Getting Good at Nothing

Authored by:
Beth P.

Beth P.

During my study abroad experience, I am both a student and a traveller. As such, I get to have busy weekends exploring temples and caves and forests, but I also get weekdays in classes followed by life with my homestay family. Immersing myself into each facet of Indian home life, schoolwork, and travel, I never expected I'd have a dull moment abroad. I was wrong. 

When I saw that my standard American three month long semester would be stretched into a five month semester abroad, I created my own, seemingly logical reason why. I chalked it up to the unknown standards of the Indian education system, and assumed that, at a masters level university, I would recieve the same vigorous studies, but for a longer period of time. Thankfully, this illusion was quickly dismantled by my very experienced CIEE advisors, who, two days after my arrival, during academic orientation, stressed that things... move... slowly...

Once I experienced the slow fade into the swing of classes in Hyderabad, the hours spent in traffic, and my host father's morning routine of three hours of Carnatic vocal music practice, I decided to set myself a new personal goal for my time in India. I would learn patience. Considering my own lifelong practice of weekly silent Quaker meditation, and my parents' constant childhood nagging that patience is, indeed, a virtue, I figured it was time to discover the value of patience. I'd practice at any given opportunity to just sit and breathe and pay attention. What I've learned so far is that patience is not so much a virtue (sorry, mom!), or simply a skill developed through practice, but an ontogeny--- a cultural way of being.  

 The first time I sat in an empty classroom for forty five minutes waiting for the professor to come was a prime occasion to practice achieving my goal of patience. Distraction seemed like the way to go, so, being the Gen Z teenager that I am, I took out my phone to see if there was any news from my friends. No cellular, no wifi--- okay, next idea. I figured I'd be productive with documenting my experiences and emotional well-being, so I pulled out my journal and jotted down some thoughts... which I'd already been regurgitating for the past three days. I considered walking around, asking for directions to the department, and having a mildly comprehensible but inconclusive conversation about the status of the day's class--- but talking to strangers? No thanks. After forty five minutes, I decided I'd best get up and get on with making each moment count for the rest of my day. 

Of course, when delays like this happened every day, I would notice frustration brewing in my brain. Not that I was angry at the world's inherent ineffeciencies or at my own (in)abilities to sit with my thoughts, but really I was just frustrated that I couldn't get one single clear answer as to why things here are the way they are. For the same question, I'd get five different answers from people in my life, which landed me back at square one. I'd even go ahead and make up my own theories about the temporal structure of Indian society as I knew it. "Is it because of the heat and humidity that it takes me ten minutes to buy a bottle of sunscreen at the grocery store when I'm the only person in line at the cashier?"; " Why have I been sitting in this rikshaw to school not moving for the past five minutes? Are we waiting for the driver's friend to join us from across town?" My well-trained critical student brain was looking for answers everywhere that were not producing themselves, and I really didn't want to make up my own biased, outsider reasonings for the slower pace of life around me. Trying to figure out everything for myself was exhausting; between fighting off my social anxiety to ask people my questions, and keeping my brain turned on high attention alert for new discoveries, I went through most days exhausted even after sleeping nine hours a night. 

While I was trying to grow my superficial patience with my experience abroad, I think my world started getting a little impatient with my incessant questioning. When I got hospitalized for Dengue fever, I had no willpower, no brain power, no control over my immobilized body, and no single mosquito to blame for my suffering. Spending my full days just focusing on breathing through nausea, fainting spells, and muscle pain, I was too tired to be frustrated at how slowly the virus was passing through me. The only option I had was to wait it out, and trust that friends and doctors knew how to look after me. Five days in the hospital flew by, not because I was trying to cultivate a reason for patience, but because accepting the situation as it was and simply living through it was my only option. Without a book, tv, social energy, or enough cellular data, patience came quite naturally.

Once I started recovering back at home with my host family, I found that just sitting around doing nothing was more relaxing than giving myself a headache in front of the tv. I knew that they were taking good care of me, even though I still couldn't understand the source of their endless hospitality. I started going back to classes, and the two hour lectures didn't put me to sleep as often. When the dance performances at the university's culture night started an hour late and lasted nearly four hours, I really just enjoyed my friends' company and thought: "oh, right. Bollywood movies are at least three hours long, so it makes perfect sense that live theatre would be the same". When I stopped looking for logical explanations for everything, I think I began to accept complication much more easily. Just because I didn't, and still don't, understand some things, doesn't mean I can't be grateful for them.

India is known as an incredibly rich, diverse, paradoxical, incomprehensibly complex country. However, it's also known for strong family values, collectivism, and (arguably) an acceptance of one's place within society. I had always associated these collective values with interpersonal uniformity, and the simplification of one's life. But, maybe sharing a community with strangers has more to do with creating trust, and the amount of time that it takes to develop said trust with new people. Everyone has fully saturated, complex, and imperfect, flawed lives. Additionally, since we don't think logically most of the time (or even some of the time, depending on who you ask), then of course the societies that we develop can't possibly make perfect sense either. I think that by choosing to slow down, we remind ourselves that we cannot possibly understand every situation we are in or every person we meet, and that we don't really need to. When that happens, I think we are more likely to use patience as a tool in order to accept that, as individuals, we cannot have all the reasons for why things are the way they are, and that's okay-- that's why we're all in it together. 

So now, I humbly brag that I've learned how to be better at doing nothing. Yes, sometimes I still wait for the campus bus for half an hour. Sometimes my rickshaw driver will take me on a new, much longer and smellier way home. And sometimes, when my mother flies halfway around the world to visit me and we take an overnight sleeper train back into the city, our compartment gets disconnected from the locomotive and we need to wait at a middle-of-nowhere station for six hours until we can hitch ourselves on to the next express train to our destination. I still have no idea why those things happen, but just because they affect me doesn't mean that they don't happen for a reason that turns out okay in the end (especially if your train still miraculously gets in at the scheduled time). When speed, efficiency, meeting deadlines, and racing through competitions are not as important as trusting in the inherent complexity of human life, I find it is too easy for me to forget that I don't need to constantly do something, in order to still be someone.  

When I come home, I'll make sure to put "doing nothing" in the special skills section of my resume. That'll land me a stable career for sure. 

 

 

 

 

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