Jelger’s raw and uncut story

Eight years ago, my life looked a lot different. I was 27 years old, living in a rooftop apartment in Belgium, engaged to a wonderful girl and working long days as a litigation lawyer. The perfect life. Living the dream. Best of all, it was my own merit. I’d taken all the right steps. Done exactly as told during those 27 years. Except that one part of the story was missing. The part where I would feel happy.

Ten years earlier, I took 2 decisions that would impact the rest of my life. In July 2001, I walked into the applications office of the University of Ghent in Belgium. I’d just graduated high school, and full of ideals about becoming a lawyer who was going to change the world. I was going to right the wrongs and injustice, and stand up for the little man. So I applied for the 5-year law school program. But in truth, that was my backup plan, in case my secret main plan wouldn’t work out.

My secret plan

One week later, I walked into travel agency (a not-so-rare sight in those days) and booked a flight to Seattle, WA. The ticket was for a return flight, with a two month delay between going and returning. My secret main plan, was that I wouldn’t need the return flight.

I was 18 years old and had grown up in a small village near the city of Bruges. My childhood started with a few happy years. All that changed when I went to primary school and became the target of bullies. Physically, I went from athletic to increasingly overweight. Mentally I internalized the repercussions, transforming from happy and outspoken into quiet, shy, insecure and depressed. Eventually, the bullies disappeared, but the damage had been done. Throughout my youth, I struggled with a sense of feeling out-of-place. All of that changed in New York City.

New York City, April 2001; I took this photo on a film camera, just saying 🙂

Change on the horizon

In my high school graduation year, I went on a school trip to the US. For 10 days, I’d get to see the highlights of New York City and Washington DC. During those 10 days, I was overwhelmed by new sensations. The atmosphere, the country, the people, everything felt so profoundly different, and yet so genuinely right. I felt at home. The trip passed too quickly, but I promised myself that I’d be back. Back for good, I dreamed of. But at the same told myself the chance of that happening was close to none.

Four months later, I went on my second trip to the US. I lived in Seattle as a live-in home and dog sitter for an amazing woman (Laurie), who became a friend and mentor for me. She hosted me for 2 months, and opened my eyes to a different world.

My home in a rural, provincial region of Belgium, transformed into a North American cosmopolitan city. Everything was new, and vibrant, and exhilirating. I felt the identical sensation that I’d experienced months before on the US’s East Coast. I looked into several ways that would allow me to stay in Seattle (legally), but none of them proved successful. With a heavy heart and tears in my eyes, I waved goodbye to my host at the end of September, 2001. What I couldn’t see in my overwhelming disappointment, was that I’d planted a seed. And as is true for all seeds, sprouting and growing requires time. Time, and meeting the love of my life.

Seattle, September 2001

Back to plan B

After my return from Seattle, I felt beaten by life. I reluctantly resorted to my B-plan: becoming a lawyer in Belgium. So I fell back on Society’s advice: work hard, do as told, stick it out and success (and therefore happiness) will find you. I studied hard, and kept my head down. My marks were ok at best, but never stellar, because I never felt passionate about my studies. It was simply something I did, because I had to do something.

5 years later, I graduated with a master’s degree in law, and took the bar exam. I started working at a small two-person law firm (consisting of my boss and I). There was nothing glamorous about the job. John Grisham would describe me as a ‘ham and egger’. Unlike the fun, challenging cases from university, the real-life work proved repetitive and dulling. To add insult to injury, the pay was very low (a normal thing for most jobs in Belgium). But I’d completed my mission: I was a litigation lawyer. And Society approved. If only I could’ve concurred.

After a few years of grinding in the legal machine, I experienced signs of depression and burn-out. Of course, at the time I had no idea of it. All I knew, was that I felt miserable day-in, day-out. Sometimes the smallest tasks would cost me weeks or even months to complete. Once again, I resorted to Society’s advice. After all it had shown me successful so far: I had become a litigation lawyer. So I ignored my symptoms and stuck it out, hoping it would pass like a nasty flu. I had no idea that it wouldn’t.

The one who changed everything

Meanwhile, I’d met a girl named Tanja. After a week of dating, she unofficially moved into my apartment. Which was ok with me, because I knew I was going to marry her after our second date. Six months later, we made things official by moving into a beautiful rooftop apartment that looked out over the city of Ghent. Another year later, I proposed to her (in a very lame way, but that’s a story for another time).

Unresolved past

In the Summer of 2010, I finished my fourth year as a litigation lawyer, Tanja her second as a physiotherapist. We both experienced similar burn-out symptoms and decided to take a long vacation. The time collided with another important stage in my life: working through an unresolved past with my American friend and mentor, Laurie.

