Let’s get real. Travel is not always glamorous. It’s not even always fun. Most often when traveling I’m head-over-heels in love with life and completely giddy over even the smallest of things (if you’ve spent any time with me you know how easily I can get excited). But hey – The Wayfaress is all about being real. It’s about seeing beauty and celebrating the good every day, but it’s also about getting your feet a little dirty, maybe even bruised or blistered or covered in leeches in Nepal. I think there needs to be more of this kind of vulnerability and honesty, not just on social media but also within our churches and communities.
So let’s revisit this time, one year ago, September 23, 2016. My 25th birthday.
I’ve never been a fan of birthdays, largely because they seem to bring all my social anxiety straight to the surface all at once. What if no one cares? What if no one remembers? If I throw a party for myself, what if no one comes? Most of the time I conclude that it’s best just to pretend it’s not happening, and then, because it’s actually impossible to pretend it’s not happening, I often just end up in tears waiting for September 24th to roll around. It’s a very weird tradition, I know.
One year ago on my birthday I was living with a wonderful Thai family in Bangkok while I spent the month volunteering at an anti-sex trafficking organization. A couple of weeks prior, I completed a strenuous trek through the Himalayas in Nepal, and was greeted upon my return to civilization with an extreme bout of altitude sickness and a Facetime breakup from 8,000 miles away (oh, the joys of modern technology). The year before had sent me through the wringer and back again, and spending the summer studying for and taking the bar exam just about sucked all the life out of me. I was left feeling depleted emotionally and physically. I wanted to go home, rather than on to Thailand for a month all alone as I had planned. But I faintly remembered how clearly God had lined up this service opportunity for me in Bangkok, and how excited I had been about it weeks before. So I summoned up all the courage left in me, booked a flight to Thailand, and tearfully, reluctantly boarded a plane heading to Southeast Asia rather than the U.S.
It turned out that the change of scenery and the constant distractions of meeting new people, volunteer life, and Bangkok chaos, helped keep my mind off of things somewhat. I was instantly surrounded my wonderful people who invited me into their lives and encouraged me to let them into my own. The women with whom I worked each day were deeply inspiring, not just in the horrific trials they had overcome and their bravery in pursuing health and a new life, but also in their tenderness. Not once did I feel neglected by these women, or did my tears get pushed aside despite the unimaginable struggles that each of these women faced in their own lives. These were women who had seen their own brokenness, who had known darkness, and who had somehow, miraculously, been softened by it. These were women who felt and loved deeply and genuinely, who empathized easily, who protected their sisters, and who looked more like Jesus than most people I’ve encountered. These were women who were changed by grace and offered me possibly the safest environment in which to recover physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Nevertheless, when my birthday rolled around, I mostly felt anxiety. Would I have anyone to celebrate with? Would I even heard from my friends on the other side of the world? I wouldn’t be hearing from my boyfriend because, poor me, I didn’t have one. I made my best effort to organize a dinner with some people I’d met in Bangkok, but those plans fell through last minute. I ended up having dinner at the home of a volunteer family and, while they tended to their adorable but very sick babies, I cleaned their kitchen. I never told them it was my birthday because I was still trying to pretend it wasn’t. I drank a matcha latte afterward with a new friend, probably cried a bit, and then went home and slept.
It by all means wasn’t a terrible day. I woke up to my sweet Thai host family singing me a happy birthday song with candles stuck into odd gelatinous duck desserts, I got to spend my day teaching baking lessons to some lovely Thai ladies, I was treated to lunch at my favorite noodle stand down the street, I was able to bless a family busied with sick children, and I (albeit tearfully) shared cake and tea with a new friend. These were things worth celebrating.
But boy, was it tough to celebrate. Instead I felt like crying and hiding from the world until it was September 24th and I would have a whole other year of birthday-free life.
The truth is that sometimes, life is really, really tough. Sometimes it feels impossible to find a thing to celebrate in the midst of pain and loneliness and disappointments. Sometimes birthdays are just another day, and sometimes people forget and plans fall through and you wonder if anyone cares at all. Sometimes your feet are dirty, blistered, bruised, and covered in leeches, and you feel much more inclined to give up rather than trek onward or get on a flight to your next destination and find a silver lining.
I just want you to know that that’s okay.
I do believe that there is always something to celebrate, even in the darkest of seasons. Personally, in the midst of the crappiest of crap, I know I have a God who really does love me unconditionally, and who cries and grieves with me, even if I’m far away from home and almost no one speaks my language. I also believe that there are little gifts hidden for you each day, if you choose to notice them. Maybe it’s a sunset, or a perfect matcha latte, or the opportunity to focus your attention on meeting the needs of the people around you. Maybe it’s the shoulder of your Thai host mom that you cry into as she prays over you in a language you don’t understand. Maybe you struggle to keep a smile the whole way through but maybe, just maybe, your aching heart is tempered a bit with something beautiful along the way.
This message is for you – you who are weary and lonely and don’t feel like your life matches up to the picturesque photos you or your friends post on social media. I hear you and I feel for you. I’ll share with you the four pieces of advice my mom gave me this time last year, from 8,000 miles away: 1) find five things today that are beautiful; take a picture of them, reflect on them, write about them, celebrate every beautiful detail in them; 2) focus on loving other people, meeting their needs and serving them without expecting anything in return, because there’s little else that can shift a heart toward joy as effectively as bringing joy to others; 3) you wouldn’t tell your hurting friend that her pain is insignificant and that it could be much worse so stop complaining, so don’t belittle your own pain either; perspective is okay, devaluing your heart is not; 4) reach out and tell people you aren’t okay. Reach out to me and I’ll pray with you or send you coffee. Or bake yourself a cake and eat the whole dang thing by yourself and don’t you dare feel bad about it.
And this message is also for you – you who don’t think this applies to you, but likely have someone in your midst who is hurting and struggling and whose world can be changed with just your kind words, your time, a surprise coffee, a shoulder to cry on. Carry one another’s burdens, because most likely one day you’ll need someone to help carry your burdens, too.
Traveling doesn’t send anyone into an alternate human reality where negative feelings cease to exist and real life goes on pause. Nothing in this world can do that. Traveling does tend to send my positive emotions into overdrive, but I certainly am still very human with very human emotions and experiences. A change of scenery can help you take notice of the little joys that may otherwise go ignored in daily life, but you can still practice this in your life right now, with no travel plans on the horizon. And while a matcha latte won’t make your pain go away or resolve some of the deeper issues at work in your life (although it may, who knows – matcha lattes really are pretty magical), it doesn’t need to – it’s less about pushing bad things under the rug and more about choosing to fight back with little celebrations of goodness.
So let’s be real. Let’s be honest when we aren’t okay and hopefully create a space where others feel free to speak up when they aren’t okay, either. But let’s also not lose hope, and with whatever fight left in you, seek out something worth celebrating today. Find something beautiful in the midst of ugliness. Acknowledge and process your pain, but don’t fail to also acknowledge the good things around you, lest you strip them of the very real power they have to bring you joy. Get on that flight. Life’s tough, but so are you.