If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. – Mother Teresa
The other teachers beckon me over to their table, grinning widely.
It’s like the first day of school all over again.
I’m so relieved I won’t have to eat alone – and I gratefully sit down with my tray of food.
It’s my second week living in Spain, in a city where English isn’t widely spoken (hence the need for me to be here and teach it)… and I don’t speak a word of Spanish.
Maybe, “hola“, but that’s about it.
I figured I’d learn once I got here.
But, boy, am I regretting that decision right now.
Surrounded by people, feeling alone
I sit at the table and listen to the ramblings of conversation.
I desperate want to join in, but I have zero idea what they’re talking about.
The teachers who speak basic English try to get me involved. They speak in slow Spanish, using hand gestures to try to convey meaning. I appreciate their efforts, but it’s useless.
I feel lost, and I want to cry.
This situation repeats itself on a loop for the next few weeks.
Although everyone is friendly, I just feel like I don’t belong. I seriously consider quitting, and heading back home to the UK.
Everything’s a lesson (in compassion)
Then I realise; there’s a lesson in everything.
The world is a mirror, and I totally believe everything happens for a reason. This experience has gotta be teaching me something important about myself.
I contemplate how:
Everyone has been towards me. I then consider whether these I also practice these ideals.
And I realise… I have serious work to do. I’m pretty judgmental, I’m critical, and I often lack compassion (for myself and others).
So I stick it out.
I throw myself in to language learning. And within a few months, I’ve immersed myself in the Spanish culture, and I’m conversationally fluent.
And along my language-learning journey, I witness incredible patience, kindness, and sincere encouragement from the Spanish people.
Don’t get me wrong – there are also many times when people are less than pleasant.
Like when the supermarket cashier asks me if I want a bag, then rolls her eyes when I look blankly at her and say, “um, hablas inglés?” in my gringo accent.
But overall, this experience trained me in what it means to be compassionate.
Here are my three main takeaways.
1. We all want to belong
It’s a core human desire to want to belong. We all want to fit in, and to be liked, at least to some extent.
I remember desperately wanting to be able to have a conversation with someone (anyone, really), and have the opportunity to belong.
So when a Swiss girl – who spoke awesome English – arrived at the school, I was ecstatic.
We formed a little tribe, which made me feel so much more confident about making new connections.
I now try to remember this any time I interact with someone who’s new to a group I’m part of, especially if they seem shy, nervous, or quiet.
I make it my intention to get to know them, open up a conversation, and make them feel super welcome.
Takeaway: We all like to feel part of a community; it helps us to feel safer, and less alone, especially in a country where the culture might be totally different to our own.
2. We all want to be understood
We all want to feel heard, seen, and understood by the people around us.
It’s incredibly frustrating to express yourself, and be totally misunderstood.
When I was first learning Spanish, for example, I told my boss, “estoy embarazada“, thinking it meant “I’m embarrassed”.
I’d actually told him I was pregnant – which led to a seriously confusing conversation (until I checked Google translate).
To my enormous relief, he just laughed and reassured me that he makes a fool of himself in English, like, 24/7.
And this kinda miscommunication isn’t unique to lost-in-translation-type situations.
We misunderstand each other all the time.
Now, I make it my mission to check understanding – especially if there’s even the slightest chance I’ve misunderstood someone, or another person has misinterpreted what I’ve said.
I simply ask, “could you tell me what you heard me say?”, or “can I just check I heard you right?”.
It saves a lot of headaches. Trust me.
Takeaway: The more effort we put into communicating with compassion and truly understanding another’s perspective, the more harmonious our relationships will be.
3. We all want to be happy
Every human I’ve ever met has one thing in common; they just want to be happy.
I mean, our primary motivation for pretty much everything we do is to feel good.
Honestly, I thought living in a sunny country would make me happy and solve all my problems.
Spoiler: it didn’t.
What did bring happiness was learning to deal with the challenges that came my way, accepting life the way it is, and training myself to see the best in every situation.
And funnily enough, I could have learned how to do that back home.
Now I try to keep in mind that no matter what a person is doing, their likely motivation is to make themselves happy.
I might not agree with the strategies they’re using to get there, but remembering this helps me to relate to their humanity.
Takeaway: Despite our different cultures, customs, and values, we all want to live a happy, joyful, peaceful existence; it’s only the strategies we use to get there that’ll look different for all of us.