In a way, although they are very architecturally different, Oxford reminded me a lot of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived for three years. As I stood outside the various Oxford colleges listening to the leader of our walking tour describe each building's historical significance, I emphathized with the poor students pushing their way through the camera-wielding crowds. I remember in law school, walking across Harvard's campus, and being a bit put out and bewildered by the tourist groups. What could be so interesting about THIS? It's just a school! And don't they know I'm just trying to get to class? So yeah, now I'm on the other side.
Once I got to Harvard, it took me all of two days to have a crisis of confidence. I looked around, assessed the pedigrees of all my classmates (fancy prep schools, Ivy-league undergrads, Senators' kids, etc.), and determined that I was the dumb one. Before we'd even started classes, I'd decided that I didn't measure up, that I was average at best. So I did what was expected of the average students.... get through the classes, stay quiet, get decent grades, then go work at a big law firm with all the other average (yes, I realize this was a relative term) students. I gave up on my interests in international development, figuring I had nothing substantive to contribute. And, during law school (and after), I never had anything even remotely resembling the passion about learning that I had in undergrad.
The point of all this.....
My trip's about fun, but it's also a lot about figuring out what to do with myself. I say I'm not "looking for myself," but that's kind of a lie. I am. But as much as I wish I'd have some great epiphany, in reality, I'm not going to find the answers overnight.
Anyway, my new friend had a great view on things. He says that we're all a bit like sponges. No matter how strong we are as individuals, when we are put into some sort of institutional framework, be it school, or a job, or whatever, like a sponge, we start to mold into whatever it is we're trying to fit into. We get squished and crushed and re-shaped into a new form. It's just the way it is.
But, he said, when you remove yourself from that situation, you start to gradually revert to your original form. Decompress, if you will. It may take weeks, it may take months, it may take even more than that. But eventually, it'll happen, and the original sponge shape will return.
The image kind of hit me. I started my leave three months ago. And getting back to my original form has been slow, to say the least. I spent a couple months thinking as little as possible. I just didn't have anything (other than my training) that interested me mentally. It worried me.... have I really become this boring? Is triathlon really the only thing that engages me enough to devote my mental energy? Is this it? It this what I was looking for? For someone who used to truly love learning, that seemed scary.
But no....it's just a process. I'm getting back to my original shape. It'll come. It's just taking a while.
On Monday, in Oxford, I made a big step. I think I was inspired by the university setting. I popped into the Oxford University Press bookstore, where they sell all the academic books they've published. I started browsing around, and found myself drawn to the economics section. I found a book called, "Overcoming the Developing Country Debt Crisis." That was exactly my area of interest, ten years ago, before I told myself that I wasn't smart enough for it.
I took the book down, a bit intimidated at first, but sat down, opened it slowly....and immediately found myself completely engrossed. It was tough reading -- it was a very academic text and a lot has happened in this area since I stopped paying attention. I had to read slowly. But an hour later, I was still completely into it, and I ended up buying the book. I kinda can't wait to read the rest. I'm maybe becoming a nerd again. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.
I don't know what any of this means, what effect this has on my journey or my life or anything. I just know that sitting there, reading that book in that university town, I felt different. For the first time in a while, I felt like I was truly THINKING again. It felt good. It felt like me. I'm still not back to my original shape, but I'm getting there. Slowly but surely.
Someday, I'll be a real sponge!