We Find Ourselves by Losing Ourselves

we find ourselves by losing ourselves

By Troy Headrick

I want to begin this one with a story.  Years ago, back when I first started my career as an academician, I had this strange midlife crisis.  I call it “strange” because I wasn’t anywhere near the middle of my life at the time it occurred.

It manifested itself in this way:  I sensed, at a very young age, after being quite successful in getting a really good education, that my life was at a kind of dead end.  I was tired and uninspired and wondered if this was all there was.  I felt like I needed to do something that would really turn me on and provide me with a challenge.

So I applied to join the Peace Corps, a program that’s really hard to get into.  After a year of going through the application process, I was accepted and sent off to Poland to do work that was both educational and humanitarian.

It was hard.  I was separated from loved ones and suffered from a lot of culture shock.  The work was exhausting, and I was paid less than two hundred dollars a month, a typical local salary at that time.  So, at the end of two years of service, I had earned less than five thousand bucks, an amount that is equal to what many Americans make in a single month.

Here’s the interesting part.  I had applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer for purely selfish reasons.  I wanted to fix whatever was broken inside of me.  I wanted to find myself.  My concerns were very self-centered.  However, by fully engaging myself in work that required me to sacrifice and serve others, to make myself vulnerable by putting myself out there, I discovered, to my astonishment, that I almost immediately forgot about that sense of feeling empty as soon as I arrived in Poland, rolled up my sleeves, and began working my butt off, not for money but for “pay” of another type.  I began to feel that I was part of something larger than myself, that I was helping people who were deeply appreciative.  Thus, I found myself by losing myself.

I think many of us have really great intentions.  We want to grow, to discover who we are, to find our way and our purpose.  But we can easily go about this process in the wrong way.  Sometimes, to self-actualize, we need to forget about the self, the ego.  We can feel fuller and happier by connecting ourselves to others or to some higher calling.  Undergoing hardships and isolation also help us learn more about what makes us tick and what we value.  To develop full self-knowledge, we have to learn who we are in connection to others.

Though I’m very much an introvert, I know that human beings are naturally social creatures.  Through others and our interactions with them, we get to know ourselves.  As the great John Donne once said, “No man is an island.”

I’ve shared my story about how I found myself by putting myself in a situation that forced me to become less self-absorbed.  Do you have a similar story to share?  Or do you have a reaction to the points I’ve made in this piece?  I look forward to your comments.  Thanks for reading!

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.


44 thoughts on “We Find Ourselves by Losing Ourselves

  1. Very resonant with my feelings. I’ve no story to compare with this personally, but I’ve always had a strong inclination to do something similar for similar reasons. I think there’s definitely something to be said for being able to find meaning in ourselves by finding a place in the world where we are meaningful for others. I suppose that since we are social creatures, we must also have social meaning.

    1. Absolutely! I agree with what you’ve said in your comment. My Peace Corps experience was amazing because I was very poor at the time but felt incredibly rich. Thanks for reading and responding.

    1. Yes! This life we live is often so difficult to navigate that we end up becoming inward-looking and we make the mistake of cutting ourselves off from others. (I have this bad tendency to become quiet and terribly serious when I have worries.) It is those most difficult times when we need to reach out, make friends, help those who need help, and really open ourselves up! I have to periodically remind myself of this. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Great post! Too often we get caught up in what the world can do for us, leaving us feel underserved and unfulfilled. Yet in giving to others we find a purpose that fills us up. We learn that service to others can be more rewarding than anything than any of the goals we set for ourselves. Very well written/said!

    1. Thanks, Meaghan. You seem to write from experience. Before I began my Peace Corps experience, I had no idea how it would change my life. But it did, and it taught me a lot.

    1. Thank you for finding it helpful. You say you relate to it deeply. Did you have a similar experience to the one I described in my blog? If so, it might be interesting to share it here (if you’d like). Again, thanks for reading my piece and taking the time to respond.

