As a child and through my teens, I was extremely shy. I had a few charismatic friends that I relied on – at school, at summer camp – to get access to a wider range of people. Like a lot of other people, I grew up with a popularity complex (who doesn’t want to be liked?), but as an introvert, it was much more subdued.
Many people have negative voices in their heads. Mine said, ‘You are smart, you’ve got passion, but you’re not brave enough to make the connections you need for these things to matter.’
Then the time came to go to college. I was extremely lucky to be accepted into Macaulay Honors College at CUNY Queens College, where I had access to an Opportunities Fund which could be used to, among other things, study abroad. I planned to make use of it immediately. I picked the most beautiful place I could dream up – Santorini, Greece. I found a study program in Athens. I spent a month there, soaking up the heat, the beautiful landscape, and the knowledge of my wonderful teacher, but feeling terribly lonely.
When I came back, everyone asked me how it was. ‘Great!’ I’d indulge them weakly. What else could I say? No matter how lonely I’d felt, I was so lucky for that opportunity. But I felt completely unsuccessful. I’d traveled alone for the first time, but I’d failed at making the connections that made it truly worthwhile.
I could have let that defeat me.
But, spoiler alert (was the blog not obvious enough?), I didn’t.
A year later, I had another amazing opportunity. A scholarship to study in Be’er Sheva, Israel for 6 months. SIX MONTHS! What was I thinking? I’d only been in Greece for one month and I’d barely made it through with my self-esteem. How could I think I’d survive six months away from home, the familiar, a built-in support system? And in the DESERT?!
(Side note: If you click that link you will see that my Hebrew name, Shai, which means gift in Hebrew, is actually a conveniently relevant linguistic accident.)
I took the leap.
And it’s not to say it wasn’t a struggle, with near-daily anxiety attacks in the beginning. But I tried not to let it stop me. When standing with the group of new students getting oriented at Ben-Gurion University, I looked at the person next to me.
The negative voices questioned: ‘Should I speak to them? Hell no, you have nothing to talk about. You’re not interesting enough. There’s no way to make them like you.’ But I just did it anyway. I’d ask where they were from. What brought them there. And I often led with a compliment – a genuine compliment always helps. Even when I was unsuccessful, I persisted.
I made it my mission to try everything, to get the full immersion. I took an intermediate Hebrew class. I studied the history of Israel, feminist interpretations of the Old Testament, Israeli film, and a few other anthropology-based classes. I ate vegetables for breakfast – that was a change. I had two wonderful Palestinian roommates. I experienced what it felt like to take cover in a shelter during a rocket attack.
I spent my birthday week (and Hanukkah) in my favorite place in the world, Jerusalem:
Most importantly, I made friends and stuck with them. We explored the local hummus places, coffee shops, and nightlife. And when my friends weren’t available, I traveled alone during the weekend. I took the leap – brave enough to be with others, and brave enough to be by myself.
That trip was the catalyst for a braver version of myself. I learned that I can do what I like and be happy despite the social anxiety that plagued me for a long part of my life. I learned it was okay to feel anxious, but you can’t let it cut you off from life-affirming experiences.
The featured photo was taken on a hike in the mountains close to the northern Israeli border with Lebanon:
In the picture, I had cut my usually long hair for the first time in my life, I was wearing my favorite sweater (at the time), and I had proven to myself: I could do it. I had the means to survive in a foreign environment starting with nothing but my own wits and desire to do so.
I decided I wouldn’t let anything get in the way of my travel dreams. And I haven’t looked back.
In response to the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge.