Recently I read a book in which the main protagonist – a middle-aged woman who was contemplating going on a pilgrimage – asked herself, “Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life?”
That, in a nutshell, is the question we all should be asking ourselves. That is what I’m asking myself as I sit here in my airbnb in the middle of Portugal, with no home, job or significant other to go back to.
It should be an easy question to answer, right? The walls of my life are gone – I’ve shed my home, my car, my familiar surroundings, my routine, and my friends. All I have left is either in a storage unit in northern Wisconsin or in the suitcase next to my bed. If anyone was in a position to answer that question, that person would be me.
This morning I walked down the streets of Porto admiring the old buildings tiled over in azulejos, smelling the sweetness of fresh-baked pastries, and watching the chestnut-roasters hawking their wares as crowds wove around them on their way to work. I found myself wandering down impossibly-narrow side streets that have been traveled for hundreds of years, and I was thinking about the moment I realized I’d never be a good singer, berating myself for never managing to take up jiu-jitsu again after I stopped going to class a decade ago, and rehashing old conversations that had ended years previous.
What? I had thought I had shed all the walls of my life, but my thoughts were going down their same worn-out paths.
That’s when I realized that the highest, strongest and most enduring walls in my life were in my mind.
And that I had built them.
That’s the perennial problem – you think that changing something outside yourself is going to change your life without doing the internal work first. My life traveling around the world is very much like my life in Wisconsin (aside from taking more photos and the weather being MUCH warmer). If I want to find out who I am – if I want to create a life that is vibrant and present – I will need to take down my internal walls.
I have no solution to offer – the key to taking down one’s walls will be different for every person.
But for me, at least, I’ve finally realized they are there. And I’ve realized what they’re costing me. Those are the first steps.