Frames of Reference

Tomorrow, I fly to a foreign country.

Reading that, what do you think? Maybe it sounds a bit exciting, but also banal. I’ll admit, even though I chose this vacation, a part of me was concerned that leaving my comfortable existence wouldn’t be worth it.

This is a *terrible* mindset. It happens all too often, shrinking down the world into a tiny little speck. Learning a language gets reduced further and further until, in your mind, it’s a half hour of audio lessons and a few flash cards each day. It’s so much more than that!

Learning a language – you’re learning to express yourself, in a way you previously couldn’t. You’re literally rewiring parts of your brain; gaining a new perspective. You’re able to communicate with millions of people on the other side of the world who were as good as on Mars before – or perhaps people who lived right next door. Maybe, depending upon the language, you’re reading words written thousands of years ago, as though the author were sitting right next to you. Isn’t that awesome?

Or getting in shape. It can shrink down into this little speck, of looking at your abs in the mirror each morning, just waiting to see progress. How utterly pointless! When you’re getting in shape, what are you doing? You’re getting freedom: the freedom to do anything you want, comfortably and efficiently. The freedom of time, to live a longer, healthier life. The freedom to try completely new things. You’re becoming more self-sufficient. You’re training – for the zombie apocalypse, or to live by your wits in the Cambodian jungle, or to survive the Alaskan Iditarod. You may never do these things, but they’re within reach, if you’re healthy.

These are examples of self-improvement. But this applies to everything. Your normal day, maybe, is getting up at 7:00 in the morning, and rolling out of bed, checking your email, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, working for 8 hours, watching TV and falling asleep. I bet you got bored just reading that, didn’t you?

But everything – EVERYTHING – you see is a little miracle. You yourself are a miracle. Think about this: the fact that you, as a human being exist, is because your ancestors back to the dawn of humanity reproduced at *exactly* the right time. Because if they didn’t, if a timeline of millions of years changed by just a millisecond, a different spermata would have reached the egg first, and your whole family tree would be obliterated. It’s not just that: what events had to happen for those ancestors to meet when they did? Every single action, from every single person who lived before them contributed to their reality, and to your existence. And that’s just the humans: in reality, every single organism from the very first cell, billions of years ago, had to happen at the exact moment it did, or else you as a person would not be here.

It’s true, though: everything you see is a miracle, when you look at it. That weed, growing through the crack on the sidewalk: that weed hosts an enormous ecosystem of millions of different organisms, whose lives revolve around its roots, or the surface of its leaves. The fact that the weed looks as it does, is because of millions of different events that led to it becoming the optimal plant for its particular niche. The fact that it’s green is because it is running its own little power plants, that allow it to grow – the very power plants that are necessary for life to exist as it does on earth. The fact that its roots go a certain level below the surface, is because of the hardness of the ground, and the depth of water where you live, the nutrients provided by the soil, and dozen of other factors.

There are a few people who are capable of inspiring a shift in perspective. A child can do it, seeing the world with fresh eyes, and forcing us to discard our jaded perceptions and examine it anew. Certain gifted artists and scientists can do it.

Richard Feynman was one, or MC Escher, or Bill Watterson – I bet there are a few who have shaped how you personally view the world. It’s worth revisiting them, because their insights lose their force and get overwhelmed by the stress and drudgery of daily life.

Tomorrow, I get in a metal tube and shoot thousands of feet up in the air, in a way totally inconceivable to people who lived a century ago, and when I finally come down, it is on the other side of the world, in a place where the customs are alien to me. It’s a place where I have no roots, where I can create myself anew; a place where I’ll be living on my wits – with only the supplies I carry on my back, and the strength in my body, and that little bit of knowledge in my head. Tomorrow, I fly to a foreign country.

Leave a comment


  1. buzz

     /  October 25, 2011

    Focusing on superficial results like you mentioned (flat abs, flash card memorization) is directly linked to giving up in my experience. Often, the results that we are trying to attain (in my case, being able to complete a marathon and getting a masters degree) are so difficult to achieve they seem impossible, or take years of work to actually achieve.
    A good way to stay motivated is instead focus on the wider, ongoing benefits (increased freedom, improved communication skills, etc.)
    When can you really say you’ve “learned” a language anyway? There’s always something new to learn. You aren’t “unfit” one day, and the next you are “fit.” I guess this all boils down to the old adage “Life is in the journey, not the destination”

  1. Foreign Language, Foreign Country « SkillsFIRE

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