A few weeks ago I traveled to Germany for the 65th Berlin Seminar and met with other Fulbright grantees from all over the continent. The conference was put on by the Germany Fulbright commission to bring together German students headed to the U.S. to study, American ETAs currently teaching in Germany, and other Fulbright grantees living in the rest of Europe. As I fit into the last category of attendees, I was eager to hear from others about their experiences and glean some perspective on my own time thus far.
The main theme of the conference focused on courage and placed this buzzword within the frame of living abroad, professional decisions, and diplomacy careers. Throughout the week we heard from many acclaimed speakers who expounded upon the role of courage in their own lives. A few memorable talks included Jeffrey Bleich speaking on courage within politics; Sawsan Chebli on the courage of knitting together one’s identity and public career; Adam Michnik on courage within the Polish political landscape; Sergio Jaramillo Caro on the courage he had when negotiating the Colombia/FARC conflict; and Claudia Rusch on the courage of German citizens following the fall of the Berlin wall.
To hear such a swathe of politicians and engaged citizens share their interesting and relevant stories reminded me of the wonderful opportunities that Fulbright has afforded me. I have learned so much about the world around me. Sure, the stories motivated me to consider how courage has served my current professional responsibilities — how it has been present in moments of engagement with the people I have met. However, more pertinently, the theme made me consider how courage has functioned in my personal life. Specifically, how it has functioned in the moments that have occurred between my earliest mornings in the classroom and latest nights lesson planning. The quiet times in the grocery store, attending church, walking the streets, or sitting in the park. The courage it took for me to jump headfirst into a new environment and try things that have been sometimes scary.
I found myself realizing that it also takes courage to acknowledge how you might see growth within yourself. Sometimes looking within is the hardest thing we can do. We have to face the demons inside. The lies we tell ourselves about who we are and who we are called to be. In many ways, the process of living in Latvia has made me wonder how (or if) I am changing. Because I am not home surrounded by either experiences or people that I am familiar with, it is difficult to get a sense of comparison when I am not in my “control” environment. To gain this perspective we need to ponder the hard questions. We have to ask ourselves, “Who am I?” “Can courage and fear live in duality?” “Where do I get the courage to grow beyond my current boundaries?” And, when we ask these, we must face the even greater question: “Who gives me courage when I am scared?”
In all honesty, this has been one of the scariest things I have considered throughout my time in Latvia. Figuring out all of the logistics of living in an Eastern European country and navigating a new culture has been fairly easy compared to considering what internal changes might have happened while I’ve been away. I have asked myself what it might mean if I come home feeling unchanged — as if it was all merely a strange year “off” from my normal, regular, American life. Does that mean that I didn’t have enough courage to do what I came here to do? On the flip side, what if this year changes me so much that my family and friends don’t recognize me? Or worse yet, what if I don’t even recognize myself?
One of the speakers from the Berlin Seminar gave an interesting allegory which anyone can use to acknowledge how courage functions in our own lives. He had us picture attending a famous Viennese ball and dancing on the large, crowded dance floor (my LCSO friends can refer to your first-hand knowledge). You are likely concentrated on the dance and your partner. You bump into the people around you and can’t really see beyond the dizzying twists and turns of the waltz. Sure, it is amazing, fun, and exhilarating. However, it is also hard to gain perspective as you don’t really know what is going on in the big picture. After a few rounds of this, maybe you decide you need to go to the balcony to take a breather. Once standing over everyone, you see what you couldn’t before. You notice the way couples weave between each other and the specificities of the waltz dance technique. You notice how you were only one, insignificant aspect in the grand scheme of things.
In hearing this allegory, I discovered one way to make sense of my displacing, Latvian experiences is to view them like the Viennese ball. So much of the past 7 months has been a whirlwind of language acquisition, travel, and balancing flexibility/routine. Like the ball, it is amazing, fun, and exhilarating. But it is also dizzying. I ask myself almost daily “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?” Taking a moment to view things from the balcony not only clarifies the big picture, but gives a much-needed moment of respite and calm. When I see things from this viewpoint I notice that I have surprised myself. I have realized personal growth this year has happened whether I like it or not. And isn’t this always how it works, haha? During the time we spend and effort we exert trying to keep things the same, we are often stretched and pushed beyond what we either hoped or wanted.
When I take a moment to “stand on the balcony,” I see myself comfortably teaching lessons and private tutoring sessions that I would have never imagined I was capable of instructing. I see myself gaining flexibility in how I have imagined my future after the grant. I notice myself finding deep and meaningful purpose in the friendships and community built here. These are all things that I deemed inconceivable looking ahead to my grant last July.
It is in these “balcony moments” that we see start to see the function of courage. It isn’t anything that we do or create out of our own willpower, but the trust that in both moments of difficulty and joy we are given strength from beyond ourselves. Maybe in standing on the balcony we can realize that it takes this courage to grow.