Everything ends. The sun sets on everything.
My adventures in Chile have come to an end. A five month excursion turned into an eight month one. I lost all perception of time. Days and weeks and months folded in on themselves. There was light and dark. There were days when people were at the marine station, and days when they were not. There was sun and clouds and wind and stillness. There were days of diving and months without it. There was research and then there was painting.
Eight months came and went, moving both slowly and all too quickly. I’m a bit dumbfounded at how all of that time passed without me truly realizing that it had actually happened. I almost feel like it didn’t. It feels like it was some elaborate dream I was hazily trying to salvage some details from after being abruptly awakened at three in the morning.
It was different coming home. The palta wasn’t the same. Neither was the olive oil. I nearly cried when I saw the immense amount of single-use plastics. Coming home was hard because I had changed so drastically.
I missed my Chilean family. I missed the sea. I missed the animals I had come to adore so intimately. I have not been as depressed or heartbroken as I thought I would be, but it is still early on. There is still time.
Everything ends. Time continues moving on, with or without you. I have had to accept that my life in Chile is gone, at least for now. It was time for me to come home. Beyond time. I have to face the things I was running from. I have to find that next part in my life.
Those eight months in Chile deeply impacted me, more than any other trip previously. It breathed life into me, and it took it away from me. I was enlightened and strengthened as well as strained and stretched. As with every previous trip to Chile, I learned a great deal that I would like to share with you in the hopes that it may help you.
I am generally a patient person. I will wait for a long time. I will work arduously for something that is very far down the line. I can sobrevivir and push through something for as long as it takes because I keep the end goal at the forefront of my mind.
For twelve years of my life, I have been working towards becoming a marine biologist. But, that meant a lot of waiting. Not idle waiting, but working furiously towards my goals while waiting for my time to arrive. I waited years to do my first ocean dive. Waiting for that dive was so hard. I remember becoming so frustrated in 2011 because I so desperately wanted to dive but did not have the capacity to do so. I waited for years to finally do research or something related to my field of interest. That end goal of doing the very thing I had been working so hard towards accomplishing was so vivid in my mind, and I was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
When I came to Chile this time, I thought that I would finally have that opportunity. I was convinced that all of my waiting would come to an end. I was certain that my dedication to my work in high school, university, and at the marine station would allow me to finally start doing what I so deeply wanted to do.
Just because you have a burning desire to do something does not mean that it will come to you easily or in the amount of time that you would like. I found myself at square one, watching everyone else do the thing I had been slaving away to do. Meanwhile, I was told to sit back and watch. I cannot explain to you sufficiently the agony of watching other people do the thing that you so desperately want to do while you are told to stay on the sidelines and watch it happen. That desire to work in my field was a fire eating me alive. Instead of the fire being put out, however, more gasoline was being thrown on it. The string was dangling in front of me and I couldn’t quite reach it.
For a long time, I was deeply frustrated. Had I not worked hard enough? Would I ever get to do the thing I loved? Was I not good enough? A dear friend said something to me that took a long time for me to process and accept. As we were walking away from the jagged lava rock coast of Rapa Nui, he gently said to me, “Maybe it’s not time for you to do science right now. Maybe you need to just enjoy other things.” At first, I wasn’t in a place to accept that. I flipped the sea urchin shell over in my hand as I mulled over his words. How was it not my time now after everything I had done? If it wasn’t my time now, when would my time be? Would it ever come? I fought so hard against that concept. This had to be my time, I'd sunk too much energy, funding, and time itself into this for it to “not be my time.” It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right.
But time doesn’t have any concept of fairness, justice, or how hard you worked. It simply exists. I fought so hard for so long because I was sure this had to be my time and that everything else was just wrong. I had worked too hard to lay down and die. Sometimes, though, you can’t fight it. Your time will come when it is time. It may be five weeks from now, it may be five years from now, but one day, everything I have done will be worth all of the work, and it will be worth the wait.
Somewhere along the line, my happiness had fled South for the winter and didn’t have plans on returning. This had happened long before Chile, but I didn’t realize it until I was there. I didn’t have much time to process anything during university. However, alone at the research station hunched over a dissecting scope and sea urchins, I had too much time to think. Far too much.
I had to process too many things. I had to go through a lot. I had to take a hard look at my life and figure out where I was. I had to acknowledge some hard truths.
I wasn’t completely unhappy. I had certain periods where I was absolutely elated. However, these tended to be fleeting moments and my general state of being was either neutral or sometimes simply unhappy. I had been happy in Chile before. I had been happier than I ever had before. But as a few months went on and as I had time to process, the superficial happiness faded and I realized where I was. I vowed to change myself and find the happiness I had lost.
