By Cecilia Kennedy
The majority of the energy I’ve acquired from the copious amount of rice and beans I’ve consumed this past month has been channeled towards my effort to adjust to my new surroundings in Cuenca, Ecuador. The experiences that have accompanied this cultural shift remind me of one of my favorite books from my childhood whose message has stuck with me for years: A House for Hermit Crab, by Eric Carle.
This story documents the journey of a hermit crab who has grown too big for his shell and is forced to abandon it in search of a new one that can better support him. He faces the discomfort of vulnerability as he travels through the ocean—shell-less—but finally ends up in a place where he not only discovers joy but eventually develops a sense of comfort as well.
As many children’s books do, this story contains multiple layers of moral guidance, but there is one lesson that has always stood out to me above the rest: the concept that no individual can experience growth without facing vulnerability. We must expose ourselves to what we fear—as the hermit crab did during his journey through the ocean—in order to expand our realms of understanding. Similar to the way that the hermit crab searches for a new shell out of necessity, it is essential that we allow ourselves to grow as individuals to generate both personal and societal benefits.
As I familiarize myself with the culture of Cuenca, I have kept in mind the concept of embracing vulnerability to remind myself that the discomfort I face on a daily basis is worth something. In fact, I know I am doing something right when I notice discomfort—it means that I have pushed myself to explore what exists beyond my ‘shell’.
There are plenty of awkward situations that I encounter on a regular basis, including those that arise from living in a new home with a new family, speaking an unfamiliar language, and attempting to adjust to new cultural norms. The way I see it, each of these obligations is like a vast ocean, full of strong currents and predators. Within this ocean we exist as hermit crabs, in search of a home that can accommodate our growth. We are presented with two options: either we leave our old shell behind and make the journey across the ocean floor—despite the risk of danger—in pursuit of the benefits that await us, or we stay put in our safety zone, never to discover what lies beyond our small, confining, and all too familiar shell.
When I encounter these situations, I push myself to embrace the expedition across the ocean—even if this entails abandoning the comfort of my ‘shell’—because I know that my failure to do so would leave me stuck; we will never grow if we restrict ourselves with a shell that is too small.
In my daily life in Cuenca, these situations typically show up as minor determinations. Do I leave my bedroom to spend time with my family or stay put in the comfort of privacy? Will I ask this stranger for directions or just try to figure out how to get there by myself? Should I enter this establishment on my own and risk being embarrassed by my inadequate knowledge of Spanish? Although these decisions may seem small and insignificant, the practice of confronting vulnerability is still valuable.
Instead of enduring the displeasure of confrontation, we always have the option to hide. We can convince ourselves that we won’t benefit from taking a risk as an excuse to back out of it. The only issue with this intention is that the feeling of incapability that results from it only decreases our motivation to take chances, which eventually leaves us stuck in a rut. A cloud of negativity looms over us, releasing droplets of guilt, failure, and incompetence from which we can’t hide. We have no umbrella or place to escape to; no way to console ourselves. We end up spending the majority of our time in a state of discomfort and insecurity.
Based on personal experience, I believe one of the most difficult aspects of adjusting to a new culture is the frustration that results from this long-term discomfort. When we endure the adversities associated with culture shock, our natural response is to retreat to a safe place where we can rid ourselves of distress. ‘Home’ is a word that many of us associate with comfort, warmth, and security. It’s our safe haven, where we can freely express ourselves, make our own choices, and follow our own routines. It makes perfect sense to want to return to this setting when we feel out of place; there’s nothing more comforting than familiarity. But, when there isn’t an option to return to the home that we know, our only choice is to make a home out of our new surroundings. Of course, this is easier said than done, but, at least in my opinion, the benefits of seeking out comfort in an unfamiliar setting outweigh the discomfort of the vulnerability it takes to get to that point.
The aspect of homes that I find most beautiful is that they are not limited to physical spaces. A home is a home because of its ambiance. Of course, spending time in a familiar location can be consoling, but it is the people, the comfort, and the sense of belonging that constitute a home. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that just because we have left one home behind, doesn’t mean we can’t cultivate a new one abroad. We can find comfort almost anywhere, it just takes time and patience to develop. This process of shifting homes—as the hermit crab exhibits—results in a beautiful cycle of growth; the more we practice it, the easier it becomes.
What makes this cycle so valuable? The fact that it will never cease. As we step out of our comfort zones and into the unfamiliar, we grow bit by bit, until we can no longer fit into the‘shell’ or ‘skin’ that we once occupied. By simply embracing the vulnerability that awaits us, we are allowing ourselves to grow in more ways than one: primarily on a personal level, but also on a level of perspective—a seemingly minor experience has the potential to change our perception of the world around us. The more we expose ourselves to discomfort, the more we grow, and the more we grow, the happier and more confident we feel about ourselves and our purpose. As individuals, only we have the power to determine the course of our growth. Whether it be a journey to a bigger shell in the ocean or to a new home abroad, it is our willingness to embrace vulnerability that makes us stronger.
Some photos of my new home: