Respecting the Experience

I had an interesting chat with a co-worker a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t written about it yet because I feel that in a lot of ways I still don’t know exactly what it means.

Two months after I graduated from college, I took a job teaching in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I taught for three years, and I loved every moment of the teaching. After two months searching for a job, I took a job in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles.

I couldn’t really tell  you why except for the fact that I need to feel useful.

Now, in about three months, I’ll have spent five years in these two neighborhoods. It’s like I blinked and all of a sudden I’m sitting here not quite knowing what to make of it all. I cherish every single moment, even the more painful ones because of everything they have taught me about life and living and being alive.

And, if I were to continue as I do, I’m sure I’d find another job in a similar neighborhood and continue on as I do. I would experience extreme highs. I would go home every single day tired but content in my contribution to society. I would experience absolute lows and cry myself to sleep because I wouldn’t be sure if I could still handle the pain around me. I would laugh with kids most people wouldn’t give the time of day to. I would sob uncontrollably over reality TV shows about gang intervention. I would smile and laugh.

I’d do it all, and I’d think that it was normal. Just as I do now.

I think it’s normal because I can’t think of a better way to live. I feel such a deep connection to humanity through what I do, and it’s beautiful.

What my coworker said to me was that five years was a long time to experience something as though it were simply an experience. She also said the words that have been replaying in my mind over and over again: You need to respect your experience and what it has done to you.

She suggested that truly respecting the experience wouldn’t come until I was away from it.

I think I have been coming very close to this conclusion on my own. A few months ago when I decided to look for a new job, I said that I was thinking of “selling out” for a year or two, getting myself together (financially, I meant) and returning.

It always comes back to returning for me, but in that statement alone I can see that I know that I need to step away. Perhaps some of it is burnout. But I think a bigger part of it is what my coworker was able to verbalize. As long as this is every day and normal, I will never be able to see what it has done to me.

I know that is very true because every time I have sat down to start writing out what this entire experience has meant to me, I can’t. I can’t because it’s not over, and it’s just the life I live.

I will never pull out the moments and the lessons that I have learned in these years and attribute them to the qualities in myself that I admire most. And, yes, I do admire qualities in myself. Some of my favorite things about myself are my inner strength, my calmness, my resilience, my ability to put things in perspective, my vitality, my ability to take risks, and my ability to love deeply with no expectations.

Right now, all of these things exist in a big blur of survival. They have been refined and honed in circumstances that have forced them. Either survive this way, or be eaten alive. I know that very well. Perhaps in some ways that is why they have developed. It has been a journey. I can tell you very clearly how broken I was my first year. How much every little hurt rocked me so deeply that it was though I would never heal. Now, all of these things are part of me in a very simple way.

My spirit is deeply tied to what I do and the people—especially the young people—I have worked with and continue to work with.

I have learned that my perspective has been so deeply shaped by my experiences in very little ways. I was a chronic worrier and organizer prior to these five years. Now, very little fazes me. I take almost all of my problems in stride because I know without a shadow of a doubt that they’re not a big deal. I’m so willing to trust myself and take risks because I have seen what happens firsthand when you are not afforded those luxuries. And yes they are luxuries.

But I think that maybe it’s time that I do respect my experience and know that even strength and more positives will come from time away. It will be a different growth experience, but a necessary one.

I don’t know how long it will take or what I will discover. The one thing that I do know is that every bit of me that I love so much is deeply rooted and shaped by these experiences, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in this world.

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