2023: Taking a stab at depth

I moved from Manila to Madrid in 2020 to fulfill my need for lateral growth. I was tired of the narrow and upward title-centric trajectory in Asia that didn’t offer much else in other directions. On the ride to the airport, as I was being ejected from my company’s Slack groups, a colleague in Singapore congratulated me on how I was leaving to “work on my career.” I chuckled. My career was taking a big hit from this move. I was walking away from everything I had built back home to start from scratch in another country. But he meant well and I thanked him.

To be clear, I was nowhere near the top in my working life. But even from where I was, the only thing I could see waiting for me if I kept climbing was a loss of oxygen and a nagging lack of context.

All dimensions have a role to play in growth, but I think people tend to overvalue height. Tall buildings are usually a tourist highlight, and it is a calming experience to look down on a bustling city from above. But beyond a certain point, increases in height just don’t offer that much more benefit. Looking out from the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world was so high up that I could barely see anything. My view was air and desert.

A tower that I actually liked being inside was the Mori Tower in Tokyo. The height gave enough distance from the ground to provide release without stripping the world of meaning. It also housed the Mori Art Museum, which brought in some of the most moving contemporary art exhibitions I’ve seen. It had both an inner and an outer world. It achieved its own purposes and thrived in a space beyond the basics of comparatives and superlatives.

Restarting as an English language assistant in Spain, after having been a major daily columnist, managing editor, book author, and country community manager back home, was a price I was willing to pay for the growth dimension I wanted: spread. I wanted to live (not just travel) in Europe, in a new culture, with a new language; have a melting pot of people from all over the world, a smorgasbord of leisure and cultural activities beyond just going to the mall and drinking, an actual dating scene to be navigated. And more than having expansion on the outside, I also yearned for the changes this shift in environment would cause on the inside. Lateral growth was my context, my “why”.

But contexts expire—even the ones that ride us through transformation. As 2022 drew to a close, spread started to feel thin for me. The thing is, I’m not really scared of showing up at new places, learning new languages, or dealing with new people. Migrating broke my heart like nothing else has, but now that I think about it all of my emotional upheaval was about leaving the life I had. None of it was directed towards Spain and what waited for me. My tidal wave of tears was caused by the severance from my family, community, and home. But if we’re strictly discussing how I felt about moving to a new country, I was chill. I was sure and excited.

I have other fears that actually send shivers down my spine, but exploring and walking into unknown scenes isn’t one of them. People have repeatedly called me brave for it, but I don’t think you can be brave if you’re not scared? Fear is a prerequisite to courage. Otherwise, you’re just comfortably doing your thing—which is a great place to be, but not to be mistaken for the discomfort and boundary-pushing it actually takes to expand. And just as it is with height, lateral increments beyond a certain point don’t provide that much more meaning and satisfaction if not balanced in other directions. I’m sure I will visit more countries and meet more people and keep discovering new places in my city. But then what? I didn’t come to be a nomad or to have a fun semester abroad. I came to grow roots.

The growth dimension I want to take a stab at this time is depth. And unlike roller coasters, sky diving, or cross-continental migration, depth actually scares me. I tried scuba diving twice and it made me incredibly uncomfortable and claustrophobic. It sent me into a silent panic that was made worse by how I couldn’t open my mouth and express that I was panicking.

To be fair, these were introductory dives. From zero, we went straight down into the sea with a guide who took care of everything, from minding our oxygen to steering our direction. I didn’t go through the bare bones of first learning how to be underwater for an extended period of time. My diver friends tell me their first lessons happened in swimming pools. That might have made a difference.

I don’t know if I’ll ever try scuba diving again. It might do me good, but it isn’t high on my list. When I say depth, I was thinking more along the lines of how:

1. It is much easier for me to be out and about than it is to sit in one place and focus on practicing my writing or growing other skills. But I know that if I don’t make time to work on the stories and abilities I want to share, all my exploration feels empty—like I’m just a gust of wind passing through. Wind is great. Wind is fun. But maybe I want to be other things, too.

2. My first instinct is to always keep the world at arm’s length, because deep inside I believe (to my own detriment) that this is how I prevent a loss of freedom. The first school I worked at was perfect for this. Public schools in Spain generally don’t have a rigorous idea of how to use English language assistants. They do try to come up with a system for it, and we do have a schedule and a regular set of tasks. But I also got the sense that they were making it up as they went. Many language assistants do light conversational work for 16 hours a week, with Spanish staff who don’t really know what to do with us. I loved this for my “work”-life balance. I never complained. It was, in a way, the dream. A dream that Spanish authorities were wise enough to put a 2-3 year limit to.

My new school, a concertado (half public, half private), knows exactly what to do with their language assistants. Our roles and projects are fully-defined and are part of the system. We are in the server files, various WhatsApp groups, and Google docs that detail how the school year is going to play out. I spent my first few weeks and months being overwhelmed by all the different tasks I had to do and the sheets and documents that I had to keep referring to, after two years of being “fake-employed”. Whether you’re a workaholic or have a more chill disposition, at my current school there is full integration. You are part of a body, part of the curriculum, and are given your own responsibilities. It felt like drowning at first, like a loss of the frivolousness I had been enjoying; a loss of my arm’s length. But I also started to feel richer, more substantial. I wasn’t just a floating foreigner. I had a job to do, and I was the only piece in the system who could do it. I was part of a collective intention. It felt meaningful.

3. You know how some resorts have a welcome show with drinks for their guests? I often feel like that welcome show. I know I look good, am smart, and can give good conversation. I know I can walk into any scene that I choose and fare well, or at least not die. But once the fireworks are done and it’s time for the guests to move on inside, past my words and my image, I panic. I realize I was so good at playing my role that I forgot to build the resort.

I was sharing this with a friend as we were walking home past 3 am after the New Year’s Eve festivities. She suggested it might be a fear of vulnerability.

“What if you already have the resort and you’re just scared to let people in?”

I felt a dark, obscured space at the back of my consciousness open up. I thought I could make out the faint outline of some buildings. I thought she might be right.

I also remind myself that growing in this direction doesn’t have to be that deep—meaning it is not usually achieved by plunging straight under and forcing your way in despite the screaming inside your head. It is achieved by sitting with and breathing into discomfort, by paying attention and dropping into where you are, by being patient with the things that refuse or take time to yield. By reaching out and asking for help. By being involved. By easing into the sink. By coming up for air when you need it. By letting things be. It is achieved at a kind pace.

It is achieved by starting in a swimming pool.

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