When you Face Two Roads Diverged, Pick the One that Seems Harder

Paulina Jedrzejowski - Brazil


October 21, 2014

Feeling the harness bite into my thighs and stomach, I knew that the pain was only for my safety and I had to do this to begin the journey of overcoming fear. As I looked up the ladder, I knew that I had to climb about two hundred feet to begin the journey… I still had an option, I could get out of the harness but I knew that is not who I am. I am not the person to stare at fear and run away. I am the one who stands there and fights every ounce of fear, anxiety, adrenaline. I looked above at the man who was sending down a hook that I would use for safety but could this hook really sustain my weight?

At that moment I thought to myself – if I will contemplate such a minor detail, how will I face the real fear? Have world leaders ever walked away from fear themselves? The answer is no. John Paul II, an admirable figure of the twentieth century, repeatedly stated Nie lekajcie sie or Do not be afraid which he followed when he faced the battle of dissolving Communism in the Eastern Bloc.

The man with the hook assured me that everything would be okay, that if anything goes wrong he will catch me. I knew I had to follow this stranger’s words and could not be afraid. I thought to myself then – if this complete stranger is telling me he is supporting my weight and that I should ascend the tall Redwood tree, then what is stopping me from ascending it? We made eye contact and that is when I told myself to trust…

When I reached the peak of the Redwood tree, I held on to it, praying and hoping that I wouldn’t be the exception. When the harness came and I was attached to it, I was told to sit on a wooden platform suspended to the Redwood. I held on to the man’s hand as strongly as I could. I did not want to let go… and that is when he started counting off.

3… 2… 1…  I knew the next word would be go and I would be thrust towards one of my biggest fears: falling. As he said Go, I made the right decision and did not close my eyes. As I was flying through the Redwood trees ,I could not believe the beautiful nature that surrounded me. The green of the leaves, the different shades of brown, the dirt paths two hundred feet below me became so vivid. As a person with an intense fear of heights, I was afraid and I felt it in the tense muscles of every part of my body, yet still, my eyes were anxious to see; my brain was hungry for every bit of detail that laid on the little path.

When I landed safely, I knew that there was a reason for this activity in the Pre-Departure Training agenda. I learned to understand that fear exists only in the schema of the person, influenced by previous experiences. I thought to myself then that different communities have influenced who I am, so I must actively seek to have an impact on my community from now on forward, facing fears with the understanding that I can overcome them.

I want to be changed by the world.

I want to breathe.

I want to smell.

I want to taste.

I want to love.

I want to face challenges.

I want to be supported.

I want to be supportive.

I want to live.

Yet, do I actually want all of that or do I need it?

Can I live without being changed by the world? No I cannot.

Can I live without breathing? No I cannot.

Can I live without smelling? No I cannot.

Can I live without tasting? No I cannot.

Can I live without loving? Yes, I can but is life worth living without love?

Can I live without facing challenges? Yes, I can but am I worthy of life without facing challenges.

Can I live without being supported? Yes, I can but is life worth living without support?

Can I live without being supportive? Yes, I can but is life worth living without caring?

I want to live…I need to live… therefore

I need to be changed by the world to become a better person.

I need to breath to stay alive.

I need to smell to enjoy life.

I need to taste to understand culture.

I need to love.

I need to face challenges to overcome fear.

I need to be supportive to be supported.

Anything and everything grows through impact. Therefore, the only way I can live is through being impacted and impacting. Impact is the change from within us, the change from the exterior, the change that causes people to question deeper, to be changed in incomprehensible ways. Like the Redwood trees above through which I soared, I have to let the exterior impact me, while roots ground me. Like the Redwood trees that  have been impacted by precipitation, acid, and made stronger by fire – I want the water to keep me cleansed from stereotypes, acid to scar me, and fire to make me stronger. This impact is the sole reason we are alive, the purpose of everything, and our own purpose.

We have been sculpted from the time we have been born. Formed by our home culture, community, and defined by our nationality. We have been influenced by everything we have ever seen. I know this year will transform me. The only question I have currently is how? I do not have any expectations for this upcoming year.

Although I have wants for this year, my ONLY expectation comes from within me, and that is to immerse myself in Brazilian culture and traditions, and allow myself to be changed. I want to become mature: a role model who can give better advice than I have until this point. I want to create something small in my host community that will be able to be sustained and built into something greater. As for change, I am already noticing the change within me. I am becoming more aware of my values and who I am. I brush yesterday’s high school questions away.

What classes are you taking?

What did you get on that exam?

Did you do your homework?

What is your average?

What did you get on your SAT?

What extra-curricular activities are you involved in?

What college are you going to?

Who are you dating?

Today, I am not preoccupied with what classes I took. I do not have exams. I have homework from the program, but it is homework that stimulates my body and pushes it to its limit, sometimes intellectually, sometimes emotionally. I am faced with real challenges today; it no longer is just a grade written on a piece of paper, just the top position on the list of the smartest people; it has become real life. A place where if I do not push my brain to its limit, I am unable to function comfortably. I never knew what it meant to struggle with school. I never knew what it meant to not want to attend school. Not only did I not know what it meant to be in that frame of mind but I did not understand it. How could people not want to go to school?

This all changed when I arrived in a new country. As I did not understand people who struggled in school, my friends in the United States do not understand my struggles in Brazil. Beyond the other Fellows in my cohort, there are very few people who understand what it feels like to close the door, look at myself in the mirror, and be willing to thank myself for every Portuguese word I speak.  I am forced to be patient with myself. I must finally understand that I will not understand everything, but I will understand enough: enough to get me through the day, enough for me to wake up in the morning and tell myself that I can do it. Is it enough? At night I fall asleep thinking in Portuguese and I silently tell my brain it is ok to think in Polish again.

I am where I am supposed to be. I am ready to question the world around me on a deeper level. I am ready to know Why. I want to know the core of the emotion, problem, or event. It is not simply, Why do you feel about this one way or another? but What causes you to feel the way you feel about something?

Take for example the word Home. Before I entered Brazil, the word home created a harsh battle in my mind between my grandparent’s home and my parent’s home. My grandparent’s home is the place that holds all of my childhood memories and my house is where I was living in New York. But at current, I think of my host family home in Paulo Lopes; the home that I will be living in for the next few months of my life. The home where I have people who barely know me caring for me. It is where I have my café da manhã and my almoço and my jantar. It is where I sleep at night. Where I miss my past but where I understand that I must live in the present.

As Abby Falik stated during Pre-Departure Training, “The past and the future only exist in our minds. What truly exists is the present.”

In the present, I am able to find peace and comfort camouflaging anxiety…

Paulina Jedrzejowski