Giving meaning to the words “I lived”

I have always had an unquenchable desire to travel, one that propels me to seek any and every opportunity to see new corners of the world. It was this ardent desire to travel and experience new places that pushed me to take the first feasible opportunity I saw to travel abroad. When I heard of the opportunity to teach English in a foreign country as part of a volunteer program, I seized the opportunity without hesitating. I applied and was accepted to the program and soon found myself in Poland as a volunteer teacher for the summer of 2015.

Wrocław, Poland

I was abroad for five and half weeks, and, despite my enthusiasm to teach and travel, at times I felt like they were five and half weeks too many. By the fifth week of my stay, I was faced with deciding how to spend my last few days in Poland. I was nearing the completion of my teaching commitment, and once I had attended the final program meeting in Kraków, I was going to be free to do just about anything that my resources and time allowed for a few days. However, by that time, I was quite drained. I had completed four weeks of teaching students who disappointed me terribly. Before leaving for Poland, I had planned for my classes with great enthusiasm and diligence. I dedicated two full weeks to planning and creating a four-week curriculum, including handmade didactic materials. I had also gathered prizes and bought boxes of Mexican candy so that I could incorporate them in my lessons and give them to my students. I dreamt about how great it would be to spend time with them and about how much I wanted to teach them. However, when I got to Poland and taught my first class, I faced a very different reality. The majority of my students had a negative attitude and no motivation to learn other than the pressure of their parents.

It didn’t look promising from the start, and despite my disappointment I channeled all my effort into fostering a positive and productive environment for my students, at least for those who were interested in learning. After trying to do this every day and seeing that my best efforts weren’t changing much, I became exhausted. To make matters worse, I missed my friends and family a great deal, and since my work as a teacher wasn’t something positive I could focus on, I found it difficult not to fixate on the positive things that awaited me at home. Thanks to these challenges, I was resigned and exhausted. I didn’t feel like I had enough energy and enthusiasm to do anything other than return to my host family’s house in the country after my last meeting with fellow volunteers in Kraków.

The last few days after that meeting were actually the only days of my entire stay abroad that I had completely free. I recognized the great opportunity I had at having several commitment-free days at my disposal, yet I didn’t think I had the motivation to plan something new and exciting for that time. I had considered traveling to other parts of the country, but I was waiting on confirmation from my friend and fellow volunteer teacher, Sebastian, to see if he wanted to travel to the same Polish cities as I did. It was in this period of waiting that my exhaustion really caught up with me. I had put my potential travel ideas on hold and settled on the plan to take the easy, comfortable option of returning to my host family’s house where I had been for the previous four weeks. I didn’t want to seize the day; I wanted to retreat to what was most comfortable and let the days pass. Even then, there was still a conflict in the back of my mind because I wanted to travel and see more of Poland, but on the other hand, I felt exhausted and very much attracted to the familiar option of staying home.

Outside my home in Wesołów, Poland with my host sisters and cousins

The idea of going anywhere other than the place that had been my home for four weeks gave me no comfort. I didn’t want to leave the home where my host mom was, where she always had books in English to lend me and delicious food to satisfy my every craving. I didn’t want to leave her company, especially since she had been a helpful and considerate ally during my challenges as a teacher. I didn’t want to abandon the company of my host sisters, who had been my best students and faithful allies who had showered me with spontaneous hugs and kisses. I didn’t want to leave the house where I had my own room where I could disconnect when I sought solitude or could talk on the phone with loved ones when I sought communication. I wanted to stay in what was familiar, in my house where I was surrounded by constancy and comfort, but I still felt that perhaps my time would be better spent by leaving that comfort zone and seeing more of Poland.

Częstochowa, Poland

When I told my boyfriend about my conflict over these options over the phone, he encouraged me (read: pushed me) to summon my energy and take the option to travel if the opportunity to travel with Sebastian presented itself. He reminded me that I should maximize all the time I had abroad and most especially since I didn’t know when I’d have the opportunity to return. After venting to him about how tired I really was, I resolved to take the opportunity to travel if it arose. Soon after this, I heard back from Sebastian: the plan to travel to the same cities was a go. If I had needed a sign, there it was.

After my last meeting in Kraków with fellow volunteers from the program, I packed my bags, got on a train, and began the last adventure of my trip.

Sebastian and I first went to Częstochowa, which is said to be the third largest Catholic pilgrim site in the world. There we toured the Jasna Góra monastery and attended mass in the chapel where the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, otherwise known as the Black Madonna, is housed. According to tradition, her image was painted by Luke the Evangelist on a table built by Jesus himself. As such, pilgrims who approach to see the image up close need to walk on their knees as a sign of respect. For me the most memorable part of visiting the monastery was just that: walking on uncovered knees down the little corridor on the side of the altar to better see the image. When my turn came, I wobbled as I walked, and my knees protested fiercely, but I made my way up and briefly contemplated the gorgeous, mysterious image from a few feet away. By the time I got to the end of the corridor, my knees were red and aching, but the view of the image had made the discomfort worth it. Shortly after seeing the Virgin’s image, mass started, and Sebastian and I managed to situate ourselves near the front of the chapel where there was a small pocket of space between the throngs of people. We celebrated mass, and once it was over, Sebastian and I left to the station to catch the train that would take us to our next stop.

