The secret to living here is becoming clueless


Spurred by my recent post about what you all are apparently buying, I just went over to to take a look at their Best Sellers lists. Apparently, a lot of you want to make sure you know everything about The Legend of Zelda. I know it’s probably those nostalgic Gen-Xers that are finally buying things for themselves now that their kids are old enough to spend most of the day at school and not throwing these on the floor.

I admit, I am oblivious.

The point is that I didn’t know about any of this until I purposefully went online and googled [Best selling things on Amazon 2017]. I have been in ignorance for a long time, and I haven’t noticed. “Oh, but you aren’t any more,” you may say. Yes, but I would have to keep on visiting the Best Sellers lists regularly, and I know I’m not going to remember to do that.

It does take a while to fully leave the compound, but once you’re fully out, you’re out. Whether you realize it or not, at some point, I’ve realized, you cease to consume the culture as you did before, and there is little you can do to get back to the place where you are “up” on all the things your old friends are doing, sruggling with, enjoying.

Disasters, sadly, are not disastrous anymore.

My first taste of this was during my first stint overseas, when I lived in Sarajevo for 2 years from 2003 to 2005. I had some inkling that I was no longer aware of current events in the United States, and so I signed up get CNN’s headlines emailed to me. Then came Christmas, 2004, and I got an email with this subject:

Tsunami in Indian Ocean reported; 10,000 believed dead or missing

Thirty minutes later, I received another email. It’s subject read: “Tsunami in Indian Ocean makes landfall in Indonesia, 25,000 believed dead”. Another thirty minutes went by and I received yet another email, this time with the subject: “Tsunami makes landfall in Indonesia, 50,000 believed dead.” And the emails kept coming every few minutes until the numbers of casualties reached the hundreds of thousands.

The tsunami made headlines, of course, in the local papers in Sarajevo, but I didn’t read Bosnian very well at that point. And for me, that was the end of the disaster. I didn’t watch much TV, because every channel was all in Bosnian, and I had a job that took up most of my time. It was an event that happened one night, and then was over.

I would stay in Sarajevo continuously until mid-August, 2005. And as I came back to my home in Atlanta, the entire Southeast U.S. was bracing for yet another disaster, Hurricane Katrina. As I flew in, people were talking about it. But I didn’t really get it. I had not been exposed to the 24-hour barrage of coverage that my friends had. I had not been subject to hours of talk about the geography of New Orleans and how it was basically a fishbowl.

The storm hit, but I was still in my jet-lagged haze, transitioning from two years of living overseas.

I was still trying to get my head around the idea that, for the past year, everyone I knew had been watching what had happened in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and all the other nations in the Indian Ocean. In the last year, everyone I knew had viewed countless news pieces about the Tsunami; many had given money, a few had gone on mission trips to help. And I had been completely clueless.

I was embarrassed that I had been completely unaffected by the incredible disaster that was the Tsunami of 2004. And on top of that, another enormous event was happening, and I was again caught off guard. I felt as though a significant part of the last several months had been stolen from me.

Being present somewhere means being absent somewhere else.

And this was the beginning of one of the great lessons of my adult life — if you want to be 100% present, if you want to go “all in” on something, if you want to devote your entire self to any one thing at any point in your life, it will be necessary to give up something in some other area of your life. For me, the cost of devoting myself to my work in Bosnia meant that I had missed out completely on some very important things back in my home country. People had gotten married; some had moved away; many were wrapped up in new struggles and challenges; and I had missed out on all of it.

What made it hard, I suppose, was that I never made a decision to miss out on all this stuff — it just sort of happened without me. And yet, after some contemplation, I realized that it was all for the better.

What kind of worker would I have been, had I tried to live with one foot in America and one foot in Bosnia? What kind of friend would I have been to the people I met in Sarajevo, if I constantly talked as if I was not really present, there with them, in my mind? Not a good one, I reasoned. And so it goes on, even today.

Being present means being absent. You can’t be everywhere at once, and at some point you learn to accept that, and you learn to pick your battles. You can only win the battles that you are in.


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