ceramics may be what I do, but who I am is something different
When I moved from the states to Germany eighteen years ago, I left behind my career. Since we are talking prehistoric times, there was no internet to jump into, no blogs with which to soften the blow of culture shock, no way to build an alternative income using Skype, Facebook and Twitter. There was me, my telephone, my cat, and more rain than I had ever seen in my life. And a husband who worked sixteen hours a day.
I had always thought that Germany had a similar culture to the United States, and that integrating would be easy. I was a friendly girl. Ok, I didn’t speak the language, but Germans spoke English, right? I’d find something to do. I was sure of it.
Six months into it, crying to the point of heaving curled up in a ball at the bottom of the shower, I realized that Germany might as well have been Mars. Nothing was like I thought it would be. I struggled with language lessons, with making friends, with the horrifically grey weather, with realizing that every single way I had defined myself before the flight that brought me over was now null and void. Forget business person. Forget executive. Forget smart, funny, and most of all, forget successful. I had been reduced a fountain of endless complaining who couldn’t even ask for chicken legs at the butcher’s without a lump in her throat. I couldn’t make my own money, use my well-honed ability to communicate, understand or accept the cool indifference of the northern Germans who made integrating a near impossibility for this friendly American.
Something had to give, or I wasn’t going to make it. With phone bills in the hundreds and the aching desire to go back to who I was before (coupled with the stinging knowledge that that wasn’t going to happen), I had all I could do to pick myself up and trudge through each day, sad and confused, out of my element, with an arsenal of qualities and abilities that just didn’t mean a damn in this new place.
At some point I got sick of myself. Here I’d been given this chance to live in a new country, learn a new language, all while having a partner with a great job, and I couldn’t even scrape myself off of the shower floor long enough to see even the most remotely positive thing about it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the reason I couldn’t accept my new life was because I had defined myself by what I did, and not by who I was.
What I did before was a job. But I was not my job. What I did before was make money. But I was not just an income producer. What I did before was feed my ego. But I was not just ego.
If I was going to move forward, I was going to have to find other ways to define myself other than the job related successes I had had prior to this life changing experience.
But if I wasn’t what I had done before, then who was I?
I was a communicator. So I buckled down to a year of intensive German lessons, five days a week, three hours a day.
I was a lover of language. So I took on a job teaching my own beloved English language to Germans.
I was knowledgable in American business practice. So I started coaching German executives on American English presentation skills.
I was creative. So I started taking ceramics courses.
The evolution from lost child mourning what was never to be again to a functioning person in a brand new environment was not easy, but it was essential to survival. I learned some valuable kernels along the way:
Our arsenal is huge - but we have to be able to see exactly what our arsenal is by pulling away the ego’s accomplishments and fostering the abilities that have gotten us where we are.
We are not what we do - but what we do is facilitated by who we are, and those are the essential qualities we need to harness to move forward.
Our spiritual backpacks are filled with our collected experiences and abilities. To survive change, we need to spill those building blocks of experiences and abilities on the floor, look at each, and re-pack them in our backpacks in an order that makes them lighter to carry, easier to call forward, and more accessible in our new life situation.
Has change made you rethink yourself professionally? How do you define yourself now as a result of change? I’d love to hear from you.