When we are born we are immediately placed in a narrative. That narrative contains the story of our name, our gender, our family, our nationality and so on. Those stories go on to define us; they define who we are. We don’t often change those stories because they become the basis of everything we live by, but I wonder if we could change those stories, what would that mean?
My arrival back into my birthplace of Sydney was a bit like being thrown into a washing machine on spin cycle. Having spent the last 4 months in a somewhat Zen state of being, living day-to-day, travelling the world with minimal worries and minimal expectations, I was now smack in the centre of a bustling city that seems to seldom slow down. One minute I am a piece of fabric flowing in the wind, the next I am being tossed around a tumultuous body of water trying to keep my head afloat. Funnily enough, that tumultuous body of water was once normality to me, as it is to the millions of other people in this city. We manage to grab a dingy, or if you’re lucky a surfboard, and ride the rough waves of city life. We manage and we adapt to the tumultuous waters, forgetting how much effort it takes to stay afloat. The turmoil only becomes noticeable when your normality runs at a calmer frequency and then you’re met with the comparison of a more chaotic one.
Don’t get me wrong, Sydney is a wonderful place to call home. I have incredible memories here, but it’s kind of like that one friend that demands too much from you. Firstly, it’s bloody expensive, which means you end up stuck in the income trap, having to overcompensate on work in order to live comfortably. Secondly, much (not all) of the population is so deep in the rat race they’ve seemed to lose complete sight of their connection to others and their connection to themselves. I’ve been there. When you work at least 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, commute 2 hours a day and spend most of your week putting all your efforts into something that, quite frankly, you’re not the slightest bit passionate about, by the time it hits the weekend, of course, the first thing you want to do is down a bottle of wine and watch some mind-numbing television (Australia has loads of this). And, ladies and gentlemen, there lies a brief description of what we call “living”.
Whoever decided it was a good idea to work 5 days a week anyway? I hope in my lifetime we move into a world where this is deemed as preposterous as it sounds. I’m sure the world can function if we turn into a 4-day working society or even a 3-day one. Norway proved it’s possible. But that’s another conversation.
As I write this I do feel very lucky to have left this race. Which is why it probably came as a huge shock to me when 4 weeks ago I was once again met with this drastic comparison of my idea of living. I found myself in a state of reverse culture shock as my surroundings suddenly changed. For those of you who haven’t heard of the term ‘culture shock’, it often refers to the feelings of uneasiness associated with an immediate change in the environment. For example, the way one feels when they travel to a foreign country where everything is new, customs, cultures, weather, people. The same kind of culture shock has been documented to happen to people who return home after long term travel. You’ve changed, but nothing much else has changed, and this can often result in a form of an identity crisis, or as I like to call it – trying to fit your round peg self into a square peg hole.
I know this too well as it has happened upon my return to Sydney 3 times now. Sydney was always ‘home’, my narrative told the story of a girl born and raised in Sydney. I was used to the hustle and bustle, I adapted to it, and in many ways, I thrived off it. The rat race was normality to me until it threw me into a complete mental breakdown in early 2014 and the stresses of corporate demands manifested into intense bouts of anxiety and panic attacks. My body literally forced me out of it, and I thank the higher powers for that.
Yet I still struggle to understand why this is our “reality”. So many times that I have left Sydney to venture to faraway places and trial a different way of living I am posed with the statement “You have to come back to reality sooner or later”. I don’t know about you but this “reality” seems a little ludicrous to an outsider looking in.
“Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” – Dalai Lama
Perhaps this is the reason why I continue to struggle each time I return to Sydney. I always try and fit my new present, relaxed, awakened self into old demanding, stressful and tense surroundings. I am yet to figure out the correct equation that doesn’t involve fleeing to the countryside and joining a cult. I can’t even grow a cucumber for goodness sakes.
All I can assume is that our society is in need of reform. Do I have the answer? No. But 3 years ago when I started The Altruistic Traveller I ventured out to help the impoverished. I visited remote communities deep in the forests of Cambodia, in the hills of Nepal and in the fields of Myanmar. Little did I know that my own society was suffering from its own kind of poverty. Spiritual and mental poverty. In Australia, it’s estimated that 45 percent of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime (BeyondBlue). That’s almost 1 in 2 people that you know. Our way of society demands too much from us. Life is meant to be more simple than this.
I’m determined to now explore ways we can bring altruism and compassion into the Western world as well as the East. Maybe one day I’ll be able to return to Sydney without feeling completely overwhelmed, maybe I will learn to grow cucumbers and live off-the-grid in Eastern Europe. I can’t predict anything, but I can raise some valid points and help change our idea of what it means to truly live.