Hola, ¡lector/a! You’ve just started (what I think is) my last post related to my semester abroad in Europe in the spring of 2017. Below, I’ll be reflecting on what I experienced in Toledo and in my travels, how these experiences influenced me, how I’ve changed as a result of them, and how I will (or at least how I hope I will) carry what I’ve learned from them into my words and actions the rest of my life.
I want to make it clear that it’s rare for me to sit for un rato largo (a long while) and reflect. I’m almost constantly thinking and pondering, but I’m also almost constantly doing something. At home, it’s reading, writing, doing schoolwork, fulfilling extracurricular duties, or completing REH (Residential Education and Housing) tasks. Abroad, it was planning and going trips, uploading and editing my photos, keeping track of my funds, exploring the Toledo area, and completing work from the Fund. I reflect on my actions as I do them; that’s just how I function. But sometimes I (like all people, I believe) need to just stop, not do anything, and open up myself to silence. I’m trying to do this at least once a day through contemplative meditation, something I recommend for everyone. In any case, what follows will not always (or perhaps even at all) be sage wisdom, but I’m grateful to have had the chance to reflect and to write down what has come to me in this post.
How have I changed? I’m not entirely sure. I still work harder than I need to and sometimes should; I still have a problem setting aside enough time for fun and relaxation. I’m still timid and I don’t do a whole lot of fun activities with other people as a result, even though I sometimes want to do these things with my friends. I don’t know or speak as much Spanish as I would like. I still want to do more things than there is time to do (at least with the schedule I create for myself). In many important ways, I’m quite similar to the person I was before I left in early January.
The above “stills” are rather negative; I realize that. Another “still” is my low self-confidence and my reluctance to accept the overflowing, freely given love God offers to me and all creation. It’s a struggle I’ll have my whole life, but as time goes on, it becomes easier. So let me list another series of “stills,” one a bit more positive.
I’m still gifted when it comes to academics: I received all A’s in my courses at the Fund, and, even if I didn’t learn as much Spanish as I would have liked, I still learned and improved a lot in the language. I’m still a dab hand at organization: I didn’t lose anything from my bags in my final week abroad, and I planned almost all of my transportation, lodging, and activities for my travels, as well as much of those of the people with whom I traveled. I’m still a leader, for whatever reason(s). I’m not sure why I am one, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to serve others and accompany them to better places. I’m still a loyal friend, a devoted son, and a sentimental individual. And I’m still an active Catholic – without God or my faith in God, I would not have survived, thrived, or had as good a time as I did while I was abroad, nor might I have even gone abroad at all.
So, those are the “stills,” but what about the “then-and-nows,” the changes? I think I’ve grown or advanced in important ways during my time abroad. I’ve learned and adopted (even if only a little) a more relaxed attitude toward time and toward academic and other tasks. Sometimes, the most important thing to do is to do nothing. Moreover, it seems to me that the most important “task” for anyone, and the deepest need for anyone, is to freely give and receive love, to be generous, patient, accepting, and willing to affirm and protect the dignity of oneself and others.
I’ve learned to be more comfortable taking risks and to take more risks in general. While at the Fund, I started and led a spiritual discussion group. It was never very large, but it helped me and the few students who were part of it to talk about how our spirituality was challenged, affirmed, and changed in Spain and differences between religious observance and life in Spain and the United States. I had to take risks sometimes, asking for directions in unfamiliar cities and choosing a train or taxi without knowing for certain that it would arrive on time or in the destination I wanted.
Finally, I chose to take more risks with people. Like I said, I’m still shy, but I made a conscious effort during the semester to talk to more people and to talk more with them. A lot of my worries about people judging me or being unfriendly were, I realized, unfounded or exaggerated. Was I a social butterfly or everyone’s favorite person? By no means. But did I learn different perspectives and stories and create some amazing friendships with wonderful people from St. Norbert College and the other universities present at the Fund? Emphatically yes. I’m not going to waste my time and energy worrying so much about what others, especially my friends, think of me. I will care for people, work for their fulfillment and realization, but I will not care whether they bless me or curse me, laud me or revile me for doing so. If a person loves me as I am, despises every fiber of my being, or (perhaps worst of all) is entirely indifferent to me and my existence, I will do my best to love them as human beings and children of God. I know that this isn’t the most ground-shaking realization, but I have to repeat it to myself each day to prevent falling back into the fruitless hunt for constantly popularity and affirmation. God offers me and all of us affirmation, acceptance, and support in every moment, and if I accept these totally undeserved but lovingly offered gifts, I will be more myself and more of a shining light in the world.
