I used to think of life as a series of lessons, like slippery but sturdy little stepping stones gradually leading you to a better version of yourself. Each stepping stone was an experience – something challenging or joyful or overwhelming or exhilarating. If you were able to find your balance on the stone, to reflect on what the experience was teaching you, then you could keep that wisdom in your pocket for the journey ahead. So with each and every stepping stone you would gradually become stronger, more balanced, more confident in your own steps and your ability to navigate the stones ahead.
Within this perspective, it made sense that throwing myself headfirst into this crazy Jamaican adventure would ultimately lead to a new, improved me emerging from all the huge lessons I would learn. But of course reality is not quite that simple. In fact, I believe I have adapted to this new life not through learning but by embracing a constant state of unlearning. I have had to let go of beliefs, expectations and patterns of behaviour that have served me well for my whole life – until now. Many of the things I am unlearning are so closely tied to my sense of self that letting them go has been at times both painful and liberating. I can no longer say with any certainty that placing yourself in a hugely challenging situation and simply having to adapt will necessarily result in positive changes. There will be changes, for sure, but like most things in life, whether you see them as positive or negative is entirely down to your perspective.
Take, for example, one of the most unexpected and difficult elements of my experience here: the unlearning of softness. Although I came here for the express purpose of giving my time, energy and skills to help others, within this context I have slowly unlearned my natural inclination to be open, friendly and generous. It is somewhat heartbreaking to realise that I now say “no” far more than I say “yes”. With an onslaught of sleazy men, pushy teenagers and (beautiful but) challenging children waiting outside my door each day, I quickly realised that if I continued to give whenever it was demanded, I would have nothing left. To put it simply, if I don’t look after myself here, no one will.
After spending a whole year dedicated to living the power of kindness, unlearning the habit of giving freely and openly does not seem to be a particularly positive development. It certainly does not feel like progress towards a better version of myself. However, after reflecting awhile on this particular stepping stone I begin to see something else hidden there. Along with letting go of softness, my time here has allowed me to see that I am much tougher and much less breakable than I thought. I am now rarely emotional, anxious, or stressed, even though logically I have more reason to be all those things than ever before. And perhaps this isn’t an entirely new me, just a side that had never had the chance – or need – to reveal itself.
Unlearning softness has also opened up the space to be more considerate of my own wants and needs. One of the biggest lessons from the Year of Kindness was that being kind to yourself is always the most difficult kindness of all. While I could eagerly accept, encourage, support and nurture others, I found it hard to do the same for myself. But in my new life, faced with the very real possibility of having nothing left to give, I have begun to draw much firmer boundaries around my own needs and truly consider what I must do to maintain my own wellbeing. I make “Cat time” a priority every single day – yoga at sunrise, writing, listening to happy music, preparing nourishing food – and for once in my life I do not feel guilty for making sure I give to myself before giving to others.
While my current circumstances may be peeling away some of my softness, the flip side is they are shining a light on inner-strength I never even knew I had and pushing me to care for myself in a way that was never quite possible before. I can only hope that once I move on to the next stepping stone I will be able to find the balance between inner-strength, kindness to self and softness towards others. For now, I accept this new version of myself, and continue to unlearn.