LIFE LESSONS: What I’ve Learned from My Time Overseas
Let me begin with a hook. Here it is: this article could change your life.
I’ve had the fortune of traveling since I was young. I was born in Africa, to parents from two separate continents. From sub-Saharan Africa, I moved to a Caribbean Island. From the Caribbean I moved to the United States. Since that time, I’ve lived in nine U.S. States, as well as Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. I’ve also had the fortune to have traveled to nearly 60 countries thus far.
My reasons for travel have been as varied as the travel itself. I’ve moved with family as a child. I’ve moved for college as a young man. I’ve lived overseas to study martial arts. I’ve traveled for adventure, for the military, for the federal government, for fun, for the beauty of a place, to combat terrorism, for love, and simply to see what’s out there.
I have opened my eyes to the subtleties of human nature, to the lies we tell and the truths sandwiched in between. I’ve learned to read people. I’ve learned to read areas.
DISCLAIMER: Before you read any further, I want to remind you, as the reader, that you may not agree with everything I’ve written. In fact, I hope you don’t. I hope you question it, research it, and think about it, then buy one of my books.
What I am writing below are broad trends that apply to large groups of people. There are always anomalies. There are always outliers. Try not to read the list and think: but my friend John isn’t like this, or I don’t feel this way. Treat this blog as a thought exercise. An observation. An attempt to simplify the complex.
And, without further ado, here are a few things I’ve learned over the past few decades.
1) PEOPLE ARE THE SAME DESPITE THEIR DIFFERENCES
From the mountains of Tibet to the plains of Africa to the deserts of the Middle East, everyone struggles with the same challenges of being human. For those in poverty: food, water, and shelter are primary struggles that shape their lives. For everyone: the challenges of emotion and perspective (see #7), of belonging, and being loved (see #2); influence our thoughts, behaviors, and consequently our actions.
2) PEOPLE ARE TRIBAL
We humans are social creatures and as such often strive to belong to a group. Our identities are woven inextricably into these group dynamics. On a small scale, we have family and friends. These define our small social circles. Ideologically, we are defined by our region, our religion, our politics…...the number of ways of separating humanity is endless (gender, race, sexual orientation, job occupation, similar hobbies, sports team, etc.)
This need to belong, is a driving factor in our decisions and identity, to such a strong degree, that conflict often arises. Tribalism can lead to an US vs THEM mentality, when fear manifests and takes hold.
3) PEOPLE WANT LOVE AND RESPECT
The desire for respect stems from a need for love, for attention, and a need to belong. As we become adults it often manifests itself differently than when we are young. A child may reach up for a hug. A child may smile and hope for reciprocation. An adult may do the same. If well-adjusted, with a loving upbringing, it is manifested in strong, healthy relationships. If not, the behaviors can range from a social guffaw, an awkward joke, on one end of the spectrum to the extreme.
A subtle insult can be a cry for attention. A suicide bombing or a gang shooting, is a non-subtle cry for attention (Please note: I am in no way endorsing extreme behavior, simply denoting their common underlying theme). The outcomes are very different. The outward reasons are very different. The underlying, hidden motivations are similar.
(I realize this may seem like a stretch without further explanation. Suicide bombers are not born with bombs strapped to their chests, just like gang members aren’t born with guns in their hands. If one seeks trends: many are born, into greater poverty, areas of conflict, areas of greater corruption, and often taught or influenced by family, friends, and by figures of authority to accept, condone, or conduct violence. When enough factors line up, combined with certain genetic predispositions, and the manipulation of our underlying human nature, people are capable of heinous acts of violence.)
What’s the common thread here? A need to belong. A need to be loved. A need for respect. The hope that we will gain these through our actions in the here and now, and/or in the afterlife.
4) OFTEN THE LOUDEST PEOPLE ARE THE MOST IGNORANT
There is an interesting phenomenon that has become exasperated by technology (namely, social media), that has become more pervasive. Simply put: the loudest, most confident people are often the most ignorant. It is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In other words, the less you know, the less you realize you know and the greater your confidence in that subject. Those with moderate knowledge often remain silent. The experts, often underestimate their knowledge, not to mention are few and far between. Therefore, based on numbers, we’re far more likely to hear from a confident ignorant than an expert.
5) STRUGGLE IS NECESSARY FOR PERSONAL GROWTH AND RESILIENCE
Not all people are the same, some are more resilient than others. One person’s challenge, is another person’s traumatic event. That being said, small challenges that force someone to grow, to overcome, to push past their perceived boundaries, are necessary for personal growth. Without these challenges during childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood; people become unable to cope with basic difficulties. Without learning how to deal with stressors, any stress can become overwhelming and debilitating.
6) WITHOUT INTROSPECTION WE LOSE EMPATHY
It is important to take time to reflect, to think on our actions, to visualize the effects of our words and behavior on others. Without a quiet time of introspection, we humans, begin to lose our ability to empathize with others. I write this last one as an observation on the younger generation, worldwide, and the effects of technology. Increasingly, everyone, even in third-world countries, has a cellphone. Being glued to that screen, constantly distracted, doesn’t allow us to face the world, face challenges, or to pause and reflect. Consequently, true acts of kindness and empathy, appear to be less common.
7) EMOTION AND CULTURE SHAPES OUR PERSPECTIVE
We all know that as human beings we have emotions. These emotions often dictate our actions. I’m sad and I frown, or cry. I’m happy and I smile and laugh. Emotions also shape how we see the world. Someone who is chronically depressed will see the same events very differently than someone who is always upbeat and happy.
Culture is another shaping factor. The environment we group up in and the people we align and associate with shape our thoughts and thereby our actions (e.g. a Christian may view one event differently than a Hindi, a Muslim, a Zoroastrian, or a Jew). If one has never left their small corner of the world, one may never realize how much culture has shaped their perspective. Culture shapes many aspects of our lives. If I grow up in one country, I may be of a particular religion, whether I want to or not. I may wear certain clothing. I may have certain beliefs on nudity, homosexuality, governance, comedy, sarcasm, lending, charity, education, etc.
8) FEAR IS A TOOL OF CONTROL
Throughout history leaders, governments, religions, have used fear as a tool to control the masses. For example, if you don’t do X, Y, and Z you will go to hell. If you don’t obey the law you are punished (pillory, hanging, torture, jail).
(Note: Fear is a valuable learning/teaching tool in certain cases, for example: avoid rattle snakes, because they’re poisonous. The stove is hot, don’t touch it.)
Ultimately, the combined effects of emotion, culture, tribalism, education, and our need for love, drive our actions.
The next time someone’s insecurity bleeds through, and you hear something you don’t like, pause, think, and see what this person is really saying: “I want/need your approval.”
The next time you take offense, pause and think: “What was their intent?” “Is this person normally mean-spirited?” “What mood was I in when I heard this.” “Why am I offended?”
The next time we judge someone different from ourselves, think: “Would I actually be different if I grew up in their household, their neighborhood, under the same conditions?” “Does different really mean that other groups are bad?” “Do I dislike what I don’t understand?” “Do I fear what I do not know?”
The world is smaller than we realize. We have more in common than we know. We share the same struggles, hopes, and desires. A little understanding may help alleviate the fear of the unknown, and reduce tension, and thereby reduce some of the struggle and violence that continues to define so many lives.
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