way. I wrote this article about two and a half months into the experience (been about three and a half now), and I think I’ve really found a groove these past few weeks. It was like I was so high when I got here, then quite low, then everything sort of balanced out as I’ve come to accept my life here and see it in a more honest light. I’ve certainly learned a lot about myself and have definitely become a stronger person. It’s empowering to know that. Thank you for the encouraging words and for echoing what I said. Regards to you and take care.

  • I guess the fact that barely anyone spoke your language was a big contributor to your sense of loneliness. When I travel on my own, one of the things I like is making new contacts on the fly, because there is nothing familiar to run off to. But I do think that every person has a need to belong to some kind of community. If you don’t feel that in your immediate environment, then it’s hard to stay there for a long time. The only time when I was gone for a year was when I went to Germany, which is close to the Netherlands where I’m from. But I was together with people who had the same interest, were in the same boat, and we had gone through similar experiences together. So the environment was great; I felt more at home than ever before in my life. Still, I also tend to take things for granted, and it’s only since recently that I really learned to focus on what I have, rather than what’s missing. It’s a nicer way to look at life, but also more rewarding, as positivity attracts more positivity and vice versa.

  • Forever seeking

    I was looking for ‘What’s missing in my life’ and amongst all the others,this link caught my attention first.My take away from your post would most definitely be to enjoy & make the most of ‘now’ before losing it. Thanks. Loved it.