14 January 2011

Things I'm Learning - Assumptions

When I was eight, my family went on a grand adventure. We sold or packed up everything we owned, said goodbye to friends and family, traveled across most of Canada by train, then flew away. Stops in Frankfurt, a week and a half in Israel, an unexpected three days in Greece, then on to Nairobi where we almost missed our flight to Antananrivo. A few hours there in an airport under construction*, and then a quick Air France flight to our destination, the place that would be our home for the next two and a half years: Reunion.

Map scanged from www.mapsofworld.com

We went there because my parents felt it was their duty to be of service to their religion. I also think it was a balm for a marriage in trouble - they were always at their best when it was the two of them against the world. I suspect also that they just had itchy feet. It was not the first time they'd done that kind of thing - but it was the first time with children. And, I'm sad to say, the last.

Reunion was both literally and figuratively the polar opposite of my hometown: Watson Lake, Yukon. The two are exactly twelve time zones apart. Where Watson Lake was sparsely populated and surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles in every direction, Reunion was a small space, crammed with crowds of people everywhere. Watson Lake was in Canada's cold north, Reunion was tropical. Spindly gray-green pine trees traded for lush vegetation and palm tree lined beaches. Where Watson Lake was culturally homogeneous (if you ignored the First Nations population, which, let's face it, was pretty common nation-wide in the 1970s), Reunion was a mix of African, Indian, Chinese, and French influences. Where English was the only language spoken in Watson Lake, Reunion was politically and linguistically French. In the entire time we were there, outside of my parents' religious community, I recall meeting one other person who spoke English - a tourist who approached us when he overheard us speaking.

Left: downtown (I'm not kidding) Watson Lake, 2004   Right: typical St Pierre street, Reunion, 1979

Being in such a foreign environment challenged everything we thought we knew. I was a kid, I rolled with it. I showed up my first day of school with my Sesame Street French and my trusty Larousse pocket English-French/French-English dictionary, and I figured it out, as kids do.

My sister (left) and I (right), dressed up for our first day of school, knowing nothing, 1979. This was the last time we would wear socks for 2 1/2 years.

 But I was always aware of how different we were, how much we stood out. How different every minute of our day had become. Reunion had no tv to speak of then: a three hour broadcast every evening, which only mattered if you had a tv, which we didn't. No one we knew had one. At a time when peers in Canada were getting telephones in their bedrooms, we knew one person in our whole village who had a phone - and it didn't always work. Coming from a place where we thought nothing of leaving the tap running while we brushed our teeth, in Reunion we had running water only three days a week, and woe to the family that forgot to fill their cistern for the days without. Compared to the neighbours up the hill from us who lived in a corrugated tin shack without electricity or running water of any kind, we were considered wealthy beyond imagining because we had a refrigerator.

Everything was different; everything. Yet old habits die hard. In Canada, official language laws decreed that labels on food packaging be in both English and French. In the store, if the French side was carelessly left facing out by the shopkeeper, all you had to do was flip it over to see the label in English. In Reunionese shops, time after time, upon seeing the French label, we would turn the can around, only to encounter more French on the other side. For months and months (years, maybe) we did this - my mom, my dad, and I. (My sister was four and not yet reading when we arrived there.) Despite knowing intellectually that the labels were only in French, still we did this, and were jolted every time there was no English on the other side.

There is a powerful life lesson there. At the age of eight, my behaviour was already that ingrained, despite overwhelming evidence that it made no sense. Can it be any different at forty?

Maybe that's why I find it so difficult to make changes in my life - even positive ones. Because there are decades of ingrained behaviour - subconscious assumptions that inform every choice I make, every action I take. (Every smile I fake, every cake I bake...) Things I'm not even aware of trip me up.

And I think that's what our inner you-can't-do-that-and-who-do-you-think-you-are-to-even-try voices are. (We all have those, right? I'm not alone there?) Unexamined assumptions that hold us back. We've been listening to those voices droning in our ears for years, and they're a lot louder than the realities we encounter. Like the habit of flipping the package to find the familiar - except without the jolt of finding the unexpected on the opposite side. Since we're rarely jolted that way, brought face-to-face with these assumptions, we don't see them. And how can you change what you don't see?

I learned from comments on my post over at strocel.com yesterday that I'm not the only one who struggles with judging myself too harshly. Why is it so easy to show compassion for friends and strangers, and so hard to be that kind to ourselves?

Because we don't have the same kinds of assumptions about other people, that's why. We take their words and their behaviours for what they are - not what they appear to be through that lens of judgment we turn on ourselves.

So my question is, how can we jolt ourselves out of our everyday way of thinking, to see the reality of who we are, and how we appear to others? How can we change the assumptions we have about ourselves - hell, even figure out what those assumptions are, so we can work at changing them? So we move forward? So that we can, as Thoreau said, go confidently in the direction of our dreams?

*Aren't all airports, everywhere, at all times, under construction, or only when I'm traveling through them?


  1. That sounds like quite the experience. I can't imagine what it must have been like.

    And no, you are not the only one with those voices, or those thoughts. I ask myself about 12 times a minute WHO I THINK I AM creating an online course.

    I'm so glad you shared your post with me. It was great, and you are great, and I think it made a lot of people think.

    As for how we jolt ourselves out of our everyday way of thinking, I suspect that just becoming aware of it is an excellent start. Seeing the patterns helps us to learn how to unravel them.

  2. "We all have those, right? I'm not alone there? Unexamined assumptions that hold us back."

    We all have those. Right. You are not alone. And consider Socrates on the subject of the unexamined life. A glimmer of the answer seems to lie in having a perpetual curiosity. About EVERYTHING. And inquiring into EVERYTHING - a task for which the Internet and the internal mirror are aids if not comforts...

  3. Yesterday at the market I confidently strolled up to the manager and told him I want a table. I am going back to the market only this time I am out of my comfort zone - I used to sell European baked goods with my hubby but now it's photography. Seconds after I secured my table, I begin in two weeks time that nagging self-doubt came back. There was no one there (save my children) who could smile and tell me I made the right decision. All my friends at the market know me as a baker (and they are none too happy I'm not bringing them treats) so they nod and smile but they do not know.

    Now, every photograph I look at and try to edit I judge as unfit. Etsy is constantly open as I pick out my photos and try not to discard them.

    Why is it that we (and I mean me) need to judge ourselves? I want my children to be confident. I encourage them at every turn and yet there is a nagging voice in my head saying my actions are stupid, useless. If something goes wrong it is automatically my fault. It is a habit to think this way.

    It is terrifying to change and I think that frightening aspect needs to be part of it, most of the struggle is just overcoming it.