The Redeeming Elements of Stupidity
May 11th, 2010

Sometimes we are brave.  Other times we are stupid.  And other times still the latter is redeemed by a shot at the former.

In the fall of 1997 I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college.  I had a fun roommate, a good group of girlfriends, and a boyfriend who made my post-adolescent heart go pitter-patter.  I also had the hair-brained idea of spending the spring semester of that year abroad in Spain.  I had no idea what I was doing.  It was the best mistake I ever made.

If I could talk with my twenty-year-old self today I would tell her that going abroad will unequivocally wreck everything in her life that she thinks matters.  I would tell her:  While you are gone your friends will bond in meaningful ways without you, and when you return you will be decidedly out of the loop.  While you are gone the boyfriend that you’re so in love with will decide that he doesn’t really miss you all that much, and he will break up with you after you get back (while you’re in the middle of a solo cross-country road trip to Wyoming, no less).  While you are away you will be mind-numbingly and heart-breakingly lonely.  You will feel isolated and alienated and sad.  You will call your friends’ dorm rooms when you know they’re in class, just to hear the bubbly voices on their answering machines without having to talk about how you wish you were back there.  You will have moments when you won’t admit even to yourself how unhappy you are. 

And… you should absolutely go!

The caveat to all of those statements is that they will only be true for the first half of the semester.  Here are the other things that are true:  You will rediscover your love of reading and devour some of the best fiction of your life.  You will master another language and feel a kinship to it that you never expected.  You will learn how to be alone, in moments that are lonely and moments that are not.  You will find the joys of traveling on your own.  You will eventually make friends who enrich your experiences and make you laugh.  You will spend a weekend on the beaches at Nerja and sunbathe topless.  You will stop caring about what the cool kids think.  You will spend three days in Barcelona chatting up waiters and eating dinner at bar tables while reading.  You will find out-of-the-way restaurants and order local specialties.  You will drink red wine from a glass bong and ask your waiter to take a photo of you doing it.  You will take hold of this experience and mold it into something you want it to be.

Because you have no other option, you will be brave.

Courage is a funny thing.  Sometimes we look for it and we know just what we’re doing when we step toward it.  Other times we aren’t looking for it, but it taps us on the shoulder and calls on us, and we answer with the understanding that what we are about to do may be hard.  And other times still we are stupid.  We don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into.  We have no foresight, no inkling, no foggy idea that we’re walking blindly into something big and hairy. 

But those are the moments, I think, when courage can be the most transforming; when we are caught unawares and must call up something from within ourselves that we didn’t expect to need. 

My semester abroad was perhaps the single biggest transformational experience of my life.  It was that semester that saw me evolve from a vulnerable and insecure girl into a confident and savvy young woman.  Were it not for those six months (the first three in particular) I would not be the person I am today. 

Sometimes we know that we must be brave.  Other times we are just stupid and back ourselves into corners that call for courage.  Nevertheless, it is courage that emerges.  And the fact that we arrived at a place of courage via a place of stupidity does nothing to dilute the courage itself.

This post is a part of Momalom’s Five for Ten week.  For the rest of this week, and part of next, I will be following along with their suggested topics.  For some great reads on the topics of Courage, Happiness, Memory, Lust, and Yes, be sure to check out the links to other participating bloggers’ sites on their home page.

18 Responses to “The Redeeming Elements of Stupidity”

  1. Launa Says:

    I LOVE THIS. Right now I’m two weeks away from coming home from a nine-month sabbatical with my whole family. You’ve totally hit the nail on the head in terms of describing what we have gained and lost…

    and why I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. Thanks for saying this so beautifully.

  2. Nicki Says:

    Gale – I envy you your courage. I wish I had done this.

  3. Christine LaRocque Says:

    Really, really enjoyed reading this post. How amazing, how life alterting. The lessons you learned are things most people don’t figure out ever.

    “I think, when courage can be the most transforming; when we are caught unawares and must call up something from within ourselves that we didn’t expect to need.”

    So very true, and very wise.

    So pleased I found you through Five for Ten. I’m following now.

  4. Anne Says:

    I can remember that time you were away so well. I missed you like crazy, but felt so proud and amazed at your courage. And I had no idea you struggled so much those first few months. I love your idea that courage can arise from stupidity.

  5. Jenn M Says:

    I loved this line, “Other times we aren’t looking for it, but it taps us on the shoulder and calls on us, and we answer with the understanding that what we are about to do may be hard.”

    I think a lot of instances of courage come from this–a situation is thrust in our face, and we’ve got nothing to do but fight our fear and win.

    This is an awesome post on courage. And I must say, I envy your semester abroad alone, it sounds peaceful :)

  6. Jen Says:

    Courage does tend to come when there is no other option. Yes yes yes. What a wonderful, terrifying, formative, lasting experience for you. How wonderful to have that conversation with your 20-year-old self and be so certain that you did the right thing, even if it meant shaking everything up!

  7. corinne Says:

    What an incredible experience! I wish I had the guts to do that back in the day, but I was such a timid thing. Sounds like rhe perfect coming of age trip.

  8. kate Says:

    i agree that ideas borne out of the stupidity/impulsiveness of youth have the power to completly change us. while i didn’t study abroad, i did move across the county at age 18 to start college by myself. no parents coming along to make sure i was settled in or to grease the wheels of change. the first few months were lonely and scary and full of doubt. but almost 14 years later i am still here, so i guess i knew what i was doing!
    thanks for bringing those memories back to me. it has given me a bit of inspiration for my memory post coming up. ;)

  9. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Gale, can we pleeeeeeease see the picture of you with the wine in the glass bong? Please?!!

    I turned town a chance to study abroad in college because I was such a chicken. I’ve regretted it ever since.

    Good for you for hitting the open road and learning that the world is a lot bigger than a shitty boyfriend.

  10. Gale Says:

    Kitch – Yes you can. It’s a print (this was back in ’98 – pre-digital cameras) so I’ll have to get it scanned. But once I do I’ll post it for you. Only because I love you so much! Stay tuned!

  11. Amber Says:

    Wow! What an AWESOME experience. I would call that taking a major leap outside of your comfort zone.

  12. Cheryl Says:

    Excellent post. I can SO relate to looking back and thinking that the toughest decision was often the best, even it if had some fallout that at the time didn’t seem so appealing. I moved five times in seven years as an adult, pursuing my career, leaving boyfriends, friends and family behind. I think it made me incredibly independent and gave me life experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have – and that I can now share with my kids.

  13. Eva Says:

    Gale, I LOVE this take on courage. That we don’t always look for it, that it isn’t always a conscious decision. And there’s something really powerful about that courage by accident. Really amazing.

    “You will learn how to be alone, in moments that are lonely and moments that are not.” Oh, beautiful.

  14. Eva Says:

    And I second Kitch – photos please!!!

  15. Anne Says:

    I’ve seen the picture. It rocks.

  16. Shawna Says:

    I can’t believe I am about to say this: I AM SO JEALOUS. I wish I had had that kind of stupidity pushing me along. I live with no regrets because I adore my life, my beautiful family and my perfect husband. But every now and then I think what if I had done that instead? To which I remind myself, there is nothing stopping me now :)
    And me too for seeing the picture!!

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