Living Outside the Box


My life of obscurity began in 2003. I moved to a small, unknown nation on the border of Iran that was hidden inside the borders of the Soviet Union for decades: Armenia.

My neighbors for eight years: Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and a day's drive from Baghdad, Iraq.

My neighbors for eight years: Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Azerbaijan and a day's drive from Baghdad, Iraq.

Before moving there, I stood across from an elderly American woman leaning against a wooden pew in a red-carpeted church sanctuary. After hearing our 30-minute speech about our work, she insisted, “Now, you won’t live in Armenia. I’ve never heard of that place before. You must mean Albania. I know that country exists!”


Smile and nod.


Five years ago, I left the three million residents of Armenia to set up residency with the 1.5 million citizens of another post-Soviet, scarcely known country--Estonia.

My current neighbors: Finland, Latvia and Russia.

My current neighbors: Finland, Latvia and Russia.


A middle-aged couple found me standing in the church’s foyer. Their naivety shined like the Minnesota sun through the lobby’s glass walls. “Estonia?? Isn’t that the country that Anne Hathaway’s character is from in the Disney movie--The Princess Diaries?”


Inhale, Liv...One, two, three, four…Exhale slowly.

Smile. Nod. Maybe throw in a charming wink.


Some Americans may not be able to recognize the history, location or language of many countries in the world, but the world certainly recognizes us. There are obvious giveaways that we are from the USA: our choice of shoes, love of workout pants with sweatshirts, and our ability to fill up quiet space with words.


Last week I stood on an airport bus crowded with neck pillows, small rolling suitcases, and travelers. We represented many nations all going from Frankfurt, Germany to one place—Chicago, USA. I heard German and English spoken with a European pronunciation. Then my ears immediately felt at home--I heard the American accent roll off of five people’s tongues around me.


These fellow Americans were complete strangers and quickly enacted their well-tuned talent of small talk. As any decent quiet person would do, I began my equally-honed skill of eavesdropping.  A young man sporting a full and long black beard stood behind me.


“God, I hate these airport busses. There is nothing more disappointing on earth than being trapped inside a plane for hours, and seeing an airport bus waiting at the bottom of the stairs when you deplane.”

It is common in Europe to leave the plane via steps and walk on to a bus that drives you to the terminal.

It is common in Europe to leave the plane via steps and walk on to a bus that drives you to the terminal.

An elderly man in his 70s clung to the metal bar beside me through sharp turns. He started a different conversation with his neighbor.

“Did you see that mom with the stroller? I know I’m old, but I’m not that slow. She nearly ran me over to get on this bus!!! What was her problem?”


Once again, I overheard the continued conversation of the aspiring lumberjacks behind me.


“God. Did you see that airport security agent? Their German hands were all over me. Next time I guess I need to wear sweat pants to make their work a bit easier. Sheesh!”


The older gentlemen to the left continued with an observation: “What is the problem with Frankfurt? Why are the United Airlines planes parked all the way at the end of the airport? This ride is taking forever.”


A man seated nearby spoke with a slight German accent. He attempted to add to the conversation. “America has such tight security, they request to keep their planes in this more secluded area of the airport. They feel it is safer.”


The American elderly gentlemen in loafers seemed bothered, looked out the opposite window, and gruffed in reply a simple, “Yep.”


Without even buying a ticket for the performance, I got a front row seat to a show I entitle, “The Art of Complaining.”


At that moment, my adopted Armenian/Estonian self felt like quoting a proverb my church’s youth group leaders would drill into our young minds. Through overseas service trips, American teens got a taste of what the rest of the world calls reality.

As a teenager, I took summer trips to serve in Jamaica {in schools, not beaches}, Cost Rica, Venezuela and Belarus/ Russia. This pic is from my last trip as a teen at Red Square. I was 17 years old and the one in front row, furthest to the right.

