Shaped by a Nation

It’s been five years since I left South Sudan. I still remember the morning I left. I remember the light and the smells in the airport. I remember being driven along the streets of Juba, staring out my window as I tried to take it all in one last time.

I remember my best friend surprising me at the airport, and standing next to me the entire time I waited in the security line. I held the back of his neck as we hugged. An unconscious move, it was the best way my heart could think of to say how much I cared.

As the airplane rolled slowly to the edge of the tarmac and turned around for take off, I wondered at the last three years. I wondered what it all meant or if it meant anything at all. I wondered if I had accomplished anything of value. I wondered if I would ever return to this place. I wondered how I would move on after the great awakening. I wondered what it was going to be like to enter the atmosphere of *home* again.

I had been shaped by a nation. One so different from my own. The nation that shaped me was full of people ripe with trauma and joy and pain and humor. It was a place bursting at the seams with equal parts suffering and beauty. The emotional paradox was palpable, almost maddening. It was unlike anything I’d ever known, and too much for me to bear.

For five years and counting, I have tried to unravel the experience and see it more clearly. I’ve carefully placed events along a timeline. I’ve sought healing and peace through therapy, nature, romance, travel, hiking, screaming, crying, walking dogs, support groups, dancing, yoga, writing. I’ve done my best to find words good enough.

Sometimes I wonder why. Why does my experience in South Sudan take up so much space here? Why does it continue to be my most significant point of reference in life? Why, five years later, do I find myself crying again when I allow myself to remember, even though I’ve done so much healing?

Ridgeline of Jebel Kujur in Juba, South Sudan, 2015

Like a river running through a canyon, South Sudan altered the landscape of my being. It reshaped me. It changed my perspective on life so significantly, it has taken me years to integrate the experience into my new life back in the United States.

It left such a profound mark on me, each year I subconsciously recall the anniversary of my departure as it approaches. And once recalled, I feel compelled to take inventory of the years since I left. To count the gifts given me — to take note of and celebrate the seeds that have blossomed.

South Sudan taught me to look at life through a both/and lens. This is something I’ve realized slowly over the last five years, and certainly not something I was able to apply while I lived there. I brought either/or thinking with me there, and I tried to hang onto it until the end. It’s not that I consciously thought either/or was better, it’s just that my mind wasn’t ready for the alternative.

Either/or was my culture. From the time I was a young girl, I learned to categorize life based on either/or thinking. Something is either good or bad. You’re either happy or sad. You either succeed or you fail. You can be either an athlete or a cheerleader. (I have to say, I made a damn good cheer-athlete.) Either you’re right or I’m right. Either you win or I win. There was no room for grey scale or prismatic color or complexity. It was all black and white.

Taking this kind of thinking as truth, without examination, was causing my mental health to suffer. Looking back on how much pain it caused me in South Sudan, and how much it has caused me since, I have to wonder how much it affected me before that. Looking back on my life as a whole, its effects are blurry the farther back I go, but in the last few years, it has become clear as pure river water.

While I lived in Juba, as I became familiar with life in a war zone, I felt the either/or thinking failing me, but couldn’t articulate it as such. I remember brainstorming on the chalkboard in my living room one day, towards the latter half of my assignment. In the center I wrote: “The death of idealism?” and surrounding it, I made notes about how South Sudan was killing my idealism.

I felt like I had arrived at some important place all the long-term expats eventually got to. Like this must have been the answer to all the things I couldn’t make sense of. Perhaps I had simply been too idealistic when I arrived in the country, and now South Sudan had shown me I needed to be on the other side of the spectrum.

I could either be idealistic or cynical.

I was so far gone at that point, and I don’t think I ever fully arrived at a conclusion. But I knew something was off about my thinking when I was doing it. That type of thinking was understandable given the amount of stress and trauma and pressure I was under, and given how wide my eyes had been opened to mass suffering. It was all I could do with the weight of complexity, at the time.

As I’ve lived these years back in my home country, I’ve wondered at how many different feelings I’ve had towards South Sudan, and the experience I had there. How can you love and hate a place at the same time? How can you have hope and despair at the same time? How can you look back on an experience with tears of both joy and sorrow?

A view of Juba from a rooftop, Jebel Kujur in the distance, 2014

Life was not meant to be one thing. It will not be reduced to either this or that. This is what South Sudan taught me.

It taught me to not just bear the growing pains of being reshaped, but to embrace them with wonder. After all, it’s quite the view once you start peeling back the prescribed simplifications and start seeing things in their brilliant complexities.

South Sudan was both dark and light.

2020 is both painful and beautiful.

The US political climate is both exhausting and compelling.

The California wildfires are both heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.

Trauma is both a wall and a window.

I am both sad and happy to be 9,000 miles away from the nation that shaped me.

It all comes back to perspective. Life is all the things. Once it can be viewed through the lens of both/and, it opens like a flower with infinite petals. I’m learning to find comfort in the discomfort of complexity.



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