“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” – Joseph Campbell
Co-author: Samantha Paternoster.
This year, I am celebrating the fact that I have lived in the United States for as long as I lived in my birth country, France.
I first came to the United States in my mid-20’s. I landed at Dulles International Airport with a suitcase, a trunk, a degree and a work visa. I had signed a two-year contract with the US government as a visiting international scientist – my first job offer.
I was also the first person in my family to embark on such a journey, and felt as proud as I was scared to face the unknown. As a young woman, this was an exciting adventure! Through every new experience and wonderful person I met, I never could have anticipated the amount of personal growth I would achieve, or that this new country would become my home.
My American journey taught me much about life and love, but most of all, I learned that we are the masters of our own fate. Accepting this as fact has changed my life in many ways – most notably, in my outlook on growing older.
A Healthy Thirst for Growth and Exploration
Growing up in a popular Paris suburb, diversity was my norm. My fellow classmates and friends at church came from varied backgrounds and cultures. Living in this environment helped foster my interest in the world from a very young age. Looking back, I believe my parents could not have picked a better place to raise their young children.
During my college years, my family and I moved to the south of France. Unlike most American college students, I didn’t live in a dorm. At 17, I lived on my own in a studio apartment near school in the city of Montpellier. My parents settled about an hour away in a small village near their respective places of birth, enjoying their retirement. I would visit them on the weekends, but during the week my time was split between classes and the “aumonerie de l’Université”, a place associated with a local church where the almoner created a safe space for coffee, movies and open community discussions about life and the world. I was exposed to international topics, sociology, philosophy, community, faith and cultures in ways my scientific classes would not and could not address.
As I fueled my curiosities, I unavoidably fell for an international fellow whom I later married. In the spirit of being young and in love, we shared similar passions, values and dreams of experiencing life in the United States – so we moved. I finished graduate school before him, accepted a job in the U.S., and moved first. Four years later he joined me in our new home.
Looking back almost 30 years later, I can’t say that this was a great decision. However, the beauty of aging is being able to reflect on your experiences and accept them – and yourself – for what they were. I learned much about love, the commitment a long-distance relationship requires, the difficulties of intercultural relationships, loss, infidelity, divorce and grief.
After a sharp learning curve, life continued but I felt that the period of steep growth and excitement had ended for me.
From Conflict to Internal Idling
Much like the hero of any story, I hit a wall. With no sense of direction, I was living but was not alive. At a time when most of my friends started having families of their own, I focused on advancing my career. The absence of understanding and perceived lack of emotional support from my family raised many more questions in me and frankly, a lot of anger. I felt anger and sadness towards the world and it prevented me from reaching my full potential. I could not see what I was missing, nor did I know how to ask for help or even what to ask for.
I wasn’t aware at the time that I was experiencing grief in all of its forms because I didn’t know that you could grieve more than just the loss of life. I didn’t have any conventional support. I tried to self-soothe by looking in many physical places and getting lost in many mazes, eventually rediscovering love again. I felt like I was back on track, at least for a while. What I had yet to learn was that happiness is an inside job. There is no trip, no place, no person or belonging that can bring you true joy when you don’t yet understand how to find it for yourself.
My life truly began when I started to realize that it was self-love I was missing. I had not yet learned to care for my own soul, and so I had lived with an abundance of internal and external resistance – particularly centered around getting older.
The Path to Freedom Starts with an Awakening
My journey of awakening started slowly and suddenly all at once. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, my internal voice spoke up and said “Nat, you are the one in charge.”
I realized then that through every experience you’ve ever had, you begin to move towards this one moment when you sit up straight and take charge. You realize that the real power of living well lies within you. Most importantly, you understand that no matter how many times you’ve heard it before, it doesn’t make sense until you hear it from yourself.
Awakening comes from the realization that you have been in the dark, not fully prepared to grow older. It comes from a place of pain, resistance, denial, anger, fear of the unknown, grief. It comes with facing your fears – both those that you are conscious of and the ones you carry without knowing you carry them.
Most of all, it comes with the discovery of unconditional self-love, acceptance and forgiveness.
This awakening, alongside acceptance, opens doors that no one could have previously directed you to. So many things you have heard and thought finally start to make sense. After all of this time, through every struggle, you finally find the tools to empower yourself to live a life of meaning, understanding, patience and peace, loving others and yourself equally. You learn to let go and fine tune your own self-awareness, opening doors to meaningful relationships with the people in your life, both old and new.
Embracing the Awe of Our Individual Uniqueness
As I moved through my own personal journey, I realized that most of us go through such a quest phase. Regardless of our initial choices or life circumstances, it seems unavoidable.
Most cultures have designed pre-established paths and expectations for both men and women that require either strong family values or the highest standards in professional achievements – or both - in order to really establish the individual as being successful in life.
I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, but I do believe that we can’t fulfill those functions without earning a deep knowledge of ourselves first. Self-awareness and understanding are the key to opening yourself up to possibility. We must learn and accept that it is not selfish to spend time on ourselves. It’s when we find ourselves that we become of real value to the world and those around us.
Accepting – and Enjoying! – Aging
There is no true “right way” to grow up and grow older well. As much as we often wish there were just one clear answer, each ‘answer’ is as unique as the individual. Yet, the process remains the same – once we realize that we can design our own lives, that we play a part in determining our own destiny, we begin to truly live without fear. We realize that the answers we’ve all been looking for lie within.
The next step is realizing that self-awareness is a constant journey with many hills and valleys. Personal development and growth does not end with just one realization. So how do you sustain your personal empowerment? I’ll guide you through simple, easy-to-implement habits that will help you remain mindful and reduce stress in my next blog.