Entering college, I had grand visions of all the things I would become. More artistic, more educated, more theological. Topping the list: more traveled. College wasn’t just a ticket to stability and a future profession; college was a ticket to adventure and the big world outside of the Midwestern plains.
And then I did it. I lived eight months abroad: three in southern Africa, five in Eastern Europe. It wasn’t all the 24/7 adventure I had planned. I had to do laundry, buy groceries, and use my legs as my main source of transportation. It was hard and exhausting and my heart was torn and worn in ways I couldn’t express, let alone translate.
All of my preconceptions about being a bona fide world citizen flew out the window the first time I cried over burnt macaroni, knowing it would take me several attempts in a broken, foreign language and a lot of heart-strength to buy more.
Terribly idealistic and clichéd, I embarked on my jaunts abroad with a heart ready to love everything I met in the big, wide world. And I discovered I couldn’t. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t love people all over the world, all at the same time. You can’t be a world citizen because love is proximate. I learned to accept that love is relational, intentional and repeated. And love requires an acceptance of place.
Love those in front of you
During one such experience overseas, I got an email from a friend who told me to “stop trying to love everyone and love those in front of you.” Direct, pointed, even a little harsh, but point taken. I can’t be a world citizen because I can’t be everything to everyone. And neither can you. We’re meant to be individuals with identities, connected to specifics. Specific people, specific places. And identity is rooted to the present, the proximate, the place you find yourself in.
The myth of the world citizen is magical and fantastical but like all fantasies, it’s only illusion. In the same way, the “Think Global, Act Local” catchphrase phenomenon is too easy. We have to be people connected to place if we are to be people connected to other people. In the end, maybe its like my mom says, “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at the same time.”