Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote an essay for the Vienna Scholars Writing Competition. I’d just returned from a month studying in Vienna, Austria; my world had been expanded, and I had, I thought, the perspective of a world-traveler.
In the year that has passed, that excitement has been diluted. I’ve traveled more and experienced more and been molded into a different person, yet I’d still hold to much of this essay.
“All the Difference” — First Place Winner of Vienna Scholars Writing Competition
I’m sometimes troubled by how quickly we adjust. How quickly we forget, move on, proceed. We take a class about economic injustice, we cry over the statistics and the living conditions of millions of innocent victims of the system, we say I’m going to make a difference, and then we get our final grade in the course, register for another semester, and are soon too consumed by our new class load to think about third-world poverty. We read an essay that inspires and enlivens us, we declare to ourselves This is it! This will direct my life!, but then we lose the essay in stacks of papers. We see children living in Mexican orphanages who have more selflessness than we have ever mustered in our own privileged lives, and we say to ourselves I’m going to remember these kids and their hearts; I’m going to share and grant grace as they do, but within a week of being back in American we’re scowling at our sister for borrowing our car without asking.
Maybe I’m saying “we” to take some of the focus off of my own irresolution. Me. I do, have done, these things, and have committed countless similar acts of regression.
It’s been two months since I’ve returned from Vienna, and already I feel cavernously distant from the photos that I took, photos now archived at the bottom of my social media page. I look at my travel journals, at the slanted handwriting that indicates that I wrote quickly, invigorated by lessons I was being taught by inspiring individuals, and I realize how little I have done with their imparted wisdom.
Some has impacted me, surely; I have taken risks in love since returning, roused as I was by the advice of two vivacious women who followed their hearts across oceans and encouraged us, too, to follow our own. I’ve been further solidified in my higher education aspirations, encouraged by a speaker who told us to think of what we’d do if we never had to work a day in our lives and to turn that into work.
Yet I’ve also forgotten so much; I’ve also slipped so seamlessly back into my life here, with my family and my bookstore job and my friends and my young-adult baby-step attempts at planning for my future.
I’ve always prided myself on my ability to change, to adapt. I didn’t struggle with homesickness when I went off to college; when friendships fade because of distance or differing personalities, I’ve accepted easily that relationships have seasons. The change of seasons always excites me – the colors of leaves, crisp snowflakes, tender flower buds. New is exhilarating.
But I sometimes fear that I move on too quickly. That I lack sentimentality, that I do not make enough of an effort to maintain relationships when distance or circumstance presents difficulty. I fear that this could result in my forgetting things, like lessons learned, that could–should–affect me forever.
When I close my eyes and breathe, I can picture the peace I felt atop the Alps, looking over the European countryside and thinking over my life, filled with gratitude, overwhelmingly thankful for my blessings and similarly overwhelmed at how insignificant any past trials now appeared at so great a distance.
I wish that this feeling were permanent, that it could imprint on my soul. But our lives, moods, interests, urges, desires–they are fluid, ever-changing.
I know this of myself. It’s why I collect–words, moments, journal entries, photos, anything to remind myself of experiences, people, wisdom that I don’t want to forget. Just as, for classes, I study subject material, I try to record and study significant moments and realizations of my life. I frame quotes, mount photos, write and write and write, attempting to archive what deserves to be recollected. I hope for impacts to last. I’m disappointed in myself when I look back and realize that they haven’t. But each time someone crosses my path who should change my life, each time I’m reminded that the human condition is my passion and I’ll be fulfilled if I strive to uncover or adequately portray it, each time my breath is stolen by a view, a glimpse of true kindness, a crashing wave, I think, this time. I’ll remember this.
I’ll keep doing this. I’ll keep seeking to be impacted, keep exploring and wandering, keep meeting new individuals and hearing their stories, keep opening my mind to be changed for the better. It won’t all stick. But hopefully enough of it will that, when this too-short life is coming to a close, I’ll look back and say I climbed a mountain, met a person, went to a place, and it changed me, and I’m better for it. I chose a path, and that has made all the difference.