I gained a greater appreciation for communication and even a little loudness from Spanish culture and especially my host family. I was and still am a naturally quiet person, but sometimes this refrain from noise keeps me from making my true feelings and thoughts known or from truly engaging with other people. My host family and other Spaniards would shout to, chide, and tease each other often and openly, but they would also and often express care and kindness for each other in their words and actions. And they did not hold back from laughter when it came on them! In addition to all the generosity, support, help, patience, and food(!) showered upon me by my host mother and family, they provided me with a lesson in opening up more and not shrinking from letting others know that I object to an opinion or action – or that I appreciate, find joy with, or love these same people.
My travels gave me a greater appreciation for both public and private transportation. I appreciated and admire the public transportation system of European countries. The ease and cost-effectiveness of traveling between towns, cities, regions, and countries is flabbergasting to me as a United States citizen; I could hardly have seen as much as I did without the highly developed and systematized bus, train, metro, and plane routes in Europe. This system is possible in the United States, and I hope that our country invests in expanding, renovating, and recreating our public transportation infrastructure soon and regularly so that people of all economic levels can travel more easily within their states and this varied, breathtaking nation.
At the same time, boy am I glad to be able to drive again! Being able to decide when I want to leave and arrive, where I want to go, which (if any) stops I wish to make, and with whom I want to travel (even if it’s just me) are multiple blessings for which I now have more gratitude. Public transportation in Europe helped me gain patience, flexibility, and openness to other people of different backgrounds and personalities, but it also gave me an appreciation of the solitude and freedom of driving. It would have been nice to have a bus or train to go from Stevens Point to Green Bay to West Bend when I visited my friends at St. Norbert College the week after I returned to the United States, but it was also incredible to drive by myself and listen to WPR. (Another “still”: I still am a huge fan of public radio and television!)
I went to SNC to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen for months and especially to wish well to my friends who were graduating at this year’s commencement. The friends and professors with whom I spent time helped me to reflect further on and clarify the lessons and changes imparted on me by my semester abroad. Most of all, my visit to St. Norbert College and to my home region of the Kettle Moraine reminded me of how generous, talented, and kind so many people at that college and in that area are (and how so many of these people exist throughout the world). Four friends allowed me to stay in their apartment while I visited, and they and multiple other people on campus were just as happy to see me as I them. My aunt in West Bent opened up her house to me for a night’s stay, and my best friend from Campbellsport simply radiated joy. I was overwhelmed and humbled by their sincerity and friendship. To all of you whom I met during those five days, thank you. To all the people with whom I studied and traveled in Europe, thank you. To my family, thank you. To God, thank you. I cannot say it enough nor with enough zeal: thank you.
What I’ve learned perhaps more than anything from my time abroad is that everyone makes mistakes. Revelatory, right? For me, however, it was truly an epiphany of sorts. I’ve begun to see and accept that I’m imperfect and that this is okay. I cannot and should not be the best or extremely skilled at everything I do, nor should anyone. we all feel powerless, moronic, lost, abandoned, ignored, or foolish at various points in our lives. What helps in these moments is realizing that all people feel like this, too, and that we can accompany each other in these moments of darkness. If we live with and through these trials, these moments of dying to self, with love and trust, we can grow in incredible ways and bring goodness and healing to ourselves and the world around us. These results don’t justify the suffering we experience or make it inherently good, but they do show (to me, at least) that goodness and light can be brought out of even the worst and darkest situations, that good in the end does have the final word.
Good for me is God, and God was and is the greatest “still” of my experience abroad. God accompanied me through every setback encountered, every church entered, every photo snapped, every churro eaten, and every laugh shared. The more I’ve learned about, prayed to, and experienced God, the more I’ve seen that God is both stability and dynamism beyond our comprehension. The Trinity, one united God in three distinct Persons, is the basis for this thought. Our universe is in constant flux, and we are never the same person from day to stay. Small changes happen constantly, many beyond our control. God is present throughout all the variables of life, however, and we can choose to react to the changes that come our way with God in love and life or without God in apathy and lifelessness. Whatever we decide and whatever happens, God abides; God still is; and God is love.
I’m not the same person I was when I left for Spain, but nor am I the same person I was when I came back. I change each day, and I have to learn to be comfortable with that and to rely on God to make that change positive. I pray that I grow in wisdom, faith, hope, and love every day, that I change for the better, and I pray the same for you, reader.
Thank you for coming with me on this journey, reader. Whether you’ve kept up with my blog from my flight to Charles de Gaulle or started with my flight back from it, I truly appreciate your taking the time to read through my rambling thoughts. If you have any recommendations, questions, or general comments, please let me know about them! I’ll continue posting in this blog, but it will return to its original focus of reflections on Scripture passages and on my general thoughts. If you want to keep up with it, great! If not, no worries, of course!
Again, thank you, reader. For what may be the last time saying it on this blog, hasta luego y vaya con Dios. May you see God walking beside you in every step.