      1. Of course! Thank YOU for replying to my comment. And not similar in terms of circumstances (I’ve never been brave enough to join the Peace Corps!). But similar in terms of struggle – after suffering from abuse my whole child- and teenhood, then losing my focus in college because I was so happy to be free, I felt lost once I graduated college. When I was 25, I broke up with my wonderful then-boyfriend, quit my job, and moved to a different city. Due to my youthful naivete, I thought that would fix my issues so I was trying to find myself but also trying to run away from everything. It took several years but I can finally say that I know who I am and what I want. I had to lose myself to find myself 🙂

      2. Thanks for sharing, Jonah. I totally get where you’re coming from. We’ve all had failed relationships. Of course, they are terribly painful but they teach us so much once the pain subsides enough that we can look at such experiences with a bit of objectivity. Do you blog or write? If so, I’d like to read your stuff. Please leave a link here or tell me where I can find your site. Thanks, again, for reading, and I hope we can continue our online discussion the next time I publish here (which should be about a week). Take care and have a nice day.

    2. Hi, Jonah. I left a response to another one of your comments, but it posted at the bottom of the page for some reason. You’ll see it if you follow the comment thread down the page.

      1. Glad you get it but sorry as well since to get it, you have gone through it. But yes…failed relationships teach us so much. Thanks for the follow and for reading my blog! I’ll be following you as well and looking forward to sharing more words.

  3. I feel like you speak straight into my soul. Tbh, now I’m in a situation where I feel like I lost my direction in life. What I want doesn’t work as I expected before. Till I had a thought, “Is a success getting far away from me?” It’s so frustrating. That’s why I have to find my way how to get out of this situation, how to get out of this feeling. Thanks for your great post. Inspirational story indeed!

    1. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in tight spots or what felt like a dead end. It’s inevitable that we face challenges and hardships. The key is how we respond to them. Do we allow them to destroy us or do we use our critical and creative thinking abilities to find workable solutions? If you’d like someone to talk with about your situation, I’d be happy to do so and can be reached at troyheadrick@gmail.com. Thank you very much for your comment.

  4. Must have been so rewarding and eye opening. I’ve volunteered a little overseas and it was partly this selfish reasons in that I enjoy it. I volunteer with a kids charity now here in Vietnam and really a big reason is for myself because I don’t it!

    1. I think often these sorts of volunteering efforts start out in selfish ways–because we feel that we want to help ourselves feel better about life and so on. But once you beginning to see the impact you’re making in others’ lives, the emphasis shifts away from the ego and the motivation become unadulterated altruism. I want to thank for making a difference in the world and I envy your being in Vietnam. It must be an amazing place. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

  5. Exactly! We definitely find our true self when we become vulnerable, when we are bold, brave…I suffered a midlife unraveling, where I finally decided to be me…to do that, I had to fall apart, pull at the threads, and do the work of shedding the straight jacket of what other people think and expect from me…though still a work in progress, I’m finally becoming myself, and it’s all wonderful. (And yes, I have been writing all about it: http://www.lifebeginsonthebeach.blog)

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. And I will certainly check out your blog. Joseph Campbell, the author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, said that growth involves a kind of metaphorical “dying” to an old way of living. When we leave an old life behind, we start anew as “babes,” as the “reborn.” It sounds like a new you is emerging after you allowed the old you to “pass away.” I really appreciate your comment and I hope to hear more from you in the future.

  6. I’m Indian and I know plenty of foreigners who come to India to do social service, either as part of their curriculum or as a part of their spiritual journey.
    – I’ve always wondered …. are there no homeless, wanting people, where you’re from?
    – What happens to them when they go back …. do they post these pictures on social media and get praised / humble brag?
    – I was taught as a child (strict Catholic upbringing) that I should be thankful for this and that because someone else has it worse …. as an adult learning to unlearn my defective programming, I’m not too sure someone else’s unfortunate circumstance ought to make me thankful for my current condition – whatever that is. Is this what these spiritual tourists are after?
    – I don’t see many black people, brown people, any manner of Asian people going abroad to make the world a better place …. why is that? Is making the world a better place coming from a place of white guilt?
    – As a citizen of a country that was enslaved by the British for centuries, more fluent in English than my own mother tongue, believing in a blond haired blue eyed God …. I wonder who did the most damage to my authenticity as an autonomous Indian heritage – the colonists or the religious missionaries

    Just a different point of view 😊

    1. I HAVE to laugh 😂
      Just declared I was fluent in English and had a mind fart straight after 😂🤣🤣😂🤣😂

      “I wonder who did the most damage to my authenticity, to my autonomous Indian heritage” 😊

    2. Don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of times I was conflicted when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. For example, I was told, by both my American trainers and my Polish counterparts, that they wanted me to teach an “American style” when I did my academic writing classes. I felt that this felt like a not-so-subtle form of imperialism. I managed this conflict by asking my Polish college students to teach me about the rules of academic writing in Poland. I ended up trying to incorporate a lot of the Polish mores into the writing classes I taught. After all, who was I to come to Poland and to tell Poles that there was only one way to do writing–the American way!

