The other day my 7-year old daughter asked me, “Why do I miss you even when you’re right here?” This deeply heartfelt question rings in my ears as we approach what is often thought of as a month dedicated to love.
Her globally mobile life defines how she sees the world – even if she’s never known anything different. Even if she herself doesn’t yet really understand what a question like this means.
It’s All True.
Expat life is filled with so much of this beautiful heartbreak. Impermanence and beauty are always with us. Perfection and difficulty go hand-in-hand. Both things are true.
This is not just true for the friends we meet and the relationships we build in our expat lives. When your life is so wrapped up in the specifics of the work that has taken you overseas, you live with this constant awareness of the potential for loss. If something happens to my husband’s job – we don’t just lose the job, we lose our home, our community. Our children lose their friends, their school, and even their place within the culture of being a third culture kid.
I say all of this not to sound tragic or morbid. It’s not my goal to point out the obvious. If you’re an expat and you’re reading this – you know these things already. Loss is part of the experience. You don’t need me to tell you that truth.
I think the more important question is – how do see the sometimes-precarious nature of the threads that hold together our expat life, without allowing that frailty to consume us? How do we accept all of this and not only learn how to overcome what can be an inevitable level of anxiety, but thrive through it…and maybe even because of it? How do we hold both the beauty and the heartbreak day after day, even when times get tough?
Ultimately, I believe this is a question of learning to cultivate a sense of equanimity in our lives.
How can we bring a state of equanimity to the expat experience so that we learn how to be completely at home with the most important things in our lives, even when they change or are unpredictable?
Equanimity is our ability to hold all things as they are, clearly, without becoming completely consumed by the stories we tell ourselves about a given set of events. It’s not about ignoring that some things suck. Rather, It’s more about seeing clearly that the suckiness is one moment in time.
It’s being able to know that the sadness, setback or uncertainty is now, but will morph into something different with more details, more emotional nuance, more moments of awareness, tomorrow. And, ultimately, it’s about making choices from that place – fully informed, curious and resilient in the face of upheaval.
As mindfulness teacher Tara Brach says, “This belongs. And this too, belongs.”
But how in the world do we get there? What does it take to develop a greater sense of equanimity when we live in a world that values the opposite?
Cultivating equanimity requires setting aside quiet time for reflection. This is not something that always comes without effort. We must find ways to do it even with the hectic nature of our daily lives, instead of wishing we could just take a vacation.
Equanimity is also predicated on the desire to learn about yourself. Who am I? What irks me? What makes me scared, happy, lonely, thrilled? When we truly know ourselves, we’re less likely to be pulled into a mental story that doesn’t serve us. We can simply say, “Oh, there’s that story of success (disaster, resentment) you sometimes tell. It’s just a story. Nothing more.”
Equanimity also invites us to practice having a beginner’s mind. Whenever I’m wrapped up in judgments and assumptions, I like to remind myself that I have the choice to see things from a lens of curiosity – as if this is all new and there’s more to learn here than I may think. I do not yet have the answers. I’m not a fortune teller.
Equanimity also comes from an ability to sense our emotions and physical sensations as helpful pieces of information. Instead of pushing aside what we’re feeling, we offer ourselves the chance to embody and fully connect with what’s coming up. Practices like mindfulness meditation can be helpful in developing this skill. If you’ve experienced trauma or are dealing with mental health concerns, a trained therapist might be useful in helping you learn more about connecting to your physical and emotional experience.
But above all else, we practice equanimity by deciding to say – This is it. In the midst of all of the moving and suitcases, the goodbyes and hellos, the painful losses and the joyful reunions, we learn to say – I love you so much that I miss you even when you’re here. My heart has grown so big with all these homes I cannot possibly hold only the smallness of the good. I take it all in balance. It is all true. Love. Longing. Equanimity.