I am in the middle of studying for my Lithuanian Language final and decided to take a small break and write this entry. With four days left in Lithuania, I look back in amazement at how many things have happened over the course of the last four months. A couple days ago, I went back and read through my first couple blog posts. I almost had to snicker to myself as I read those words…I have come so far since then! Some of this might be a repeat of what I have written in other entries, but in this post, I want to detail some of the most significant lessons I have learned during my time here.
Let us take one day at a time. This is the first, and probably hardest, thing I learned. What exactly does it mean to live in the moment? How do we live in the present without becoming irresponsible by not preparing for the future? These were some of the questions I wrestled with before this semester. As I dealt with my homesickness, overwhelmed feelings, weakness, and culture shock, I learned the answer to these questions: have faith. My whole life I have desired clarity and understanding. I like to have a plan and know which step comes next. When I left home in January, I was forced to live in the present, never knowing what the next day would hold. If I even tried to think about the future, those awful homesick feelings came rushing in like a tidal wave. The future was too vast for me to handle. Also, I had to trust God for the strength and grace necessary to make it through each day as they came. I did not know anything about the place I was in or the people I was with, so I had no choice but to trust God to provide the tools He knew I needed. As the semester moved on, the homesickness went away, I learned how to live in Lithuania, I made new friends, and I figured out a routine for the semester. But, new challenges always came up. As a result, I have had four months of practice in trusting God, one day at a time – living in the moment and making the most of it. Now, it feels natural to live this way. I am at peace with not knowing everything or having the next three weeks planned out. I have faith in the fact that God knows what He is doing and He will provide what I need when I need it.
People are people everywhere you go, and this is a beautiful thing. We all come from different backgrounds, countries, cultures, families, and experiences, but when it comes down to it, we are all the same. We are all children, made in the image of God, imperfect in our human nature, looking for our place in this world. Even when we do not speak the same language, we can smile, laugh, and cry together. There are certain things that transcend cultural boundaries. My roommates hate Monday mornings just like I do. Russian guys confuse Russian girls just like American guys confuse American girls. Chocolate is international. We can all use a hug, back scratch, shoulder massage, vent session, or tissue every now and then. No one’s life is perfect. No one is perfect. Even skinny European girls struggle with body image. It has been so cool to realize that this big world is still small in some ways. Every place and every person has unique qualities, but every place and every person also has the signature of God inscribed within. There is a certain beauty in the realization that we can all relate on some level or another while still maintaining our diversity.
Learn and grow through experience. With so many new things to adjust to, I discovered that the best way to learn and grow is to simply try…and not be afraid of failure. For example, the best way to learn how to use the public transportation system was to go out with a destination in mind and see if I could get there. The best way to learn Lithuanian was to try using it. The best way to make friends was to get involved in different activities. And the best way to learn how to navigate Old Town was to go on an adventure and see if I could get lost. I learned that there are certain Lithuanian foods that I do not like, but there are a whole lot more that I do like. I learned that I love the Lithuanian language and want to keep learning it so I can, someday, become fluent.
There is always something more to be learned. Whether it is cultural, personal, spiritual, relational, or any other category, there are new things to be learned every day. And so much of these things can be learned from the people around us. However, we have to take the initiative to be interested and choose to be a learner. In life, we all have our times to be teachers, and our times to be learners. Life is made richer by this give and take of experiences. However, we have to choose to participate. It is easy to go through life in a contented, stationary way. But what is the point of that kind of living? We come out better people when we accept the challenge of being stretched by new opportunities of learning and teaching. In these moments, we are blessed by being able to connect with other people and invest in their lives, as well as by having others invest in us. This semester has provided countless opportunities for me to be a student and a teacher, inside and outside of my LCC classrooms. I have learned lessons in every category – academic to relational, spiritual to cultural, personal to daily living, and everything in between. I learned that spanking your children in illegal in Norway, Lithuanians wear wedding rings on their right hands, the Baltic countries have White Nights in the summer, спасибо is how you say “thank you” in Russian, singing can unite a country in efforts to win their freedom, I am family to orphans and widows, buckwheat is delicious, and being a criminal justice major in Easter Europe is super weird. I have also learned that God will take us wherever He needs to in order to teach us the lessons He wants us to learn. In these places, we find ourselves teaching things that we did not even know we knew, like how I know God is real, why I eat cookies in a circle, how to navigate the London Underground, why a sock monkey represents a piece of home traveling with me everywhere I go, and which form of an English word is the correct one for a specific sentence.
People are the most important. Of all the major lessons I have learned this semester, I think this is my favorite. #choosepeople became very real for me…much more than just a hash tag to use with my Instagram pictures. I am sad to admit that, before this semester, people were not at the top of my priority list. I wanted them to be, but could not let go of my perfectionistic desires enough to allow people to surpass schoolwork in the lineup of things to do on any given day. Before even arriving here, I knew that this was something I wanted to learn while here. It was one of the lessons that I felt like God wanted to teach me. Performing in classes on a less-than-perfect level was a challenge, but having extra time to spend with people was well worth the struggle.
The greatest thing about all the lessons I have learned is that they do not take up any room in my suitcase. They can go home with me, without adding extra weight, as the best souvenirs I could ever hope to have. I can continue to use them as I apply them to my life in Bryan, Ohio; Marion, Indiana; or anywhere else I go. Thanks to this semester, I know how to live one day at a time. When I land in Chicago on May 8th, I can start over as a new Katie who is not worried about the future or how everything will happen just right. I can enjoy life from a new perspective: one of peace, grace, faith, and intentionality. Now I have more appreciation for all the people I interact with at home and the beauty they each hold. I know a little more about how to love these people, despite the differences we might have. As I learned here in Lithuania, people at home are not perfect either. I am not alone in my insecurities and shortcomings, no matter where I am on this globe we call Earth. I know now that it is entirely worth it to jump in, take risks, and go on adventures. If I do not try, I will never know what I could have experienced. Failures are inevitable, but it is what I do with them that matters. If I keep pressing on, without fear of failing again, I will find things and grow in ways that I never could have without those experiences. And, now I know that I can teach and learn wherever I go. By engaging with those around me, I gain the opportunity to learn from their lives and share my own. In this way, I can be connected in the type of community God created us to have. Whether I am in the Midwest United States or on the opposite side of the globe, I can engage with others in this way. And all of this can only happen if I use that last lesson: choose people. Now I know how to reorder my to do list and use my time more effectively so that I always have time for people. Life is a million times better when it is shared with great people.
The impact that this semester has had on me is so great; it is hard to accurately put it all into words. I am not a different person in the aspect that my family will not know me when I come home, but I have become a better version of myself. I have learned to love a new corner of the world, complete with its culture, language, geological environment, architecture, and people. I will miss the unavoidable challenges that come with living in a different country and have forced me to grow and learn. Most of all, I will always feel like I am part Lithuanian. I do not think I will ever stop looking at the time and thinking, “It is 3:00pm. That means it is 10:00pm in Lithuania… I wonder how their day was today…”
Whew! Sorry that was so long! If you made it to this point, congratulations on finishing! ;) And thank you…I appreciate every person who has been following my adventure so faithfully. When my last four days here are over, I will have four days in Paris. Then, I’ll be crossing back over the pond to the great United States of America. I will post a few more times before landing at home. I will probably also continue to post on occasion about how I am handling re-entry shock and any new lessons I learn when back in the US. So, please continue reading…my adventure is still far from over… J
PS: Be looking tomorrow or Thursday for the entry that includes an update about the donation many of you made to the Baby House orphanage!