Risks in the Shallows: How Highly Mobile TCKs Can Learn to Live Deeply

By Rachel E. Hicks

It was a gorgeous, slightly chilly spring evening. 

My husband Jim and I were taking a walk  around the neighborhood with friends, a couple  and their baby, whom we’d known for several  years. I was quietly enjoying our conversation,  enjoying their presence. Time spent with them  was always heart-warming—they’re the kind of  friends with whom you can laugh and goof off,  but also share deeper stuff. 

And suddenly, they did. “We’re thinking about  moving to Georgia,” one of them said.  

Immediately I could hear a huge metal gate inside  me crashing shut.  My chest tightened and I took a slow, deep  breath. I was thankful that Jim intuited what was  happening inside me, and he bought me some  time by asking follow-up questions. I managed  some wows and mm-hmms and oh, okays and  soon we were parting ways to head to our  respective homes, where I slumped onto the  couch in a predictable funk.

What happened? 

If you’re a TCK with a highly mobile past, you  probably know exactly what happened. It’s what  happens to most of us when someone we’ve  been friends with or getting close to says they’re  moving away: that friendship gate slams closed  to protect our hearts from yet another painful  parting. While we go through the motions of  perhaps another long goodbye, we’ve already  pulled away inside. 

I didn’t want to lose this in-person friendship. I  was almost mad at myself at first for letting these  dear friends into my life and heart, for letting  down my defenses. My impulse was to shut up  my heart.  

But what kind of a life does that make? Annie  Dillard once said, “How we spend our days is, of  course, how we spend our lives.” If I spend my  days closing up my heart, I will spend my life with  a closed heart. Of course.

A life of high mobility can make us shallow— relationally and in terms of knowledge and  understanding. It’s an “occupational hazard.” If  we’re often moving from city to city or country  to country, we may become familiar with many  places, cultures, and people. We think we know  them, but our knowing doesn’t go very deep. Part  of this is because of the lack of time spent, and  part of it is because our hearts try to protect us. 

We make and then lose relationships, over and over again. We lose touch with people. Even if we do stay in contact over distance, the relationships are often more shallow and less satisfying than they were in person. When we reminisce with old friends, the memories sometimes feel paper thin.

Or we live somewhere new for a while. We learn enough of the language to get around using
public transportation or to order food. We take pictures of ourselves at all the key landmarks and attractions. And we’re aware the whole time—like an undercurrent—how shallow our knowledge of that place and people really is.

We may find that we have become
shallow people.

Energy—emotional and mental—is required of  us for really seeing others (places or people);  and only when we truly see can that seeing  lead to knowing and loving. How much energy  do we have to spend on yet another new place  or person? How do we not exhaust our energy  “reserves,” or at least find a way to fill them up  again when they are depleted?

And the time- and energy-suck of social media exacerbates this, even if it also—paradoxically—helps us to hang onto friendships scattered across the globe.

Staying in the shallows is risky. It feels easier, and maybe it is in some ways. But the big risk is we may arrive at our later years realizing that what we missed out on was, in fact, life. Years into adulthood, we may find that we have become shallow people. We’ve either forgotten or haven’t ever learned how to attend to people or things around us. We’re just flitting on the surface of everything.

That’s a jolting realization.

But becoming aware of the risk of shallowness doesn’t mean we know what to do about it.

What helps 

I’m going to offer a few things that may help us.  They are mostly all practices. So, you’re probably  not going to do them unless you decide the  shallows are riskier than the deeps; unless you  find some courage inside you to launch out  beyond where it feels safe, beyond where your  feet can touch. 

And, by the way, when I say practices, I refer to  the word in the sense it’s often used in religious  communities or ways of life: habits and orders of  daily life that we choose in order to slowly shape ourselves into a different kind of person.  

You already do this. You already have orders or routines in your daily life, in your daily activities,  that are shaping you. You just may have never  examined what those practices are and how they are shaping you—what kind of person they  are shaping you into. It’s good to examine those  things; it’s good to ask, “Who or what is forming  me?” and “Am I OK with that, or does something  need to change?” 

