Wednesday, January 22, 2014

When we were fearless

I happened upon an article recently, by way of a friend and fellow mother, that talked about the trauma adolescence wreaks upon parents. This was of course just the thing for my already frazzled parenting-a-preteen nerves, and so I seized upon it. The part that really grabbed me, though, wasn't actually about the woes of parenting teens at all. It read as follows, and the fact that it caught my eye seems to me to be a perfect example of how, when we're working through an issue, we find applicability and resonance everywhere:

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that adolescents might be more disposed toward risk. Human beings need incentives to leave the family nest. Leaving home is dangerous.

Leaving home is dangerous. Leaving home is dangerous. And yet when I did it the first time, heading off to Brazil at the age of 17 and having never been apart from my parents for more than a week or two, I felt no fear. It was utterly exhilarating. I felt bold and adventurous and competent and special and almost superhuman. Of course I wasn't so much flying the nest as I was hopping halfway across the world into another nest, and I proceeded to cry and mope and stay out all night and aggravate my exchange parents and bemoan imaginary hardships, because that's what teenagers do best. But I went and I wasn't scared.

Fear, and its grey boring old relation, worry, have never figured much into my travels or really how I approach life. As a child I tended to be afraid of imaginary things, like ghosts or body snatchers or demons or having blood drawn by a competent professional in a sterile environment or walking into my own room and flipping on the light, only to discover my own self lying there in the bed and looking back at me. You know, wholesome normal childhood fears like we all have. I did not fear violence or abandonment, nor was I worried about hunger or cold. The only reason to go anywhere else, to move on, that I have ever known is pure wanderlust. It has never been want or necessity. So why should I have been afraid to fly halfway across the world? I was a young, smart, outgoing, able bodied white girl of means. I was too green and privileged for fear to occur to me.

Privilege isn't all of it, though. What I was doing was my personal version of what people do in that heady overblown phase of late adolescence, when we're old enough and brave enough to dare and too young to have second thoughts. We go out into the world and we take it on. I wasn't starting a family, or even getting my own apartment. I certainly wasn't going to war, which plenty of kids that age have done and continue to do, and for which some of my peers shockingly yearned. The magnificent Dar Williams wrote a song entitled "Teenagers, Kick Our Butts," in which she said, "Find your voice, do what it takes/Make sure you make lots of mistakes/And find the future that redeems/Give us hell, give us dreams". Not high art, perhaps, but there is something to the idea that the very moment we become adults is the moment to act, to jump onto whatever wave is propelling us into maturity and ride it for all it's worth before sense sets in.

So maybe what causes adolescence to be so fraught with emotion and so fearless is the mix of newly minted cognitive and physical maturity with blissful ignorance. And if youthful ignorance is bliss, then the fear and worry that come with age and knowledge should be no surprise.

You might be asking what any of this has to do with Peru.

In the normal course of these things, I have traded youth for knowledge and fearlessness for experience. But while age is a cliched marker for courage, ignorance, and enthusiasm, I think we tend to discount the ways in which those things interrelate regardless of age. Fear and knowledge, or the lack of either or both of them, connect in different ways for us depending on who we are. There are those of us who start out fearful of the unknown, and there are those of us to whom fear only occurs as knowledge dawns. I fall squarely into the latter group, and it is here that Peru comes in. When I first moved to Peru, the move did not seem dangerous or risky. I knew very little about the country. Had I known more, I would have feared more (more on that later). I also knew very little about my children. I realize that sounds odd, but they were after all very small and their needs and worlds were correspondingly so. I knew only - not little, exactly, but - a very particular version of myself which was not coincidentally interlaced with my knowledge of my children. What I did know was that I trusted my husband to be both good at his job and working for a good company (well founded trust, as comes as no surprise to anyone). And I continued to be bright, outgoing, able, white, and comfortably off, if somewhat less young. What, again, was there to fear?

I had an excellent, if somewhat cloistered, 14 months in Peru. I made a few friends, and I stay in touch with a few of them. They are fantastic people. I tended the children and to a lesser extent the home. I ate in safe and fashionable restaurants and shopped and donated a respectable bit of time and money to charity. I hosted guests and prepped for the LSAT. I became reasonably knowledgeable about tourism in Peru, but learned embarrassingly little about the country's history or current political environment. I knew the basics of the Spanish conquest, but nothing of the country's road to independence. I knew that there had been economic turmoil and widespread deprivation in the 1980s, but I didn't know how the country had overcome this. I knew there had been terrorist activity in the past, most infamously by the Shining Path, but I didn't know why or how it had abated. There was a federal election in 2006 and I knew who the candidates were but could not have told you how many administrative regions existed in Peru, let alone how the election was playing out in them. For someone with degrees in international relations and history, and a minor in "Hispanic studies", I was woefully uninformed and disinterested.

Eight years have passed nearly to the day since we first came to Arequipa. I have left home, again, and this time it feels like taking a risk. I know so much more now than I did then. I know what it is to live in Peru, in Arequipa. I know a little more about Peru's history and political climate, and while this is not cause for fear it does make me less blithe in the face of 2.5 years here. I now know my children's fears and hopes. I know more about their personalities, their strengths and their weaknesses. I know how and why to concern myself with their future. And I know more about myself. I am a professional now, and I've invested time and money and a great deal of myself into so becoming. I know that if I don't work at keeping current, the transition back to working in Canada may be rough. It behooves me to worry a little, to allow in a bit of fear.

When we were fearless, we were full of potential, but lacked perspective. We were daring, but often oblivious. As I have gained perspective and knowledge, and some fear in the bargain, I've seen areas of potential I didn't before. In the words of Dar Williams again, this time in The Pointless Yet Poignant Crisis of a Co-Ed, "I am older now, I know the rise and gradual fall of a daily victory." I'm now in a better position to make the most out of the time in Arequipa, for me and for the family. I think that I'm in a better position to seek out useful work. I hope that losing a bit of my fearlessness will not cause me to retreat, but instead to become a more thoughtful and effective person. I may not be fearless anymore, but in learning to identify risks, I can recognize the ones worth taking.

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