Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bravery and Big Girl Points

When I was 19 I went on a summer study abroad to Vienna Austria.  I'd been living away from home for a year and a half already, but there's something very extreme about being separated from anyone you know by an entire ocean!

The overnight plane rides are tough, you get to your destination after hours of not really being able to sleep on the plane, and right when you get there it's morning and "time's a wastin'," you're in a foreign country after all--go make the most of it.  

Our first day in Austria we went around as a whole group of students with our program director.  It was rough. Everyone was tired (and cranky) and most of us didn't know each other yet.  One place the director took us to go walk around was the Naschmarkt--a big outdoor market.  Some kids bought lunch there to eat, but my queasy-from traveling, and not-enough sleep, and nervous about this whole experience tummy wouldn't stand for it.  Vienna is sometimes called a gateway to the East and this market showed it.  There were so many foreign fragrances.  As we walked past Kebab stands and huge barrels of purple olives, I could hardly stomach the smell.

Later in the day we returned to the Austro-American Institute for a reception and to meet our host-families.  Ing. Rosch picked me up and drove me home to where she had a dinner prepared for us.  A dinner composed of all the strong foreign smells of the Naschmarkt.  Now, my mother raised me well--so I ate my dinner--white asparagus and all--but it wasn't easy.

After dinner Ing. Rosch took me out for a walk.  I don't remember exactly where we were--but I knew I was going to be sick.  Maybe it was by divine intervention that someone she knew walked by and they took a minute to talk to each other while I ducked behind a shrub and threw up my dinner.  I really hoped she didn't see.  I didn't want to seem ungrateful, but really--it was out of my control.  Back in her home that night, I threw up again in the bathroom.

I didn't know what else to do, so I went to school the next day.  When it finally came out that I'd been sick all night my director sent me home to go lay in bed.  ("But go pick up some Coke and pretzels from Billa first," he said.)

After a day in bed and some fruit tea from my host, I was feeling better again and more comfortable with my surroundings.  But as I talked with my Mom from a phone booth across the street, I felt how alone I really was.  Mom hadn't been there to hold my hair out of my face and rub my back while I threw up.  She hadn't been there to buy and prepare me snacks for my sick tummy.  I was on my own.  Either I was going to be a "big girl" and take care of myself or no one would. 

So at some point thereafter I started awarding myself "Big Girl Points" for things I had to do or experiences I went through that were difficult for me, or required courage .  The points didn't give me anything but my own personal satisfaction about being a Big Girl and taking care of myself.  But it was important for me to recognize those moments, particularly where I went against my regular nature of shyness and insecurity and conquered.

First on the list is 10 points for throwing up all by myself.  The list also includes 4 points for not being emotionally crushed by a woman being grouchy with me at a store.  There's 2 points for not crying out of embarrassment when I was checking out at the grocery store and had forgotten to weigh my bananas (you have to weigh your own produce and print out a price label) and had to jump out of the line where people were waiting behind me and go back and weigh my bananas.  I also gave myself 3 points for walking home like a dozen blocks when the street car stopped running one day in the middle of the route.

Living in Austria for four months alone was hard for me.  Living in Washington DC for four months was hard for me.  Being away at college for four years was hard for me.  Living here in Kansas the last 5 years has been hard for me.  It's not that I don't love my family as much as other people love theirs and don't want to be around them.  I wish I could be always near my family.  But I would never trade my experiences of living in Europe or anywhere else I've been--there have been so many cultural and life-experiences that I have gained living different places.

But that's not all.  There are also personal benefits.  And though I hate to say it--I would not have made as much personal development if I'd had my whole family along.  For personal development you have to have personal experiences.  If my mom had been in Vienna with me I would not have had to work so hard to overcome my insecurities.  I wouldn't have needed to be so brave if my mother was with me because I would have relied partially on her bravery to sustain me. 

The concept of Big Girls points has carried on just a bit through a few major life events since then.  Certain things come up in your life that YOU are the only one that can take care of it, and you just have to be brave and face it because there is no alternative.  My siblings sent me flowers after my ectopic pregnancy, and the card read: "You earned a LOT of Big Girl points for this one."

All of us will face these experiences in our lives.  We just have to be brave.  Carry on.  And if it helps--assign random points to ourselves when we do a good job. 

(Read more stories of bravery here.)

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