So, here we go:

  1. Attentiveness
    I mentioned attending a moment ago. Learning attentiveness is a practice. As I said before, before we can know or love, we have to learn to see. Pay attention. Try to nurture in yourself curiosity in others—grow in listening. Begin to notice facial expressions, body language, eyes that light up in delight. Let others surprise you with their otherness. (Forget about yourself for a while as you do all this.) Wherever you are, take in sights, smells, tastes—not in the consumerist way a tourist does, but just to delight in what you hear and see and smell. You don’t have to own this place in some way. Just be there and notice it. Learn what you can. Don’t rush through each moment.
  2. Voluntary confinement
    This is somewhat revolutionary. What I mean is this: Stay. Commit. That highly mobile life you’ve been leading? And to which you have perhaps become addicted? Maybe your life would be richer if you decided to stop moving and actually stay. Plant yourself somewhere specific. Go deep into that community—let it become a part of you. Grow a root or two. Experience what it’s like to develop a longer history with the people around you. Learn the unique beauty of deep, rather than the thin beauty of broad. You can’t be an expert on every place or everybody. Instead of  trying to, become an expert on this place and/or  these friendships.  

    This applies to relationships in other ways, too.  Stay in the moment of a hard conversation. Be  willing to sit in that discomfort long enough to  push through to a reconciliation, or at least to an understanding. Commit to that in-person  relationship long enough to experience—and  even learn to be grateful for—its long and varied seasons.

    Last summer, I heard writer Lauren Winner drop  this nugget of wisdom at a conference: voluntary  confinement can lead to inner spaciousness. Let  that percolate in your brain for a bit…
  3. Boredom
    I’m pretty sure most of us have ADHD by now.  If we weren’t predisposed to it, our tech habits  have doomed us. You’ve probably read at least  some of the alarming studies that show how our use of media and technology is actually  rewiring our brains so we can’t pay deep attention anymore. (I mean, how many of you  are still reading this essay?) 

    But can boredom be a practice? And even  if so, why is it something we should try to  cultivate? OK, maybe I don’t actually mean  learn to be bored—what I mean is, don’t try  to fill every single moment of your waking life  with stimulation or input. When you’re in line,  or on a train, or in the doctor’s office waiting  room, don’t reach for your phone, or turn on  the radio, or grab a magazine. Believe it or not,  there’s a lot more going on in your mind than  you imagine. Give your brain time to rest, to  wander, to let some things surface and some  things sink. Our brains need time to recharge  beyond just when we sleep. Often, periods  of what might look like boredom end up  leading to creativity, new ideas, and surprising  revelations.  

    My kids would always roll their eyes at me  when I would say, with a wink, “Only boring  people get bored.” Let your mind surprise  you with all the magical and interesting  things it can do if you just let it be, not  seeking to prod it with external stimulation  all the time. A practice of enjoying  “boredom” can actually lead us to richer,  fuller lives.
  4. Read literature 
    I’m an English major, a former English teacher,  and a poet and writer, so I know I am seriously  biased in prescribing this practice. I won’t  go on about it but will just say briefly that  reading good literature is formative, whereas  reading nonfiction is informative. When you  read a well-written piece of fiction, you live vicariously through others, learning to see what and how they see. This often leads to an increase in empathy, which can make us deeper and wiser. OK, that’s all.

Our brains need time to recharge  beyond just when we sleep.

(Quick caveat: When we are in the midst of  trauma or crisis, these practices are very difficult,  if not impossible. There will be time for these  later, once healing comes.) 

All of these practices involve a cost, usually in  terms of time and energy. But inattentiveness  and shallowness also cost us. The question is,  which price would we rather pay? For my part, I want the practices that lead to more human  flourishing, to that perhaps messier but richer,  deeper life that makes living worthwhile. 

Rachel E. Hicks is a TCK who has lived in India,  Pakistan, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong  Kong, the USA, and China. She is the editor of Among  Worlds. She is also a poet and freelance copyeditor.  Read more about her work at  rachelehicks.com



In this issue, we introduce to you writer, journalist, and TCK Ryu Spaeth

Operational Risk

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by Kristen Zike Pollock I doubt I will ever forget the spring morning I received

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