I suppose I could blame the big adventure of my early adulthood on Oscar Rebman.
Oscar lived next door to my family growing up. A talented, quiet, yet cantankerous mechanic, Oscar built his own lawn mower because he thought the commercial lawn mowers were inefficient and too expensive.
When I asked Oscar if my old Dodge Dart with the flaking green paint could make it across the country, he said: “Get better tires. Change the oil.”
Oscar was a man of few words. But I took his words to heart, and set off.
My one-year odyssey lasted four years.
Absence of Guarantees
What made this experience an odyssey was the absence of guarantees. Distraction, disorder, and costly rookie mistakes peppered my days.
My first stop was Chicago, where I worked for a year, helping busy, super-wealthy parents better understand their teenagers. I then headed to Northern California.
During those years away from family, I sought new encounters, found and lost jobs, almost got married, attended graduate school, hiked mountains, sold my car, invited homeless people to live in my apartment, attended a Gay Freedom Day Parade of 250,000, and led a two-year study of disenfranchised populations in the Bay Area.
That last project took me into the heart of Oakland and San Francisco, for conversations with street people, the “working poor” whose jobs could not support their families, and newly arrived immigrants from the Philippines, China, and Central America.
I listened to the stories of transgendered individuals living in the Castro District, military chaplains, homeless fathers, single mothers, and hundreds of young adults.
Lessons from Exposure
I learned a lot: That the circumstances of my childhood were far more advantageous than those of many others, that I had been sheltered from the realities of poverty, that I had much to learn about diversity, specifically religious, racial, and sexual orientation differences.
The price I paid for those learnings? Discomfort.
The discomfort of seeing suffering up close. The discomfort of questioning and reflecting, instead of knowing, and of not having everything nailed down by the time I was 25.
It was a period of confusion and loneliness. Questions came up about work, love, and identity. Who am I? Where am I going? What do I want?
I grew uncertain about whether I would ever return home. Not only to my geographic home, but to the friends I grew up with, and the values and religious beliefs of my upbringing.
I was in a place – internally and externally – where neither my father nor mother could help me. This was not a questioning of clan membership – I stayed in good contact with my family, and knew they were there for me.
What became clear was my desire to be responsible for myself.
I sought out mentors.
Some mentors appeared out of nowhere. Not all were trustworthy. I took some chances, and honed my ability to separate the fake from the real.
I became steeped in the harsh and beautiful realities beyond my own cocoon. My viewing lens was widened, enabling me to see, feel, and think with sharper
perspective. That time away gave me a solid grounding in relationship management skills.
I returned home with ragged clothes and some hard earned wisdom, ready to dig in.
Like any worthwhile adventure, mine entailed risk. I learned that reasonable risk (as opposed to careless risk) can be a terrific stimulator of self-awareness.
Which leads me to an invitation: To broaden their horizons, as soon after high school graduation as possible, able-bodied young adults should seriously consider an extended time away from home.
It might be taking a gap year before college, working a job in a different cultural setting, enlisting in the military, or joining the Peace Corps.
Some will not be able to arrange this for very long: a few months, a few weeks or a few days. The point is to seek a totally different perspective by exposing oneself to novel surroundings.
The further from the familiar, the better.
Hold with suspicion, any anxious desire of nearby adults to talk you out of this. They are probably too worried to think straight about it.
My own odyssey ushered me into a lifetime of learning. The hope is that it does the same for you.