The path to happiness is not a straight line. I’m not sure if it is even a line. It’s more like your headphones after you put them in your pocket, a confusing and entangled mess. I don’t know if I succeeded in my goal to find happiness. But, I do know for sure that happiness is a choice. You decide whether or not you will be happy. You can decide how to look at your life. You can decide what is giving you happiness and what is taking it from you. You can decide when it is time to take yourself out of a situation and put yourself into a better one. However, don’t get this confused with, “You need to stop thinking so negatively, just think positively!” Positive thinking is powerful, but it is hard. Happiness is not won by thinking a little positive thought. Telling people to “think positively” doesn’t make them any happier. Honestly, I’d say it does the opposite. Telling someone (or yourself), “I understand that it looks bleak right now, but it will get better. Try not to dwell on the negatives. I am here for you” tends to have more power than, “Why can’t you just think positively?” or worse, “Why are you so negative?”
Someone recently proposed the question, “Is there anything that you do that you enjoy?” Unfortunately, it took awhile for me to respond to that. When your hobbies also happen to be your work, sometimes they can become draining. Painting was originally a stress reliever for me. After making an entire book of drawings and paintings, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t bare to think of painting anything else for awhile. I still love painting, I just need a break. But, that meant I had few things left to enjoy to keep me occupied and regain my happiness. I thought for awhile about times when I was truly happy.
There was one in particular that stood out to me.
In Rapa Nui, a few days before I was supposed to leave, I took matters into my own hands and tore off into the sea for myself. I had to know the animals I had painted and come to know intimately. I had to see them for myself.
Snorkeling in the shallow emerald waters by the pier, I was embraced by a world I had only dreamed of for all of my life. Fish flashed in large schools around me and sea turtles in all their majesty floated gently beside me. I was in awe. I was beside myself. For two days I snorkeled for as long as I could before I was too cold to continue. I had never in all my life been that happy. With only myself and the marine life, I found myself again. I remembered why I had fought so long to be a marine biologist. I remembered what it was like to be purely, unashamedly happy.
I have never been that happy in my life. I know what that feels like now. I know what work should feel like. I know what true happiness feels like. I have to find that again. Happiness is important, and it is worth the struggle.
Like 99% of other humans on this planet, I struggle with self-esteem and self-worth. I am doing better than I was, but I have a long way to go. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in our self-worth in today’s society. You feel like you have to be the perfect worker, the perfect friend, and the perfect lover, or you won’t amount to anything. It is easy to lose yourself in worrying about what others think of you.
In my first few trips to the station, I felt my self-esteem and self-worth skyrocket. Every time I returned home to my university and showed that I was leagues above my peers in terms of experience, I felt proud of myself. I felt like I had accomplished so much.
I returned to Chile on that same high. That high crashed within a few months. And by crashed I mean it crashed as if a Boeing 767 crash landed nose-first into the ground from an altitude of 35,000 feet.
You cannot base your self worth on how others value your work and you as a person. It’s dangerous. It’s toxic. And of course, that is so much easier said than done. When you work as hard as I did to get to Chile and then worked as hard as I did to stay in Chile, and then worked to complete more tasks than a sane human would take on, it’s hard not to get your worth mixed up in your work.
It hurts deeply when all of the work you have put your heart and soul into is not acknowledged. It is terribly difficult when after everything you have done, you are still pushed aside and your work largely ignored until it serves someone else. It is terribly upsetting for your work to be exploited.
“Why me?” was a constant question. Why, after everything I had done, was I being treated this way? Why was I the person who always had to sit back and watch everyone else do the things I had fought so hard to do when I had worked so hard to get those opportunities?
I wrestled with my self worth. I wrestled with whether or not I was valuable or any good. Did any of my hard work matter? Did any of the sometimes 15+ hour work days that I was doing not mean anything at all? Was the work I was doing not good enough? Was I not good enough?
We humans have different strategies for saying whether or not we think something is valuable. Money, time, energy, and acknowledgement are all ways that we show that we find that something is valuable. But when you are not receiving those “signs” that we have been trained to associate with value, we think that we ourselves are not valuable.
Your personal value cannot come from outside of you. It cannot be determined by how much someone acknowledges your work, how much money they pay you, or the opportunities that they grant you. If you are constantly seeking your personal worth from outside sources, you will never find peace. One person may deeply value your work while the other disregards it completely. Just because someone disregards your work does not mean it is not important. Just because they disregard you does not mean you are not valuable or worthy of good things. You have to acknowledge your worth for you and for no one else.
I felt like I was only valuable enough to guard the fieldwork truck and equipment, glue blocks together, and paint fish. I felt like that for a long time. Part of it was because I was neglecting to see the other things I was doing. Part of it was because I was allowing other people’s perceptions of me (or the perceptions that I perceived them to have) to become my own perception, and that was not healthy or helpful.
