By Troy Headrick
I want to begin this one with a story. Years ago, back when I first started my career as an academician, I had this strange midlife crisis. I call it “strange” because I wasn’t anywhere near the middle of my life at the time it occurred.
It manifested itself in this way: I sensed, at a very young age, after being quite successful in getting a really good education, that my life was at a kind of dead end. I was tired and uninspired and wondered if this was all there was. I felt like I needed to do something that would really turn me on and provide me with a challenge.
So I applied to join the Peace Corps, a program that’s really hard to get into. After a year of going through the application process, I was accepted and sent off to Poland to do work that was both educational and humanitarian.
It was hard. I was separated from loved ones and suffered from a lot of culture shock. The work was exhausting, and I was paid less than two hundred dollars a month, a typical local salary at that time. So, at the end of two years of service, I had earned less than five thousand bucks, an amount that is equal to what many Americans make in a single month.
Here’s the interesting part. I had applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer for purely selfish reasons. I wanted to fix whatever was broken inside of me. I wanted to find myself. My concerns were very self-centered. However, by fully engaging myself in work that required me to sacrifice and serve others, to make myself vulnerable by putting myself out there, I discovered, to my astonishment, that I almost immediately forgot about that sense of feeling empty as soon as I arrived in Poland, rolled up my sleeves, and began working my butt off, not for money but for “pay” of another type. I began to feel that I was part of something larger than myself, that I was helping people who were deeply appreciative. Thus, I found myself by losing myself.
I think many of us have really great intentions. We want to grow, to discover who we are, to find our way and our purpose. But we can easily go about this process in the wrong way. Sometimes, to self-actualize, we need to forget about the self, the ego. We can feel fuller and happier by connecting ourselves to others or to some higher calling. Undergoing hardships and isolation also help us learn more about what makes us tick and what we value. To develop full self-knowledge, we have to learn who we are in connection to others.
Though I’m very much an introvert, I know that human beings are naturally social creatures. Through others and our interactions with them, we get to know ourselves. As the great John Donne once said, “No man is an island.”
I’ve shared my story about how I found myself by putting myself in a situation that forced me to become less self-absorbed. Do you have a similar story to share? Or do you have a reaction to the points I’ve made in this piece? I look forward to your comments. Thanks for reading!
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.