Keep on growing

January 1, 2018 -- Living City

Keep on growing
How to become better — together with others

By Fr. Stanislao Esposito

Words create powerful mental images, and these can become the drive behind life. I remember the first time I heard two words put oddly together. I recall how my mind was caught by the power of the image those words created, and how it touched my deepest sense of identity.

“Global person.” Those were the words. I heard them at a youth meeting, where I got to know the Focolare spirituality of unity. They didn’t make much sense at first, but the words found their way into my soul and drove me to move beyond myself.

I was barely a teenager when I heard those words, and while I was trying to figure out what life had in store for me, those words gave me a sense of stability, a sort of sure foundation and direction upon which I began to build, without even knowing it, my whole life.

I began to understand that my identity as a person went beyond my circle of friends, my neighborhood, my town. I felt I was to become as big as the world. Unaware of this, my interests and my personality changed a bit.

I grew up in a country where high schools were “specialized,” so I transferred from a classical high school to one where I could learn modern languages. As soon as my language skills allowed me, I began to build relationships with pen pals from all around the world. Exchanges of letters became opportunities to build bridges: learning about culture, customs, food and drinks.

Every time a letter came I began to breathe more deeply. The world was becoming my true home, a very big home.

At one point I realized that there was a large section of the planet that I could not reach. I learned that young people in China, for example, were not allowed to learn any of the European languages. They were, however, allowed to learn Esperanto, an international, artificial language invented by a Polish doctor in the late 1800s that became incredibly popular due to the simple grammatical structure and formation of words.

And so I found a tutor and learned, as quickly as I could, enough Esperanto to communicate with someone who lived there. And I did. There, another wall fell down.

It was another opportunity to become a better global person; it was possible to build up relationships with people of different, diverse and even opposite philosophies and worldviews than mine. We were all citizens of the same planet.

As I kept on growing, I realized that everything I was learning, both in school and out, was an opportunity to encounter people, to share with them something that was dear and important to them, and perhaps have a chance to share something about me, which happened all the time.

Looking back, I realize that I kept this attitude even when I “grew up.” I enjoy doing things, learning new things and finding out new ways of doing things. These always tend to involve others.

About 10 years ago, for example, my doctor strongly suggested I start an exercise program. I signed up at the local gym. The instructor gave me the whole tour and was even kind enough to come up with a routine for me to follow.

I quit after two months. I could not see myself going from machine to machine, with headphones on, ignoring everybody else. Well, I tried, I told myself.

But that voice within me reminded me I could do better. I searched on the computer for “exercise,” adding the word “class.” Perhaps being in a group would motivate me in a different way, I thought. Just to make it harder for the search engine, I also restricted the search to a ridiculously short distance so that — I hoped —nothing suitable would come up.

There was only one viable result: a martial arts studio where adult classes were being formed at that time. I was out of excuses. I had to check it out, at the very least to quiet that voice within me that urged me to be physically active. But martial arts? Totally out of my comfort zone.

I went for a free class. Luckily for me, it was at the same time as the adult class. The head instructor took me to a private room and introduced me to some basic moves.

Unfortunately, from that room I could not see the other adult students. Were they my age? Were they having fun? Were they in better shape than I was? I had to find those answers. Suddenly, the phone rang and the instructor excused himself and took the call — the perfect opportunity for me to turn around and take a look!

They were all sweating, but they were also all smiling and helping each other. I knew I could make it there. And I did. But of course, as I developed new relationships with many of those students, I began to create “challenges” for us so that while we were not in class, we could still work out and rely on each other. Messages became our way of checking on each other, reminding and supporting each other as we progressed through the different belts.

When one of us was particularly challenged with a difficult task, like a difficult kick or a board that would not break, we would cheer them on, making sure nobody would feel alone. Even when we began to go to tournaments, we were there for each other, going to each other’s ring and rejoicing and cheering even if someone would go ahead in the competition and someone else would be left behind.

It happened that way for two years in a row, and I got the title of “State Champion” for my category. The trophies I have show only my name, but behind the name there is a journey made with a lot of people who became like family.

Lately, I got one of those watches that keeps track of your steps and annoys you when you don’t move throughout the day. What convinced me to use one was the possibility of challenging other people to keep on walking. Every week, I have a group of people who challenge me to keep on walking. While some people are known to me, many others are from all around the world and I have no idea who they are. But we send each other messages and cheer each other on. And every step I take makes me feel I am walking with someone who’s stepping on the same earth — my big home — as I am.

Looking back, since 1992 when I moved to the U.S., the challenge of living in another country, making their traditions and culture my own, made me understand that living the global person idea is not easy, and requires choices that must be renewed at times even daily.

In 2003 I was ordained priest for the Roman Catholic Church, and since then the idea took on a different shape. I understood that this constant growth requires “letting go,” and, out of love, allowing others to enrich you in ways that are not always predictable.

The image of the global person remains stuck into my mind to this very day. It guarantees that I keep on growing. But it also keeps me from closing in on myself.

Self-help, self-awareness, self-consciousness and the like are all good things, but they can unintentionally create a wall around the person. What helped me the most was this constant mirror I had before me: the world.

Every step in self-improvement, I discovered, can be an opportunity to love the person next to me or even far from me. Everything could become a strategy to move people and things closer to unity.


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