I am a scientist. I am a diver. I am an artist. I am a photographer, a filmmaker, an avid ethologist and ichthyologist, a mentor, a listener, a teammate, a leader, an organizer, a kind person, a friend. I am so many things. I am valuable. I am a part of this world, and I can do something to help it. If I base who I am on what others think of me or my perceived idea of what they think of me, I can’t accomplish all of the things I am capable of. I have to see the value of what I do before anyone else can. I have to sell it to myself before I can sell it to someone else.
I am valuable. I am worthy of good things. And if someone doesn’t see that, that is on them. I will continue to move forward and show other people that they are valuable. I will continue to be valuable to this world. I will draw my own personal boundaries of what I will and will not do because my personal value is not in how many things I can do at once. I will continue to do things I feel are necessary and do what I believe in, regardless of what value others place on my work.
The power of outside things
Sometimes you need something outside of yourself to help get you out of your head. Sometimes you need to get lost in someone else’s story for just a little while.
At the station, I was technologically isolated. Netflix and Spotify were blocked, so I basically had nothing. Thankfully there was YouTube, but movies weren’t a thing. I wouldn’t consider myself a big movie person. When I was home in the States I watched movies infrequently, not because I didn’t like them but because I didn’t have time. However, after months and months of nothing but work and isolation, I missed movies. I missed books. I missed the little distraction to keep your mind off things.
And then we got on a plane to Rapa Nui and I had five hours between me and the island. And the plane had movies. A friend recommended Interstellar and so for three-ish hours I lost myself in someone else’s story. I didn’t think about my stress or worry, and it was wonderful.
And then, someone gave me Blue Planet II. For an entire week, I lost myself in it. I had waited a long time to see it, and as I watched it I could barely pull myself away from it. I was reminded of why I do what I do. I was reinvigorated. It captivated me so deeply and gave me something to look forward to after the sun had departed and everyone had gone home to do their own things.
I discovered the power of audiobooks and podcasts a little later. A few weeks before my departure, I was alone in the office for a full week. Normally I would be excited about a little space, but the realization that my time was short and the little pang of sadness that I couldn’t afford to go on vacation, too, made me a bit lonely. I needed some company. So, I decided to try a few audiobooks. These proved to be one of the best ideas I had. They pulled me out of my thoughts and into someone else’s. They gave me something to look forward to and someone to keep me company when I was feeling immensely lonely. I want to say a special thank you to John and Hank Green. Their books and podcasts helped me to think critically again, reminded me that I was smart, and reminded me that I was not alone. They helped me laugh, they helped me to see other perspectives, and they helped me to cope.
When nightly thought spirals keep you awake or you feel like your thoughts are inescapable, the worst thing you can do is try to ward them off by simply laying there thinking, “STOP THINKING ABOUT THESE THINGS!” Little distractions can help get you out of your head for a bit and help you distance yourself from your thoughts. You certainly shouldn’t lean too heavily on these distractions, but they can be useful tools.
It has never been easy for me to form close relationships. I never really learned how to do it, and the idea of it frightened me. Something about Chile changed all of that, though.
Before I knew what was happening, I felt myself being pulled into other people’s gravitational field. Something was drawing me into them, something I could not ignore. I found myself feeling more comfortable being open. I found myself wanting to be around them more. I found myself wanting more.
But I was also terrified. What if they did not like the “real me”? What if they got sick of me? What if they burned me? I was also keenly aware of the fact that I would not be here forever, and that the closer I became, the harder it would be when the time eventually came for me to leave.
The human experience is far more similar than we believe it to be. Most humans are nervous that people will no longer like us when they get close enough to see us for everything we truly are: our strengths and our weaknesses. But, the experience of having that intimate, deep connection with someone is worth risking that. It is worth risking your vulnerabilities. Having beautiful, intimate moments with people is worth everything. Laughing with them is worth everything. Having inside jokes and nicknames is such a gratifying experience.
I have never felt friendship so deeply. I have never felt so connected. I have never loved so deeply. Chile changed everything for me. Friendships are good. They give your life so much meaning. I know that for some people, I felt far closer to them than they did to me. They meant more to me than I did to them. I know that. But it’s okay. That was my first time having real, true friendships. I am forever grateful for that, and they will always be special to me for that.
Human connections cannot be forced. They happen when it is time. The people who are meant to be in your life will come into it on their own time, and they will not need to be begged to stay in it. They will stay with you through all of the joy and all of the sorrow, and they will remain even when you are physically separated. Those friendships may wane a little, but just like the moon, they will always be there.
Chile helped me to grow immensely. Chile made me a better person. I will never forget my time in Chile. I will never forget the people who helped me to become the person I am now. I will never forget the place that taught me how to be a better scientist, photographer, and human being. Chile, te amo mucho.
Gracias por todo.