The miraculous icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa

After spending a few hours in the train catching idyllic views of the Polish countryside out of the window, Sebastian and I arrived in Wrocław. We spent that evening and the entire next day touring this beautiful city, which boasts of a pristine and colorful town square, a cathedral on a landlocked island, the historic University of Wrocław (Uniwersytet Wrocławski), and an authentic Japanese garden, among other things. On our first full day there, we started with the University of Wrocław where we toured the campus and visited its adjoining church, the University Church of the Blessed Name of Jesus (Parafia Najświętszego Imienia Jezus), which was completely deserted and dark when we arrived. My favorite moment of the day was when I dared to climb up to the podium adjoined to the left-side wall of the church, crouching low so that I wouldn’t be seen over the rails and moving cautiously to avoid trodding on creaky steps. When I reached the top, I took in the view of the church from the higher altitude and tried to stifle a mischievous grin. Unlocking the gate that led up to the podium and climbing up to it had been a risk, but the view and the experience had been worth it. When I got down, Sebastian and I swapped positions, and I kept watch while he climbed up. Once we had seen all there was to see in the church, we left and continued wandering around Wrocław and taking in all that it had to offer.

In the pulpit of the University of Wrocław church

The next day, it was time for me to head back to Kraków and get ready to catch my flight home to the states. The last few days had been a whirlwind of adventure, and I felt content and satisfied as I saw the last of Poland during my cab ride to the airport the morning of my flight. I felt satisfied because I had pushed past the desire to choose the familiar and easy and had opted instead for the choice that pushed me to stretch outside the comfort that I had sought in my exhaustion. Thanks in great part to my boyfriend’s prodding, I had chosen to make the most of my time in Poland by doing what I most wanted to do in the first place: traveling. I had chosen not to let the disappointment from the previous few weeks and exhaustion that was soon to be relieved keep me from making the most of my last few days abroad. I had chosen to carpe diem, to seize the day, and as a result, I gained the opportunity to visit new places and have unique experiences that became treasured memories.

In the tower of the Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa

Months after my adventure in Poland, I again faced an opportunity to choose to carpe diem, to choose a promising, but demanding option, over a comfortable one. This time it was the opportunity to attend Pope Francis’ mass in Ciudad Juárez. Though it would have been quite comfortable to watch it at home on TV, I didn’t allow myself to shy away from the chance to attend, especially as it was happening just a few miles away and my university had closed for the day. I pushed myself to make all the necessary arrangements and attended the mass, and as a result, I had yet another unique adventure. Together with my boyfriend, I waited approximately five and half hours to be able to see the Pope. We spent half of the wait standing in line to get into El Punto, the site of the mass, and we spent the other half sitting on the dirt of the concourse together with about 250,000 other people. There we observed how the heat, discomfort, and wait brought to light the most unpleasant parts of many individuals. The wait inside the mass site was uncomfortable; it was about eighty degrees, and the sun was at our faces all day.

Despite this discomfort, I felt at peace. I was sitting at my boyfriend’s side, resting my head on his shoulder while we waited for the Pope’s arrival. After a while, all the people around us also reflected this tranquility; they had been lulled by the heat and boredom of the wait. Things stayed in this state of calm, all of a sudden, the atmosphere changed. The people at the edges of the site began to shout and made it known that the Pope was approaching the site, riding in his popemobile. The thousands of people that had been sitting in the dirt or hanging on the rails, tired from the heat, were infused with energy. The crowd jumped to its feet, got as close as possible to the rails, and began to shout, “Se ve, se siente, el Papa está presente.” My boyfriend hoisted me onto his shoulders so that I could see better, and shortly after, we saw the Pope pass by just a few yards away from us. Once he was gone from our line of sight, my boyfriend lowered me off his shoulders, and as soon as my feet touched the ground I hugged him, filled with joy.

Pope Francis passing through El Punto

After that, we settled ourselves into our spots so that we could witness and participate in the mass. We listened attentively to the homily, absorbing the sound of his voice and the ideas he expressed. I couldn’t help but look around and see the thousands of people who had all come to see the same man, hear his words, and with any luck, walk away with a reminder about the power of faith. To me it was apparent: I saw that the power of the church and of the Catholic faith is precisely the thousands of people who live it day to day and stay true to it despite the changing times we live in. The opportunity to witness this and see the Pope was worth all the discomfort and all the waiting. I gained a great deal from this experience. Just as I had done in Poland, I detached myself from the option that promised comfort in the short term and chose the option that required that I grow in creativity, motivation, and eagerness to experience something different.

A fraction of the multitude of people that came to see the Pope

I think that is the beauty of the carpe diem philosophy: it calls us to extend ourselves and grow. It invites us to make the most of every healthy, enriching opportunity that presents itself to us. In my case, it was the call to enjoy to the fullest the trip abroad that I had dreamed of for years and worked hard for, as well as the call to attend the Pope’s mass, which was a rare opportunity. The call to seize the day can take a million other forms, though, and it need not require much time or money. It can be things as simple as trying out a new recipe for dinner; taking a new route home; reaching out to someone who is otherwise ignored or alone; walking one street further to see what’s there. The opportunities will always be there; it is simply a matter of deciding to take them.

And for every time we take one of those opportunities to do more, to seek more, to encounter others more, we are better. We are more able to seek rewards and connections that could be meaningful in the long run instead of simply momentary comfort. We are more able to meet others with openness and goodwill. We are more able to say “no” to the persistent voice in our heads that tries to persuade us that what we most desire and what will most enrich our lives can be found in comfort and ease.

Atop the mathematics tower at the University of Wrocław

Ultimately, when your day comes you’ll still have the ability to say you’ve lived even you didn’t do any of these things. However, if we want to imply more than simple, necessary biological existence, we need to push ourselves to do more. In doing so, we will become more willing to grow, and for every time we seize the day, we give greater meaning to the words, “I lived.”

Hope when the moment comes, you’ll say

I, I did it all
I, I did it all
I owned every second that this world could give
I saw so many places, the things that I did
With every broken bone, I swear I lived

-One Republic, I Lived

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