Between a Pillow and a Soft Place

Eugene Henninger-Voss - Brazil


January 12, 2017

For those of you who had US public school health class, you know you were never told, in no uncertain terms, that IF you have sex you WILL get pregnant and die.   Instead you were presented with a series of facts, figures, and photos.  Maybe you had to read some testimonials of unlucky teenagers.  Watched a couple unmistakably didactic videos.  Whatever happened, at no point, at no time, did the phrase “IF you have sex you WILL get pregnant and die,” yet the clear impression, the clear message that schoolchildren across the country subconsciously take away, is that IF you have sex you WILL get pregnant and die.

Is this literally true?

Cleary not.

Was it ever said?

Objectively no.

Is it never the less the impression left?

More or less.

In much the same way Global Citizen Year, and indeed the bridge year industry in general, never says that on a bridge year each day will be the metaphorical equivalent to sunshine and rainbows, and they never tell you that each day will start with the dawning of a bright sun with the (metaphorically) cold, crisp air nipping your lungs reminding you that you are alive and prepared for the day of hard, rewarding work ahead of you, and they never tell you that you will not be able to finish a bath without being compelled to run around your host community shouting “Eureka!”.

Is this literally true?

Clearly not.

Was it ever said?                                                    

Objectively no.

Is it never the less the impression left?

More or less.

If you think that sunshine and rainbows is so far fetched you would ?  That’s because it is!  It’s a little thing we bridgers know as the ‘Stretch Zone’.  In the words of Giana, one of our wonderful Brazil team leaders, “The stretch zone: this is where the magic happens.”  (“Stretch Zone” is when you are outside of your comfort zone but not quite into your panic zone.)  

The general formula that they use to sell a bridge year is something along the lines of Hardship -> Stretch Zone -> Magic -> implied Sunshine and Rainbows -> The Most Transformative Year of Your Life.     

However, this has not matched my experience in Brazil.  I’m not sure who has already picked up on it, but the formula that gives a bridge-year its magic, what makes it so transformative, isn’t actually bridge-year specific.  The first ingredient is some hardship or challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone and into your stretch zone.   Maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that and you’ve heard a version of the formula with some cross-cultural interaction thrown in to spice things up, but if I just want an uncomfortable cross-cultural interaction back home in the US all I have to do is talk politics with my neighbors.   The general process of Challenge -> Stretch Zone -> Magic -> Sunshine and Rainbows -> Lasting Change can happen anywhere, anytime.  What gives a bridge year its strength in this respect is that you have much more ample access to your stretch zone when you are in a foreign country with a different language, culture, and standards of living, and you are doing meaningful work you probably have never even tried in your home country.

The first thing Global Citizen Year did not tell me is all that sunshine and rainbows stuff.  The second thing I was never told was how hard it was going to be to be challenged. 

But I am currently spending my bridge year in Brazil.  Brazil is inundated with American culture and language.  English is cool.  The overwhelming majority of graphic tees are in English, and people where them without knowing what they mean.  Loan words populate the jargon of newer fields like marketing and tech.  English is also, by and large, the language of the internet, which is just as prevalent in Florianopolis, Brazil as in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Within my first two weeks in-country I met a girl who had learned to speak English just by being online.

And of course, the language and culture go hand-in-hand.   Brazilians watch the same movies, read the same books, and listen to the same music as we do.  As of these last few years they even shop at the same Black Friday sales, despite not having Thanksgiving the day.

Maybe only the big cities of Brazil are so permeated by American culture, but I am not just living in any big Brazilian city.  I am living in Florianopolis, which not only has one of the lowest crime rates and one of the highest human development indexes of all Brazilian cities but is also generally one of the hottest vacation destinations in Brazil. 

What I am trying to say with all of this is that even though I am here on my bridge-year, I am not in my stretch zone.   I have my computer, iPhone, and good internet.  I have nothing but the most minimal of obligations.  If I wanted to slide more than I did in the Summer after senior year, I could.  I could slide into social media.  I could slide into World of Warcraft.  I could slide into myself.  If I wanted to put no work in, no one else would stop me.   To put it another way: no person or structure is in a position to make me make something of my bridge year.  People who want to go to the gym more hire personal trainers or join classes because it gives them incentive to go to the gym.  Whether it is through not wanting to have wasted money, or the feeling of social obligation, or a sense of commitment, after hiring or joining people are compelled to go to the gym.  By hiring or joining these people put themselves in a spot where it is easier to get to their stretch zone, i.e. inside the gym and working out.  As the metaphorical parallel, this is what I thought I was doing when I went on this bridge-year, but that is not the case.  After four months in-country, I, most literally, have not even gotten a gym membership.

But I have moved closer to the gym.  I am in a new culture, surrounded by a new language.  I am in a new city, 54 kilometers long, full of beaches, neighborhoods, and life to explore.  I have two great apprenticeships ripe with opportunity.   I am surrounded by opportunity.  The hard part is seizing it.  The nature of objects with mass is to follow gravity downhill, and it is hard to go against this nature and push yourself up hill.  Purposely making things harder for yourself for six months, without being responsible to anyone but yourself, without being told to by anyone but yourself, without being compelled to by anyone but yourself is itself tremendously challenging.  It is so much easier to by forced into your stretch zone than to force yourself into it.

But don’t think I am the only one kicked free of the Earth in my own private Heart of Darkness (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/526/pg526.html).  In an existential way we are all equally solely accountable to ourselves, and it is up to ourselves to force us to do anything.  Remember, showing up is half the battle.   The hard part is getting yourself out of the house; once you arrive social scripts usually dictate the rest.  My force of will may be struggling with my inertia in Brazil, but especially in this time of resolutions, everyone can enter their stretch zone to do a little magic that will have a lasting impact.  The hard part is getting yourself to the hardship.

I knew that if I stayed at home my stretch zone wouldn’t just come to me, so I came to meet it in Brazil.  After all, if the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain.  Well I got to the mountain.  It turns out my stretch zone was on top of the mountain.   Now I have to get myself up on my own two feet and climb to the peak.

 

Eugene Henninger-Voss