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Gaining Enlightenment on My Gap Year

February 16, 2017

I've always struggled with being wrong. But I think everyone does. No one likes to be told they're wrong, and I do things not to necessarily avoid being wrong, but at least to try being right. I read because I want to know more, I exercise and eat right (how I think is right, certainly I could be wrong) because I want to be healthier, I want to be a doctor because I want to be able to help people the most I can. I never knew that I could be wrong and swear I was right. I've been doing this my whole life, I've been wrong about so many things, I am wrong about so many things, and I will be wrong about so many more. But the one thing I swear to have right, is that being wrong is okay, better yet, it's a good thing. I always liked math in school, mostly because there was only one right answer, it was comforting for me knowing I was one of two possible outcomes, right or wrong. It was trepidation that kept me from embracing other subjects where I could be right in more ways than one, because I could also be wrong in so many more ways. It was a fear of being wrong that kept me from being right, I wanted a formula to follow to get me somewhere right, but life isn't like that. And it wasn't until I learned this, until I learned to be okay with being wrong, in every aspect of life, that I could finally begin to ask (answering comes later) myself some important questions. It's vital to embrace failure.

There's much about being okay with being wrong that's made me smile. Take, for example, the day I was able to teach the kindergarteners at our gap year program's volunteer service site in Guatemala when their teacher was absent. It was somewhat of a throwback to teaching in India, only I was able to speak the same language as the students. I like to think I made the most of it. We spent the first half of the day on arts and crafts, and the second half of the day drawing, and to get their minds fired up we did a class drawing first. Being the artists they are, I let the kids take the lead on this one, and I was merely their pencil, sketching their surge of ideas. No wrong answers. We ended up with a lake with 7 iguanas, a volcano that spewed taxis and cows, a giant pineapple that called said volcano its humble home, a one-eyed watermelon, a crescent moon, and an apple tree harboring a massive mushroom in its shade, amongst many other things. No wrong answers. Who said teachers can't have fun at school? In all seriousness though, how many teachers would approve of how I taught that class, not many would be my guess. I've been fortunate enough to have been given lots of freedom to work with my students on this WorldStamp Gap Year program, which has given me a lot of room for failure, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's for this reason, that I've been allowed to fail, that I've grown from my experiences at the head of the classroom. With the kindergarteners, I tried to do nothing but cultivate curiosity and creativity, and provide a wide range for them to express themselves, with no expression being better than another. Rather than micromanage, put them on the path and let them run wild. I probably went too far that day, leaving out most anything that would be called scholastic or academic subject matter, but next time I'll get closer to a better balance. That's the point, failure leads us closer to success.

Just merely being abroad with WorldStamp Gap Year and experiencing other societies through service and travel has provided me the chance to see how wrong I might've been about many things. Seeing new cultures and people, prioritizing new values, and finding new beliefs on life and how to live it – living all this has shown me multiple contrasting opinions I've had to wade through to sculpt my own. I've learned patriotism is not unique to countries that wield armies and wage wars, and is actually strongest in soccer stadiums. We had a tour guide during an excursion to Tikal (Guatemala), a wonderful fellow who was worldly enough to speak eleven languages, who still clung on to his Mayan heritage. He implored us to call Tikal by its real, authentic Mayan name, which I can't spell. There's nothing wrong with this, he takes pride in the accomplishments of his ancestors. In fact, I think this gentleman was an excellent example of trying to preserve culture, without sacrificing progression. What is wrong, in my opinion, is a blind adherence to tradition, believing something without questioning validity or why it's worth believing. A girl in my group had an interesting interaction with her Spanish teacher, in which the teacher tried to enlighten the student by saying how sexual education is the reason why the United States has such a high instance of teen pregnancy. In reality, Guatemala's teen pregnancy rate is four times higher than that of the U.S., 8% vs 2.1% per The World Bank data, and a contributing factor is the lack of sexual education in public schools. This is due, in part, to sexual education. Upon hearing this, the teacher was a bit embarrassed, a completely natural reaction upon being corrected. I don't mean to fault anyone, and my point isn't to shame anyone or any culture, but merely to show how uncritically believing something is both easy to do and often misguided. Guatemala is an extremely culturally rich and conservative country. Religion plays a large role in society, and is a big part of the way of life here. Catholicism (the dominant religion here), preaches that premarital sex is a sin, and forbids anyone, especially adolescents, from engaging in it. Abstinence is their form of education, and people largely don't want to face a taboo problem that is negatively impacting both their economy and livelihoods. But in order for people to embrace contraceptives and sexual education, it would require them to admit that premarital sex isn't all it's chalked up to be, religious beliefs would have to change and, in my opinion advance, but in others minds, perhaps become corrupt. As a side note, the Vatican City does accept evolution nowadays. My opinion? If it's not working, then change it, and if it still doesn't work, change it again. That's the great thing about being wrong, you get to try again.