      There are certainly poor people in America who could have used my expertise. (In fact, there’s an organization called VISTA, which stands for Volunteers in Service to Americans.) It’s like a domestic version of the Peace Corps. But I was hungry to see the world. I had seen America and had grown a little disgusted with American militarism and materialism and nativism and so on. I wanted (and NEEDED) to expand my horizons.

      Thank you very much for your “different point of view.” LIke you, I sometimes find that it’s a real insult for the “developed world” to think it needs to save the “undeveloped world.” As a matter of fact, I reject the terms “First World” and “Third World.” These terms are demeaning, simple minded, and often inaccurate.

      1. I think we all have some weird survivors’ guilt to being alive. Like, what did I do to get here? And now that I’m here …. how can I earn my place in this world?
        I see this constantly in people who suffer from depression and who attempt self harm – this feeling of either not being equipped to qualify for life or feeling guilt for having contributed nothing (I’m a doctor who spent almost a decade working in the Emergency Dept)

        This existential angst, in a healthy dose, can make people empathetic and humble

        At a toxic level, this angst has created the world’s worst despots

        I can look around me and feel qualified and proud simply for having navigated life – surviving yet another day – in a third world country, with its traffic, corruption, misogyny, politics etc.
        The struggle gives me happiness that I don’t feel guilty about enjoying

        (Having lived/worked in England and in Europe) I think deep down, first world country people, just don’t have a perfect place to pin natural human existential angst

      2. Cont ….

        Free (at least primary) education, unemployment benefits, health care, a passport that can let one travel to most countries easily etc. and when one continues to feel this existential guilt …. the Peace Corp or missionary work are healthier solution, I suppose

  7. Yes! People who want to “work on myself this year” are sometimes looking for a way to be selfish. Sometimes, being selfish means “stop being a doormat” and to take care of oneself. I’m in full agreement there. But for those who thinks it means to stop compromising and always get their way? Not so much. It sounds like you had a mind- and soul-expanding experience in Poland. It didn’t have to be that way, you know. Congratulations for making it that way and thank you for not trying to cram Americanism down their throats.

    1. Yes, my Poland experience transformed me in so many ways and I list it as one of the most important things I ever did. Actually, I no longer consider myself an American. If a person were to ask me today where I was from, I’d say, “I’m a citizen of the world.” Thanks for the wonderful comment!

    1. If traveling would help you make it through the crisis, why not leave for a time? Or do something weird, something unexpected. Make a major change in your life. Remake yourself. Think outside the box. Sometimes, to solve a problem, we really have to try a very novel approach. Thanks for sharing your story and comment.

      1. Thank you. I will check out your blog. I was born in America but lived in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt for a large chunk of my life. I normally answer the question you asked by calling myself a “Citizen of the World.” How about you?

      2. I’m good, I’m from Africa, Nigeria to be precise, I know you ear a lot about Africa, if you don’t mind I will like to be your Friend… This is my digits (+2348084883351) we can chat more on WhatsApp if you don’t ming

  8. Thanks for sharing, Jonah. I totally get where you’re coming from. We’ve all had failed relationships. Of course, they are terribly painful but they teach us so much once the pain subsides enough that we can look at such experiences with a bit of objectivity. Do you blog or write? If so, I’d like to read your stuff. Please leave a link here or tell me where I can find your site. Thanks, again, for reading, and I hope we can continue our online discussion the next time I publish here (which should be about a week). Take care and have a nice day.

  9. You’re right, true fulfilment is in the gift of giving. I did my Masters of Philosophy in English Literature with a distinction, and I was jobless for a long time. I felt useless and empty, but after a while I found a job and started teaching. For me teaching was like fountain of nourishment, a portal for helping people learn and achieve their goals, and ultimately my goal of feeling fulfilled. I can relate to your experience, I love to write and read about people and their experience of this world.

Leave a Reply