How long does it take to adjust to a new place?
During the last months, this question has been a central element of this blog. Right now, though, I’m experiencing the opposite:

We humans are readjusting insanely fast.

The world we call home seems to be sucking in our recently acquired new self from abroad in no time. Slurp – and we’re back to normal, back in our old skin.

Having picked up my studies in Munich again, living in the same student dorm as before, eating my self-made cereal mix each morning and meeting my old friends has surprisingly quickly brought back old thoughts, old habits, and old worldviews. Not that these would be bad – but this rapid readjustment triggers some interesting questions. Is our self at home our “real” self? Are we primarily determined by our environment? And what’s really so different about being abroad?

Today is not the day to examine these questions. To be honest, I don’t know good answers to any of them. What I do know, however, is in which ways the world called home is currently sucking me in. This is an attempt to put my observations into words.

The black hole of inspiration

As a huge fan of this blog, you may have realized the absence of a post last week. Considering that I deeply enjoy this project of documenting and publishing one train of thought every seven days, there are no real excuses for this absence. Of course, I had stuff to do. However, there’s a certain stream of energy missing in my world in Munich. It’s the stream of inspiration.

In the United States, I had conversations and experiences worthy of writing a blog post about almost every day. Some cultural quirk, some observation about myself, some idea people have told me about. The world abroad stands out due to the simple fact of being different. This property of being different constantly penetrates our brain, it changes our perception of reality. That’s what I call inspiration: Having our ideas challenged to discover new thoughts and concepts.

After four months of full exposure to the stream of inspiration, the world at home is like a black hole in comparison. The inspirational flow is more like some big dark void. One reason is that I know this place too well. For more than twenty years, I’ve been able to examine how people are having conversations or where to find my favorite cheese in a supermarket. Instead of constant food for my curiosity, I can switch off my brain and let the autopilot of experience guide me through life. The brain can use this spare time for thought, but which disrupting, inspiring thought should originate from a brain that observes nothing but its habitual environment? Apparently, no one has stolen inspiration in Germany. The physicists at my university haven’t messed up and created a black hole while I was gone. It’s all due to the fast readjustment of our brains to our habitual environment.

“I’m a different person”

“My stay abroad has completely changed me as a person. I’m now more open-minded, more solution-oriented, more proactive, more positive, more fun, more …”
Do you believe your friend who has just returned and is telling you this?
When you hear me saying such stuff, don’t take me by the word. No one becomes a better person when abroad, at least not in a thousand different aspects. What’s happening primarily are slight adjustments of perspective. An example in my case is that I’ve gotten more used to asking professors for help due to them being very supportive in the US. Now, I’m sending E-mails to professors more often. Does this mean I’m more proactive in general? Not quite, it’s just a small mindset that has changed.

Furthermore, we often mistake our new abroad self as our new self as a whole. Then we arrive at home telling everybody that we’re a new person. One, two, three weeks go by and voilà, the black hole of inspiration also is a black hole of new identities. Instead of worrying about “losing the new personality we’ve acquired abroad” in this process, we must accept that our new identity is just a huge collection of tiny mindsets, viewpoints, and ideas we’ve discovered while away. This fragile pile of new identity fragments mixes with our giant established personality from back home Instead of having become new persons, we’ve just added some lovely and colorful fragments to our mix. Instead of revolutionary change, we’ve just thrown in some new parts.

Now there are these stories of people that return after traveling and completely change their lives, selling their homes, divorcing their spouses and becoming Buddhist monks. My claim is that even these people have not become new persons. They’ve just become more conscious of some fragments in their already present pile that are completely opposed to their current lifestyle. Therefore, they make changes. After all, our personalities seem to be very continuous objects, if they are objects at all. Objects that are hard to change from the outside.

Resisting the sucking

Why do we even go abroad if there are no lasting effects? If everything becomes the way it used to be, after a single month?
This a question someone would ask who considers a vacation useless without having taken home any pictures. It’s a depressing attitude to have.
There are two more optimistic perspectives: First, the fragments we’re adding to our personality pile can be a major step in our personal development, even if it is subconscious. Second, we can fight to resist the black hole.

Life’s often a fight of resistance. Not just against black holes of old selves and lacking inspiration. As Albert Camus put it, we are damned to constantly fight against the absurdity of our existence. It seems depressing at first but quite liberating at second glance.

The fight to resist the sucking is part of our ongoing battle to become a better person. Only that we have a significant advantage now: Our own abroad self is a role model. We can strive to implement parts of its identity. We know what it feels like to live our abroad life. The diary entries, the friends overseas and our pictures are reminders of what we could be like.

Becoming our old self is very tempting. It’s easy to let go and be sucked into the world back home. No one will even realize you’re changing back! But if we want to grow in life, we must be strong. We must make a pledge to resist the sucking.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Qi

    I love the “slurp” – another amazingly written blog entry, Jakob!

    I agree that it is almost frightening how unchanged we seem in this old environment. My guess is that we did actually change quite a bit but adjust to our old self. We humans usually behave as people expect we would behave, so we would turn to our old habits and old quirks when we are around those people. That makes it difficult to change because we eventually become who others expect us to be. I have always struggled to escape this spiral.

    Maybe it‘s just me being optimistic though and we really haven‘t changed all that much – but I like to think otherwise!

    1. jakob.maier

      Love your optimism and I guess there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying Qi.
      Our environment is surely a decisive factor in how we act and feel. Apparently, our environment hasn’t changed that much. And we wouldn’t be humans if we didn’t adjust.

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