Wisdom from the ruins


When I think of Pompeii, I think of an eruption, commotion and inevitable destruction. In 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius blew, and the volcano buried the town and its people in lava and ash. It was a thick carpet of blackness that enveloped a just small portion of the Earth, but it left a lasting impression to this day.

In 2016, while spending a summer in Italy, I went to visit Pompeii, as a tourist does. On my own, I hopped on a Flixbus towards Naples early in the morning. Like most kids, I grew up hearing about the tragedy that had befallen Pompeii thousands of years ago, but I didn’t know what to expect once I got there. My childish imagination pictured overlooking acres of nothingness, with a volcano – Mount Vesuvius – far off in the distance.

Walking around Pompeii, it’s really hard to imagine how any sort of civilization functioned there. There are small structures still in place, what one could guess to be different houses side-by-side, shops or perhaps a government building. Honestly though, it’s hard to tell.

Then there’s a museum portion, where actual people and even dogs that got encased in the lava and ash are set on display. Seeing them made me feel solemn, disheartened and small. The power of nature and our universe is so immense, and sometimes I feel like that is forgotten.

Humans have a tendency to think of ourselves as Earth’s powerful dominators. We work hard to prove our fitness, done through material and financial methods.

In the modern age, it is almost like we are Mount Vesuvius, but instead of one major eruption, our habits and conquests are building up and eating away at the rest of the world slowly.

That was the heavy thought on my mind as I hopped back on the bus to return to Rome that evening. On the bus, I ended up engaging in a conversation with a woman sitting behind me. She introduced herself, telling me that she is a university professor from Aruba, a tiny Caribbean island off the coast of Venezuela. She seemed very impressed that I was a young female traveling Italy on my own. Eventually, our conversation reached a more intimate level. I told her about my interests in learning about the world, wishing to protect the environment and how the adventurer inside of me was worried about what my future might hold. At this point, I had just finished my first year as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had ideas of what I was interested in, but nothing was set in stone in terms of a major.

When I was talking to this lady, she listened intently which made me feel heard, despite feeling a little bit lame for sharing with her my more anxious thoughts. I have always had a yearning to see the world and to be my own person. I don’t, and never have, want to do exactly what American society expects of me: I don’t want a 9-5 job, or to settle down and get married (younger than 30 at least), or even have children. I just want to spend my life learning and exploring.

After explaining these thoughts, she smiled at me reassuringly before telling me some of the most important information that, at the time, I didn’t know I needed.

“I wish I could have you as one of my students,” she said to me. “I look at you and I listen to you, and you make me very proud.”

I blushed a little bit and I asked her what she meant.

She told me how she worried for people of my generation and younger. Just like in the U.S., young adults in Aruba are constrained to a timeline in their lives. She believed that expectations that society has on us only increases the pressure that we put on ourselves – especially for kids, whose brains haven’t fully developed, because they are left confused, emotional and aren’t taught proper ways to cope.

She told me how students home to her, expressing how they feel lost and unsure of their path, just like me. She said she asks them what their true interests and dreams are, but will see that their education and social lives aren’t at all lining them up to achieve those genuine desires. Kids and young adults now don’t let themselves dive further into their interests. Our states are set up to guide growing individuals along a set path. They aren’t encouraged to follow their hearts like she feels they should be.

When the professor said she was proud of me, she told me that I should never question my desires. We as individuals are not built to be robots. No one is alike, not even born twins. When I feel ashamed, embarrassed or scared of who I am and what I want to do with my life, she told me to ask myself, “Why?”

Why am I ashamed? Why am I embarrassed?

If the answers have to do with other people or society’s institutions, she said to instead question them and not myself.

“I am a 41-year-old, single black woman, but I couldn’t be happier with where I am today,” she told me in earnest. “My path is not your path.”

Like Mount Vesuvius, I sometimes feel like society has clouded us with a blanket of smoke. We can no longer see or get a chance to find our own interests. We end up blindly feeling around and being guided by people and institutions that are looking for conformity, not change.

Pompeii became a city decreased to rubble, and everything there now looks like the same leftover destruction.

I never would have imagined that on a 3-hour bus ride I would get such great advice, especially being the worrisome and confused 19 year-old I was. Not that I am that much older now, but her words definitely left a significant impact on my mindset.

I want to dictate my own future. I want to rise above to find a confidence in myself and to pursue what I am most passionate about. I don’t want to live always feeling blinded by ash and questioning my decisions.

At the end of the day, I just want to be proud of the authentic me. Without apologies.

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