Like any monumental experience, studying abroad can often be portrayed in solely positive terms: “It was so beautiful; the people were so hospitable; I wish I could go back” (all of which I say). But just as valid a part of a long-term experience is the less-than pretty moments, the conflict that causes you to grow often more than the good times.
At first I was oblivious. Between the beauty of the snow-capped mountains and freedom of less stressful academics, I couldn’t understand what anyone would complain about. Initially it was the cold. We jokingly signed a petition “for a fireplace in every room.” But then the group began complaining about the grading system, receiving lower marks than expected. Before long it was the schedule, the professors, the entire study abroad program — nothing was free of fault. Negativity was contagious, spreading unchecked until sometimes it overshadowed all the positive things that were occurring as well.
As someone who generally tends to see the world in a more hopeful light, I began to feel ostracized from the group, not understanding how they could adopt such a negative and critical perspective. Was it even helping their situation, or cyclically serving to perpetuate their misery? I can understand camaraderie over things that are difficult or different, but what I observed was something that quickly got out of control, leading to gossip and ultimately discouragement. I, intimidated by the group mentality, kept silent. But I wish I had spoken up.
Gordon is no stranger to conflict. Even though I was away last semester, I still picked up on dissent and criticisms directed at the college. I acknowledge the need to think critically and be able to pinpoint and recognize flaws with the need for improvement. And I admire those who speak up in the face of injustice, who seek to right wrongs and strive for healthy, life-giving change. But I’m worried that with our criticisms and focus on the negatives we are losing sight of everything for which we have to be thankful and hopeful. Not just mere optimism, or a shallow positivity that seeks to ignore wrongs. Rather, I’m talking about a deep gratitude that is fully aware of the many wrongs and obstacles we face, yet can still declare “Praise be to God!” if only because of the single fact that Christ lives. It is so easy to forget how much we have to give thanks for, and even harder to practice. But it is vital to a healthy Christian community.
Even though I did not speak up while abroad, I wanted to speak about Gordon’s conflict here, just a little. I hope that others, when facing conflict, would have the courage to challenge oppressive negativity, and remind others of our call to give thanks in all circumstances.
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