Learning By Letting Go

Jack Swartzentruber - India


December 6, 2018

It’s been nearly one hundred days since I’ve been living in India, and I
find that the more time I spend here the harder it is for me to write about
it. I think there are a couple reasons for this, but it primarily stems
from the fact that every time I think I’ve gained some new insight about
myself or the culture that I am in, something else happens that contradicts
it and forces me to entirely reconsider my perspective. I am constantly
re-evaluating my life and the way I see the world, and as I do so the world
starts to unfold itself into a shape more complex and nuanced than I could
have possibly imagined. As a result, I am left in the somewhat paradoxical
state of always learning while simultaneously feeling less and less sure of
everything I know to be true. Considering that this year is supposed to be
dedicated to “global citizenship” and “self-discovery”, it is ironic that
in some ways I find myself even more confused and aimless than I did before
I left.

But, for a more tangible update, for the last three months I have been
working as a teaching assistant in a class of 42 third-graders in a
government school that is around a twenty minute metro ride from my house.
I work from 9 to 3, four days a week, and on the weekends I wake up early
to go across the city to take Hindi class with the rest of the fellows.
Aside from the holidays and festivals we’ve had (which seem to happen every
couple of weeks), this has been the basic structure of my weekly schedule.
Of course, much in the way that a city map can never hope to convey the
life, beauty, chaos and hope that exist within its streets, I don’t think
that my experience can truly be understood with a simple schedule, a list
of destinations.

For me, true meaning and wonder is found in the small, unplanned moments of
the day, like watching a man shepherd his herd of cows through the street
on my walk to school, or seeing the chaiwala by my house turn the act of
making tea into a performance, pouring from great heights and filling my
cup exactly to the brim with ease. It is in these moments that I begin to
realize the true depth of everything. I begin to understand how every tiny
dot, every line in the grid that makes up the map of this great city
expands into itself, revealing an endless maze of streets full of cars and
bikes, children playing games, chai stands and shops selling everything
from cigarettes to motorbike parts, bags of snacks to eyeglasses. And once
inside these shops, every one expands from a name and a sign into a complex
web of love, laughter, joy, pain, grief, the incomprehensible range of
thoughts and feelings, dreams and ambitions, hopes and fears that make up
our web of social interactions. I realize that none of these insights are
specific to Indian society, but I think living in a city that is so busy
and close together, one that wears its humanity on its sleeve, has made
these realizations inevitable.

So, instead of giving me insight into some great secret, a supreme truth
about myself or the world, I think what this experience has given me so far
is a revelation on the nature of truth itself. To indulge a painful cliche,
the world is a big place. But it’s not just the world that’s big; even a
tiny apartment in the middle of a city can expand to the size of universe
if you take into account the hidden nuances, the daily interactions and
tiny infinite histories that are created inside of it every day. My
experience so far has given me perspective on these sorts of subtle,
smaller things, and how if there is some sort of greater “truth” out there,
it exists far beyond the limits of one individual’s conscious
understanding.

I will never be able to tell you what life in India is like; it is a place
that resists accurate characterization. But then again, I don’t think there
is any place that doesn’t.

Jack Swartzentruber