What if the reason we can’t sleep at night isn’t because we can’t close our eyes, but that we yearn for our eyes to be opened?
We spend our lives searching for that one thing that awakens us, so that the last time we sleep, we dream of the imprint we left behind.
I believe that we feel lost without a meaning, some inspiring motive that drives us to get out of bed in the morning, place our feet on the floor and set off running. We search for meaning in radios lyrics and the bottoms of bottles, spending our time searching for what makes us feel alive—and we desire to die having not only lived in years, but in action.
I remember the summer nights while teaching in Honduras I would lie on top of my mattress, the cool breeze from the fan occasionally interrupting the still, thick heat that filled the room like velvet.
No matter how exhausted I was—no matter how much my arms hurt from hauling cinderblocks or shoveling—my mind was so active, so awake. My thoughts pounded against my skull like the rain on the tin roof, each one as instantaneous as the fleeting touch of a raindrop.
The faces of my students flashed before me as my eyes stared, fixated on the ceiling, unable to surrender to sleep. The salamanders on the wall were privy to my rapid contemplations, and seemed to beckon me to slumber, to rest and forget the day.
But I couldn’t sleep, because I never felt so alive as I did those restless nights. Those nights where, despite my fatigue I fought to find purpose in my life, and realize it lay exactly where I did, in a village in El Progreso.
I fought to hold those images in my head: my students in their worn clothing leaning towards the board with an eager anticipation not just to grasp the lesson, but to grasp the rungs of a ladder that would pull them forward.
I would lie awake not because I couldn’t sleep, but because I refused to. I felt simultaneously tortured and blessed by my insomnia, as I tossed and turned trying to understand a world beyond my own, a world where children were trapped by circumstance.
I was sad, and I was angry—but I was given a purpose and a target to strive for.
Upon returning from every trip to Honduras, I would lie in my bed feeling further from home than ever before—further from my purpose and my calling. I lay awake not because I had a motive in life, but because I was searching for one, for a reason to get up in the morning.
Graduating college carried a similar sense of confusion, as I left a place where my goals were clear and drawn for me.
Graduation may have marked a new beginning and an entrance to a different world, but it also implied a delay in returning to Honduras, and getting what everyone so fondly liked to call, a “real job.”
For months I went to bed confused, angry and frustrated after spending a day on search engines, writing emails and arranging interviews. I spent those nights with my head on a pillow, but only half of them actually asleep. I felt jaded by the life I was living, constantly wondering if I would ever feel again what I felt those nights laying in my cinderblock room in the village.
I began to make an active mission of finding “meaning” in my life. I stayed up all night writing my thoughts, only to glance at the clock at 3 AM to see I had written four poorly articulated lines. I hit my usual hiking trails hoping to find inspiration in a sunset, the smell of the earth after a rainfall—something cliché that would hopefully turn my life around. Slowly I began to realize my life was not a serendipitous movie moment. I stopped hiking. I closed my laptop and set aside my writing drafts.
As the summer came to a close, many of my friends began their semesters at graduate school, or their new jobs and internships. I floated along, becoming lackadaisical about emails and interviews, sleeping in and seeing friends occasionally when they got off work.
One day, I met my friend Brooke for dinner. Brooke had recently begun her job teaching the fourth grade, and I hadn’t seen her in weeks.
Over dinner we caught up and she told me about her class, an overall well behaved group with a few who struggled here and there. I congratulated her on her luck but she didn’t smile. I sensed there was more to the story.
Brooke then began to describe a girl in her class who struggled because English was not her native language. Usually a quiet and nonchalant girl, Brooke was not one to become easily flustered. However, as she began to describe her student’s hardships, she became animated as if someone reached inside her soul and wound her up like a mechanical instrument. She waved her hands in an exasperated way, pushing them through the air as if pushing away the walls that surrounded her student. She paused at the end with a sigh, setting her drink down on the table with a thump, her gears slowly winding down. There was a moment of quiet in the conversation as I processed everything she just said. Her passion for her student was like a contagious flame, and it began to consume my own mind, lighting ablaze memories of the classroom in Honduras. Brooke described the way her student’s face lit up when she understood something, and how downcast and defeated her eyes were when she didn’t.
Suddenly, I found my fingers flipping through the pages of Brooke’s teaching manual, and we were firing ideas back and forth. If my mind was asleep before, now it was wide awake, and I began to feel my thoughts come rapidly again, the way those raindrops hit the tin roof of my house. I was no longer in a restaurant in America, but miles away, beneath the mountains in El Progreso. I was seeing the faces of twenty some children change from the squinted eyes of confusion to the widened expression of understanding. I was reaching, reaching for a goal that was no longer shrouded behind some post-grad confusion and apathy. I had been waiting for some divine intervention to help me find light in my life, when the light was always within me—it had simply been dormant for too long.
That night I lay in bed thinking about my plans to become an ESOL teacher, a career I had somehow overlooked while looking too hard in the wrong direction. Now I stared above me at the ceiling, as my eyes grew heavier and shut.
Soon the hum of the traffic outside became the soft whirring of a bedside fan, and my layers of blankets weighed on me like soft, sleepy Honduran heat.
When I awoke the next morning, I placed my feet on the floor and a cool, dusty concrete replaced the feeling of carpet. I could have sworn I heard a rooster crow. Either way, I knew I was home. Either way, I took off running.