A brief look at history shows the benefits of changes against the status quo. Heliocentrism, women's suffrage, civil rights – all of these were violently opposed, but looking back on them, can we say the world was better without them? Whoever proposed these radical ideas was not an ordinary person, but an outcast, braver than rejection and scorn. Someone who asked, why are things the way they are, didn't like the answer, and did something about it. Arthur Schopenhauer said, "All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." We should try to embrace revolutionary points of view, not oppress them, but in order for people to do this, it requires the humble admission that they may be wrong.

Fear of being wrong and fear of change runs deep in people. Enter the recent presidential election in the US. Now I'll admit, I haven't been particularly involved in the politics of it all, forgive my absence from the country for the past six months. However, I think this has given me a rather unique perspective not many people have of the whole situation. I'm a born and raised American, who's been abroad throughout the entire general election, from before voting day to inauguration and after. From what I've heard, the country has never been so divided. I'm guilty too, of course, my political view I held on to, but in being away from the emotion, has helped to at least appreciate the reasons why people voted the way they did. The election was much more convoluted than people just picking sides, but it certainly has felt like there hasn't been much middle ground. I know that in many circles, people were shunned for having different views, and told off before they were even given the chance to express their thoughts. I heard counts of this, I saw this happen. This is not a democratic process. I'm no enemy of conflict, conflict drives progress, but both sides of the conflict need to have the ability to present their case, otherwise, what you have is autocratic. And it's rooted in people lacking the capacity to admit being wrong, and it's crippling. One of the most significant policies was the Immigration Ban - trying to not get too political - which was aimed at people from a region of the world. It's hard to appreciate other cultures for things they do differently, it's difficult to look at things they do better than your culture, and it's easy to criticize them for things they don't do as well. This is another thing I've struggled with for the entirety of the last six months, and I imagine I'll continue to struggle with. And it seems this Immigration Ban is a manifestation of not being able to appreciate other cultures, and only seeing them as inferior. Rather than degrading other cultures, I wish we could try and learn from them, and work mutually for positive growth on both sides. My last point regarding American politics, whether in India or Guatemala, everyone I've met thus far during my gap year abroad shares the same political view of the election, I won't say what that is, but I do mean everyone I've met.

I was born three years after my older brother, Jeff. Everything was a competition growing up, it was do or die. I'm not sure if supportive is what I would call our relationship when we grew up; whenever we could take jabs at each other, that's what we did. Whatever thing we could criticize each other for, that's what we did. It was a cauldron of negative feedback, of being wrong constantly, and yea, it got old. We grew apart, until he left for college. As the weekly visits turned to every other week and so on, the separation brought us back. I want to make something very clear, I resented my brother for a long time, I felt like he didn't like me, like he didn't care about me. I always thought he was wrong for treating me the way he did, until I had some distance and was able to look at what his intentions might have been, rather than just his actions. I don't know if it was a healthy relationship or not, but it worked. If I didn't grow thick skin, I wouldn't have made it, if I didn't learn to outsmart my brother, three years stronger than me, I never would've won, and I wanted to win. Failure became a daily routine. I never became numb to failure, far from it, but I learned to take failure, being wrong, not as defeat, but as motivation. I had no other choice. His tough love approach helped shape me into a stronger person. Given the opportunity to thank Jeff right now, I would say, thank you, Jeff, whether you meant to do it or not, for pushing me. I wonder what he would thank me for.

Socrates said that, "the unexamined life isn't worth living." Now that I'm trying to get rid of my fear of being wrong, there're many things I'm finding I've always believed that I'm now not so sure I believe. Do I really want to be a doctor? For as long as I can remember when people asked me what do I want to do, I've said be a doctor. Both my parents are doctors, how much of being a doctor has been me, and how much has been outside influence? I still don't know, there're certainly other things that interest me, but so does being a doctor. What I do know though, is that I don't know it all. Human knowledge has never been wholly contained in one person, and no one has nothing left to learn. Everyone has something to teach, and more to learn, whether it's me, my first grade teacher, the beggar on the street, the neurosurgeon, the billionaire business man, or the farmer, everyone has something to learn, and there's no more humble realization. So for me what does this all mean? If being wrong is okay, what does it mean to be right? What am I examining my life for, what am I trying to find, and where am I trying to go? These are the questions I'm grappling with now, and they aren't easy to answer. No doubt I will be wrong a couple times, and likely think I'm right only to figure out I was wrong. It will be frustrating at times. I think being wrong doesn't mean settling for being wrong, or being okay with mediocrity, but instead enjoying the path and reveling in the journey, and not only focusing on the destination. So I suppose for now, that's my answer, but it's probably wrong.