One of the most famous quotes from philosophy is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” For travelers, you could edit it to say that the unexamined journey is not worth taking. An experience on its own is not enough to profoundly change a person but can be easily be glossed over as life hurries on back to normalcy.
That is why in the Study Abroad Lithuania program, the semester can be broken into three stages. Stage one is acclimatizing to the new culture and new area. In intercultural class, we discuss Lithuanian culture and heritage to better understand where we are. Then once we begin to get a greater sense of where we are, we focus on learning what the break trip will be, usually Russia, but this time Georgia. After returning from our break trip, we move into the final third of the semester. In fact, in just over five weeks, we will all head home already.
In this final stage of the semester, our focus has begun to shift to bring the semester to a close. We have begun to reflect on our experiences here and honing our ability to have a meaningful reflection about our experience, as well as beginning to debrief and find closure in the transition from Lithuania back to the United States.
Now, reflection is not something we are born to be good at. It is something we must cultivate within ourselves as a deliberate rhythm of life. It is the skill of looking at experiences and finding connections that lead to the deeper meaning within those events, teasing them out into the everyday world, and applying them to life as we understand it.
For example, here is an excerpt from a recent reflection assignment concerning the fall trip to Georgia. It addresses an experience, which was incredible, connects it to the past, present, and future, and finds a meaningful lesson to learn, and strive to involve in life. That is a process that we’re working on developing further over the next few weeks. Part of class today was on taking what we learned from our international experience and putting that into accomplishment-driven, result-oriented phrases for job interviews. A travel experience does not end when we return home, but it continues to transform us as we learn to discern and apply more meaning over time. What have you learned from your reflections?
Yet the monasteries still exist and can still function as part of their intended purpose. They have not been consumed by the modern world. In that, they are a living bridge between the past and the present.
Within the boundaries of these locations, these temporal liminalities, there exists neither past nor future. There is simply the moment that exists endlessly within that sacred space and as a participant, we are walking into that moment and sharing it with everyone who has gone before us and everyone who will come after. In spirit, we are all there in a single moment.
That agelessness is what struck me the most about Georgia. It is easy to categorize countries and their cultures into modern and not-modern. It is part of the progressive understanding of history. There is linear and irrepressible growth towards the modern idea of a democratic liberal state as the natural evolution of society. Recent political events shifting countries to the far-right seems to have cause a sudden shocking, and anomalous, change in events that must be corrected through drastic, even violent, action, lest the world fall crashing back into the dark ages.
Yet in Georgia, as I saw and experienced its culture, and observed the people who lived there, I saw something entirely different. Modern and not-modern existed harmoniously and even within the generations, there was a strong sense of cultural cohesion that does not exist in America. It was disconcerting at first, especially in Kutaisi. There was quite a bit of cognitive dissonance in my mind that made the whole first day feel very bizarre. Yet as we examined the monasteries, it began to make more sense to me. I was in a place with such a strong connection to its past and to its heritage, that the past did not feel like the past. It was as real in Georgia as the present is to most Americans. Perhaps more real than it is to Americans, actually. Uplistsikhe, for example, is thousands of years old, and yet while walking around in its ruin, each chamber was named, and several attributed to historical figures whose images are still seen around the streets, King Tamar being the main example. That connection to the heritage brings the past into the present and gives it life.
By avoiding being disconnected from their heritage, Georgians have created a culture that mirrors the atmosphere of the monasteries. One that is immovable and sacred in its antiquity. I have often felt that American culture has been missing much of the richness that a healthy culture needs, but was never able to say what it might be missing. I think traveling in Georgia began to help me see what we are still learning to find. It is a sense of identity, of history, that does go back a long time, and yet, is not lost in the past. It is focused on the present, on the people around them, and that harmony between that and their history. In a way, Georgian culture seems to be encapsulated by their monasteries, and the sacred timelessness that they have preserved within their walls. Now, if only I could manage to live a life that radiated such a timelessness and peace!