Dear Carolyn: Since high school, I’ve had a life plan: to live all over the world. In college I studied abroad in Europe and Asia and traveled through over 15 countries. When I graduated, I landed a teaching job in Japan and thought of that as the first step to living in many different countries.
Unfortunately, handling all the complications of adulthood for the first time in a foreign country proved overwhelming. Working abroad and studying abroad are quite different. I was depressed, anxious and even suicidal for a long time. I had struggled with depression on and off for about 10 years, but the shock of everything being new crashed my brain a bit.
However, about a year and a half after moving here, I found an awesome community (with both local and international friends) and changed my job to one better suited to my personality (still teaching, just in a different environment). I started seriously studying Japanese and now have become quite comfortable communicating in it.
I’m coming up on three years here, and all I can say is that I’m incredibly happy in a way I never imagined possible. I wake up each morning excited to go to work, and leave work excited to see my friends. My job is difficult and challenging at times, but overall rewarding and meaningful. There’s also potential for advancement. The relationships I have built with my friends are mutually loving and supportive. I’m starting to imagine a long-term future here. Of course I have my bad days, but they are fairly rare and I snap out of a bad mood much quicker than before. I feel like every day parts of my soul are being healed.
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So what’s the problem? I don’t want to leave.
I’m only 25, and I feel like I should be working on that life plan I had to live all over the world. I feel like I should want to leave, that I should have itchy feet, but I can’t seem to make that feeling come back. Before, when I pictured moving to another country I felt energized and excited. Now all I can think about is how much work it takes to start over in a new place. I actually do have the freedom to move pretty much anywhere in the world; if I’m going to make another international move, now is the time to do it. I know I can’t just up and move when I have a family.
I keep thinking about my future self. Almost all older people I talk to say they wish they had seen more of the world. Will I regret not living in more places? Or, will I regret uprooting myself when I’m perfectly happy?
I Need a Crystal Ball
At least until your past and future selves finish duking this out, I suggest you live your life. Right there, where you are, where you wake up smiling.
Complacency is always a risk, but self-doubt can be crippling too, and I think we can agree on which you’re more susceptible to by nature.
And families do move internationally, it’s just more complicated, and people do find ways to live abroad without uprooting completely every time.
Yes, talk to old farts long enough and most will get around to their regret for not traveling more. (Few with your mileage, I expect, but “enough” is in the eye of the beholder.)
If you let them keep talking, though, these old farts will also start swapping horror stories about where they’d be now if they actually followed through on plans they made in high school. Then they'll grumble about something else, like not recognizing any of the starlets on checkout-line magazines.
Everyone makes a youthful promise not to get old and regretful, but every choice we make, by definition, rules out something else, so there’s always something to what-if about. Even the people happiest to be doing X are still going to wonder occasionally, what if they’d chosen Y? Sometimes this is sad, yes. Sometimes, though, it’s just routine maintenance on an open and dynamic mind.
To avoid becoming a wistful what-iffer, it helps to anticipate your regrets. However, that exercise is way too speculative to be the sole basis for life choices — especially when you have cold, hard information from two other sources: your feelings and your experiences.
Your feelings say the life you’re in right now fits. Really fits.
Your experience tells you that achieving such a fit is not a matter of getting a visa and throwing your stuff in a trunk. That’s the misconception a high-schooler once had, and that an adult dismantled — at great risk — on her way to wisdom and enviable strength.
Please give your past, present and future selves influence in proportion to what each has earned. Which one of you is working with the most reliable information – about you and nobody else? That’s the one I’d trust.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com, follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at washingtonpost.com.