In my mid twenties, from 2003 to 2009, I lived in Kuwait at the height of the U.S. military operations. It was an amazing opportunity, both personally and professionally, and opened my eyes to the world in ways that I had never contemplated. Newly divorced and eager to have an adventure, I took the leap, accepting a contracting job with the U.S. Army. Nevertheless, it was scary to venture off alone into the epicenter of a United States-Middle East conflict. Like so many Americans, I had preconceived ideas about the culture. Some proved to be true, others not so true. In my recently published book Life In My Hands, Healing Myself, Healing Others, I provide more details about my life in Kuwait City working for the military. For now, here are the three biggest life lessons I learned from living in the Middle East:
Growth begins where your comfort zone ends. Leaving a safe place is scary, but don’t underestimate the growth you will experience from jumping into something new. Being in a foreign country, immersing yourself in a culture so different from your own, can’t help but lead to change and growth.
Simple daily interactions – enjoying the cuisine, having conversations with locals, driving through different neighborhoods, and taking in entertainment – can expand your horizons. Appreciating the culture – fashions, customs, language – while falling into the local rhythms of life can provide a priceless education.
Shops open and close at different times, traffic patterns follow the local customs, and, as a result, new surroundings create personal rituals in order to experience and take full advantage of what the city has to offer. I remember rearranging my activities during Ramadan. Fewer shops were open and those that were had less staff. The regular hustle and bustle of the city was reduced. This forced me to stop and enjoy the downtime and live slower. Toward the end of the month, I was invited to take part in a breaking fast feast that reminded me of gathering with my own family at Thanksgiving.
As people were peacefully going through life, they were willing to answer my questions. Many of the ideas and fears that I started out turned out not to represent my experience of living in the Middle East. I would have never have known that had I not pushed through my discomfort and dared to take on this adventure.
Exposure to new things forces us to move outside of our known truths.Growth only happens when we have the courage to stand in the unknown zone for a while and figure out that we are okay, even if we don’t understand the system or the way things happen – yet.
Being non-judgmental leads to a richer life. There are differences in cultures, and that isn’t good or bad, it just is. We aren’t meant to be all the same, but we are meant to be equal. Diversity is everywhere; it’s what makes the world a high definition color instead of black and white. I forced myself to be neutral as much as possible and withhold my interpretation of certain things (that interpretation was my biased framing to begin with). Keeping an open mind allowed me to have a wonderful experience. We’re all different and that’s okay. It’s possible to coexist peacefully, respect local customs, and still be who we are, without trying to force everyone and everything to fit into one cultural framework.
I began to realize that my judgment was often fueled by fear. Once I realized that, it became easier to be less judgmental of the foreign world I was living in. As a result, I was able to make real connections with people who had much different upbringings and life experiences than I had.
Ultimately I discovered that even with all our difference, we are all humans and want the same things. We all experience love, anger, sadness and fear regardless of what culture we are born into. Everyone is seeking these connections and love in their lives. I learned to connect with people on that level and made amazing life long friendships with people from all over the planet.
All we really have are the connections we make with others. Even those that we will never see again, leave their mark. Sometimes their leaving created heartbreak. We survive and learn to move on and appreciate the memories. We carry what we learn from them with us.
The money and many of the material things I collected from my time in the Middle East are long gone. What’s left are my priceless friendships and memories that will be with me forever. The life changing relationships, professional and personal, helped to develop my outlook on life, to learn compassion and understanding, and see that goodness in humanity is alive and well, especially in the Middle East. The people I connected with in all the foreign countries where I’ve lived have been my university; my priceless educational life experience.
Photo of Kuwait City landscape from a speed boat from Bigstock.