Sara Brenes-Akerman | ‘I plus my cirumstances’
Can we always be ourselves, or is our environment a part of us?
August 4, 2011, 2:52 am·
Every sound increases tenfold when it’s 11 o’clock at night and you’re the only one awake in the house. I go quietly about my business, look at the time and start wondering how I’m going to make it out of bed when the alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow. It won’t be easy. I’m back in Costa Rica for the summer and, by now, have fully readjusted to my “at-home self.” Here, I get at least eight hours of sleep every night, usually starting at around 10 p.m.
It’s hard to believe, given the above-described scenario, that only three months ago I was a Penn student who viewed an 11 o’clock bedtime as a rather implausible thing, my days almost always packed with carefully scheduled classes, meetings and extracurriculars. As a rising senior, I am sure that I remain a Penn student but still use the past tense because I am somehow certain that my at-home self and my Penn-self are two rather different people.
“I am I plus my circumstances” — a nice sounding phrase by the Spanish liberal philosopher Ortega y Gasset — gains critical importance every time I leave Penn or return to it. The argument is that we cannot separate ourselves from the collection of things that make up our version of the world, nor can we dismiss its formative power over who we are. I happen to have been given the opportunity to inhabit two worlds: San José, Costa Rica, where my family resides, the weather is always warm, I never have to worry about laundry and I think and speak in Spanish; and Philadelphia, where I live by myself, winter sometimes strikes, responsibilities abound and the official language is English.
The difficult bit comes when I freak out thinking that I much prefer my Penn self. A preference determined by the fact that I’ve spent the greater part of the last three years there, have done a lot of growing up between Locust Walk and Chestnut Street and have generally come to think of it as a space where I can feel free to be whomever I’d like to be. I’ve become who I’ve wanted to become. If who I am at Penn cannot be transported back home or out of Penn, I think I’m in big trouble.
Considering the possibility that my circumstances might shape me almost completely is a frightening thought. One that I know I share with many of my fellow Penn students, particularly the study abroad returnees. After life-changing experiences in faraway places, they often come back to discover that once they re-enter familiar territory, things, including themselves, feel a little off. I know this because I’ve seen it happen to two of my closest friends. People who describe feeling much of what returning home feels like to me. Full of wondering whether you’ve left some irrecoverable part of yourself behind or, worse, that who you have become during your stay depends on a place to exist.
I must confess that I don’t have the answer. How to bring your experience back with you and how to reconcile the versions of yourself created by the varying circumstances is a personal struggle that we each must face alone.
If I lived somewhere else and spoke a different language would I like the same music? Have the same political opinions? Or react in the same way to comparable situations? The answers only point to a greater question: how much of us is defined by things other than ourselves?
For my sake, and those of the study abroad students who feel a little lost upon their return, I’ll say that we shouldn’t let places define us. And, if I am in fact “I plus my circumstances,” the “I” part of the equation should carry the most weight.
Sara Brenes-Akerman is a rising College senior from Costa Rica. Last semester, her column appeared on Wednesdays. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.