As a teenager, I took summer trips to serve in Jamaica {in schools, not beaches}, Cost Rica, Venezuela and Belarus/ Russia. This pic is from my last trip as a teen at Red Square. I was 17 years old and the one in front row, furthest to the right.

Standing at the front of our hormone-filled bus, the older team leaders would shout words of wisdom at souls who were born and raised within close proximity of air conditioning units.


“We have a rule during our trip: don’t state the obvious if you cannot offer a solution to change it. If it is terribly hot and you are sweating all day, don’t grumble, ‘It’s so hot, and I am so sweaty.’ We already know it is hot and we are all sweating with you. Complaining about it makes the situation worse. Smile and go with the flow.’”


So easy to say; difficult to do.


As a member of the human race, I feel like our default setting is to complain. If you hit restart and restore our factory default settings, we will come alive again with a grievance on our lips.


From birth, the skill is refined.

Hungry? Cry!

Tired? Scream!

Wet in the knickers? Share your pain! We hope for secret revenge: a diaper leak on our caretaker so they, too, can enjoy our horrible state of constant moistness.


We are born into a free, open world but locked inside a box. Its walls are covered with mirrors, and we don’t notice the outward beauty that surrounds us. Everywhere we look, we only see ourselves. We emerge from our mother’s belly and shout to the world, “Here I am!”


We compare our box to our neighbor’s and verbalize everything it lacks. We growl at those who accidentally bump into its weak walls. Like a homeless man, we sleep with our head against a cardboard pillow and keep a shopping cart, filled with everything that matters most, parked close and inside.


It may be the home we were born into, but as long as we stay in that box, our soul remains broken and homeless. This box keeps us trapped inside our own universe, where the world revolves around OUR thoughts, OUR dreams, OUR desires, OUR schedule, OUR emotions, OUR money, OUR anger and offenses.


When we make the difficult choice to step outside the box, the mirrors must shatter. We can no longer demand to only see ourselves, or demand an audience that listens to our story and complaints. We start to see other people for the first time. We seek to understand THEM. We learn new words, “There YOU are.”


We catch a glimpse of the essence of people instead of only noticing how they inconvenience or pain us. Their stories are printed on their sad eyes, tired faces, and everyday mistakes. The laughter and victories of our neighbors are no longer food for jealousy. Instead they give us an appetite for joy and chasing dreams. We not only tell our stories; we listen to theirs.


On the airport bus, there stood another American. Without doubt, this  woman was once a beauty. Hair dyed an intense red; her eyes were radiant. Beautiful long lashes and brightness made her blues eyes appear crystal clear.


She too entered into the art of small talk.


When her friend complained about the horrible mom with the runaway stroller, she didn’t just see that woman, she looked back and remembered herself as a young mom traveling alone.


“Oh. She didn’t mean to hurt you. I could tell she was nervous. Traveling by yourself with a baby is challenging. She was worried that the baby’s stroller wouldn’t fit on the bus. It’s ok. She was just anxious.”


When the discussion commenced about the American airlines parking their planes in a secure, far-away area, she recalled the reason. Unlike thousands of New Yorkers, her loss of having to ride an airport bus for security seemed minimal compared to their tragedy. She replied. “Yep. 9/11 changed everything for us. I’m glad they are doing their best to keep us safe.”


As we were stepping off the bus, a hurried young traveler attempted to push her way in front of red-headed woman. There was no frustrated roll of the eyes or huffy breathing. A lovely smile crossed her lips, and she used her hand to motion for the young woman to exit before her.


Incredible kindness. Contagious grace.

I observed her crystal eyes again and made a vow: 

I want to be like that woman yesterday, today and tomorrow.


I don’t think I will ever attempt to dye my hair that shade of flame red, but I pray my eyes always remain open and clear.


May I always motion for those hurrying through life to step in front of me.

May I be the calm presence in a room that tells others’ stories through my words.

May I see the lives that surround me and listen to their silent voices instead of my own. 

May I learn to live outside the "ME" box.


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