The Fundamental Realization of Self Responsibility


This piece is about transitioning from living abroad to living back home. But it is also about transitioning from one stage of life to another - from one place to another, from one relationship to another, from one job to another. These things all revolve around the same notion: change can be hard to deal with. In truth, we will always be in transition. And at certain points we will be less prepared for the changes, difficulties, and adjustments that those transitions entail. The moment I returned to my university after living abroad for an entire year, I was ecstatic. The moment I returned back to the states I could barely keep my smiles contained. There were so many things I missed that I never thought about when bombarded by the stimulation that living abroad provides – loving people, familiar places, the small victories of being able to grocery shop like a pro again with prices and labels I could fully comprehend. The silver linings were all around. UC Santa Barbara and California at large are two of the most amazing places I have had the privilege to live in, close friends make up an entire community and waves that splash on the shore start my every day. But after the first month, things changed a bit – I started to think about being abroad again, the simplicities of Swedish life, and the intimate moments I would share with my friends every day, exploring a different country or living a first-time experience. And then I thought about it more, and more, and more.

Because to be blatantly honest, the typical life of an American student is far busier than the life of our Swedish counterparts. Which is not necessarily a good thing. Sweden boasts shorter working days, fewer class hours, and generally more time for engaging in life outside of work, school, or future planning. America boasts the quarter system, internships, additional honors programs and projects, and generally less time to sit with a free mind and go from there. I missed this, the general freedom I had without pursuing 10 things at once. I missed traveling, I missed real seasons, I missed the people I used to see every day. The warmness that seemed to envelop every moment and sprout joy from my brain all but disappeared, and was replaced by the feeling of longing, of missing, of a factor needing to be fixed. I swore it was all there just a few days ago, and then it was gone.

I thought about what had changed – what was making me, all of sudden and out of nowhere, feel unhappy. Was it really just because I was so busy? School was in full throttle, work a bit overwhelming, and projects and programs taking up every corner of my mind. If only I were back in Sweden, I thought. But then I realized that the base factor of moving myself to a different place would change nothing. Unhappy me right now would continue to be unhappy elsewhere, even if I somehow teleported overseas to my favorite Swedish café. While our environments play a large role in the opportunities we have for seeing joy and partaking in it, it is ourselves that ultimately make that joy.

To look at change and feel the discomfort it gives you, and then shove the responsibility of feeling bad, unhappy, or upset on the idea that if nothing ever changed, we would feel fine, is not a productive process. In externalizing the responsibility of what upsets us, we give up the responsibility of ever feeling better. This is a dangerous situation, because it is our responsibility to live well – not our country’s, not our job’s, not our favorite café’s. We have a personal responsibility to ourselves to recognize what makes us happy, recognize what we can do in our power to live well by our own terms, and follow through with those actions. Because while we might have responsibilities to our jobs, our commitments, our academic involvements – they will never have the full responsibility for our individual well-being. Anyone can be miserable with the best job in the world, the most awards in the world, or the best grades in the world. But it is harder to be miserable when you are taking care of yourself.

Which brings me to two obvious but important responsibilities we all have to ourselves, especially when dealing with significant transitions.

Make time for yourself. This is important, and this is something many of us don’t do on a regular basis. We get involved in so many things – in the responsibilities of various commitments, in planning for our futures, in doing this and doing that. Which is wonderful, being active in a variety of ways is healthy for both our minds and our careers. But being active for yourself – meaning that you take time every day to do things you enjoy, are passionate about, or are curious to try, is healthy for every aspect of life you can think of. Because when you are being active for yourself you are fulfilling what matters to you, and that is as integral to happiness as it gets. You’ll feel better in general, you’ll have more energy to exhibit in work and in school, and you’ll have more of you to offer to your friends and family.

Listen to yourself. Busy does not equal happy. Keeping yourself occupied does not equal keeping yourself satisfied. If you get in a rut, or feel at odds with one factor or another in the lifestyle you are living, find a way to initiate change. Whether it be small or big – a mistake that manages to get the best of us time and again exists in the passivity of living. If things are not going the way you would like them to, identify the changes that can be made, and avoid falling into the mindset that your contentment will come at the end or attainment of something tangible. Contentment is a sustainable thing – not an end state.

Just sit down with yourself and think about what matters to you. Think about the things that ignite your joy and excitement; the things that give you the exuberance to smile at others, and smile at yourself. Is there a specific interest or passion? Maybe it’s your friends and family, maybe it’s spending time outdoors. Recognize what is important to you and prioritize that. It is vital that we take responsibility for ourselves, because life will never be perfect.

The circumstances we live in will always present challenges, and the hard parts of change, separation, or loss will always be there. We will continue to miss the places we once lived, we will always find things that can make us upset. But if we manage to develop adequate ways of prioritizing living – for ourselves, our families, our friends, and the contributions we make to society at large – these changes and challenges will be met more smoothly. We may time and time again be able to identify the silver linings that make us glow, and live lives we fully appreciate.