Since my stay in Seattle, we’d frequently emailed, and I had visited her new home in Sedona, AZ. One sad day in January 2007, she sent me a very short email explaining she’d been diagnosed with an advanced (terminal stage) brain tumor. It was the last email she sent me, and for years I lived in uncertainty about Laurie’s final days. Losing my friend and mentor was too much for me to bear, so I simply didn’t cope with it. In 2010, I found the mailing address of one of Laurie’s good friends, and Tanja convinced me to send a letter by snailmail. A few weeks later, I received a long reply and invitation to visit Laurie’s final resting place. Which is why we decided to fly to Seattle.

3 weeks of change

Our vacation became a 3-week road trip, exploring highlights of the Big West of the US. I’d organized one hell of a traveling schedule. Going from Seattle, we drove to Yellowstone NP, then Zion NP, Grand Canyon NP, Las Vegas, Death Valley NP, Yosemite NP, San Francisco and finally Vancouver, BC. We added Vancouver because, believe it or not, we had a few days left at the end of our packed schedule.

Driving long, empty stretches is a form of meditation. The monotony of the road allows for ruminating and reflecting on life. Which is exactly what Tanja and I did while driving over 7000 km (about 4500 miles). After many tears and more laughter, I had made three big realizations.

First, I was not enjoying life, because I had slid into an attitude of coasting and letting things happen to me, rather than taking control and intentionally direct the course of my life. Second, I no longer wanted to be a lawyer anymore. Third, I wanted to finally realize my dream of moving to North America. One bold decision, turned out to be the answer to all three.

Culmination

Tanja and I took the decision while walking along Vancouver’s English Bay Beach. The city had seduced us with its gentle Summer and kind people. I told Tanja about my realizations, and about how the US (and Canada) felt a lot more at home to me, than Belgium did. I’ll forever be grateful for Tanja’s reply to my thoughts. She said “ok, let’s move here.”

As if hit by lightning, I felt a shift in my life. For the first time in a long time, I felt alive again. The seed I’d planted when leaving Seattle 9 years earlier, had become a seedling.

Move across the world with 6 suitcases and 2 cats

Resolutions are one thing, manifesting them another. Executing our plan to move from Belgium to Canada was a challenge of a magnitude I hadn’t experienced yet. The application process for the immigrant visas, quitting our jobs, selling all of our belongings, saying goodbye to friends and family and the move across the world with 6 suitcases and 2 cats. On October 6, 2011, we arrived in Vancouver, BC as new immigrants. For over a year, I’d lived towards that moment. There had been times where things felt like hell, where I wondered why I’d made the choices I’d made, and if they were worth the trade-offs. But there we were, in Vancouver, just like we’d promised each other. Ready to start a new life. I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Let me tell you a story

When I left Belgium behind, I made a deliberate choice to no longer coast through life. I have been given the unique opportunity to start over, and do better. Not a day has gone by that I have been ungrateful for this chance. Which most certainly doesnot mean it’s been easy. The last 7 years have been the exact opposite of how I’ve experienced the 10 years before. Where my life once felt as a slow death by boredom, it has turned into a true rollercoaster that makes me feel alive every single moment. I’m going to tell you the story of that rollercoaster.

Good stories follow a fixed narrative. There’s a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning, a protagonist finds themself in a less than ideal situation. Next, a challenge-ridden transition takes place in the middle part, and finally the protagonist will be better off in the ending, living happily ever after. Unfortunately, our brain plays tricks on us. It remembers the beginning and ending best. The middle part with its growing pains is easily forgotten. It’s how the human mind works. And because of that, society.

Where’s my perfect ending?

Our fast-moving world has become obsessed with the successful endings of others. It tells us about their less-than-ideal beginnings, and how they reached their perfect outcome. Of course, the transition was quick, easy, pain-free and with a “no questions asked 30-day money back guarantee”. Meanwhile, we feel stuck in a challenge-ridden middle part, with no end in sight. Where’s our perfect ending? Where’s our happily ever after?

By going along in the obsession with the ending, we neglect the valuable lessons of the middle part. It’s where we learn that transition means growth, and that growth involves inevitable discomfort and pain. It’s where learn that success is not waving a magic wand, but a process of trial and error full of small victories and failures.

My resolution

Here at Primal Pioneers, I’m going to tell you about my story. I’ve already introduced you to my beginning: the part where my life felt anything but satisfying. I’ll also give you a sneak peek at the ending: I have no clue of what it’ll look like, but my quest is to live a satisfying and connected life.

As for my middle part, that’s what starts here. I’m going to tell you about my trials and errors. About what worked for me, and what didn’t. I’ve already touched on my first steps: quitting my previous career as a lawyer and moving to Canada. In the next I’ll take you deeper into the next chapters of my life. And at some point, we’ll have caught up to the present, which means I’ll tell you about my present challenges. Because you deserve to hear the entireauthenticstory.

I believe that we’re all in this life together, struggling with the same challenges. I also believe in the value of coming together so we can share our stories, learn from and support each other. Life is short enough as it is. So let’s make the best of it. Together.