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Feeling lost in fallen empires

my hostess in Terelj National Park

I’ve always found it helpful to have a sense of direction. Going from high school to college to grad school to a post doc to an academic faculty position, there has always been something next to strive toward. Now that I’m ‘here’ I find myself looking around feeling lost, and worse yet, somewhat uninspired, wondering: what is important in my life, and where should I go from here?

Personally and professionally, this past academic year was a difficult one. I’ve been feeling frustrated and lonely and aimless, which is annoying because in so many ways, my life is awesome. I like to think of myself as someone who does things. I don’t let the crazy ideas drop, I just think about them differently, then make them happen. But its been a while since I’ve had a crazy idea, or any idea for that matter. Fed up and in somewhat desperate need to shut down, I forced one. I thought I’d evaluate my path from a different perspective – on the 8500km journey from St. Petersburg to Beijing via the trans-Mongolian railroad. Traveling always gives me insight. Maybe traveling far would give me lots…

observing life in St. Petersburg

Flying into St. Petersburg, I’m not sure that I was ready to begin. I began slowly, striking out to explore the city as much because I was there as because I was emotionally ready for adventure. I walked feverishly, methodically noticing everything from landmarks to hidden alleyways, stopping in a park anytime I was tired to enjoy the beautiful weather, listen to my ipod, and soak in everything foreign about the city. Or I thought I did. It took me about 2.5 parks to realize that I wasn’t soaking up anything inherently Russian from my surroundings. Instead I was lost in the same place I usually am, within the confines of my own head, obsessively replaying the same two tracks from Snow Patrol’s Fallen Empires (that choice itself loaded with ironic symbolism). Apparently, I was working on a familiar problem.

We’re lost, ’til we learn, how to ask” … “If this is all you’ll ever ask for, this is all you’ll get.”

I felt like my unconscious had detected a secret message that I couldn’t decode consciously, and it was driving me insane. Ask WHAT, Snow Patrol? (Not directions clearly; I have ridiculously good navigational intuition…)

I got stuck here for days, obsessing over what it was I was supposed to ask while I stubbornly forced myself through every corner of the city. The absurdity of thinking that there was a magical answer in the lyrics wasn’t lost on me, but that didn’t stop the rumination and the nagging feeling that there was something there.

I tried to let it go. I even knew that I should – our minds often sort through information better at the unconscious level when we let it than when we try to force conscious control. Still I was having a hard time shutting down. I’m not good at releasing control.

When I boarded the train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I made the deliberate decision to put my iPod on shuffle and be more attentive to the timberland that was flying past me, the restless little Russian boy sitting next to me, and the 45 Sri Lankan doctors who filled the rest of the train car. Slowly the obsession started fading from my consciousness as I melted a little more fully into the Russian countryside.

I was feeling more rested and open when I arrived in Mongolia, where I stayed for a night with a woman in Terelj National Park. She spoke no English. I spoke no Mongolian. But we communicated just fine. I rode a horse there. I milked a cow. I went walking in rolling hills and felt as light and free as the pure air I was breathing. And although I staunchly defend the importance of social scientific research for informing global problems, I was struck that doing research at a university for a purely academic audience felt like a self-indulgent pretension. These things that stress me out so much, I wondered – in what way are they actually having a positive impact on the world? Or on me?

my hostess in Terelj National Park

Ironically, that’s when I finally started to feel a little more at peace. Maybe my journey has always had a different destination than the one I imagined. Maybe I haven’t reached it yet. I studied intergroup relations because I believe that interactions between countries and religions and political parties are incredibly important in an increasingly globalized world. I was drawn to an international postdoc, and an academic position, not in a Psychology Department in the West, but in a Department of International Studies in the Middle East for a reason. (Our unconscious is often guiding our decisions, whether we realize it or not.) I’ve always pushed toward something unconventional, going against the wishes, suggestions, and even respect of many friends and colleagues. But that’s life. We don’t have to live it the way everyone expects, we should live it in a way which is personally fulfilling. I don’t know what it means yet, but don’t think I’m done pushing. I need to learn how to set aside some control, and I need to learn how to ask – for advice, for suggestions, for direction…. Maybe I’ll be able to represent the psychological perspective to an audience who works on conflict, crisis, and peace building. Or maybe I’ll just keep quietly teaching, shaping young minds who will go on to do much more than I ever will.

In the moment it was simply nice to realize that I’d finally shifted tracks and let something fall away without it having to be ‘fallen’. China became a beautiful destination for my temporary journey, and I was finally there completely to experience it. I hope I can say the same for my future, whatever that means.

angie
Angie is a social psychologist whose expertise in human behavior is enriched by her experiences meeting people around the globe. When she isn't teaching or doing research, she's probably traveling: exploring nature or other cultures (the more different the better).

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