Over the holidays last year, I was fortunate to have been selected for a retreat abroad in Santiago, Chile. I was going with friends in the same Master’s program as me for a few days of rest, reflection and exploration. What could be better after a whirlwind holiday season?

However, within just a few hours of arriving and while stopped at a monastery to begin our reflection, our bus was robbed. Everyone, all twenty-six of us traveling together, had our bags stolen. Some even had backpacks stolen as well.

I was one of the few who lost everything – every belonging I had brought with me besides the clothes I was wearing and my cell phone. It was a shocking and unsettling way to start the trip and I didn’t know how to process it at first. I was in disbelief. But slowly, as I realized that I would need to cancel debit cards, get a new driver’s license and passport – not to mention some clothes for the next week on the trip – I was able to learn a few lessons that go deeper than possessions.

1. People are incredibly generous.

As I said, I lost everything that I’d brought with me. But I was fortunate to have kind and generous people surrounding me. Friends were more than willing to pay for my lunch or help me purchase a bag to keep my (few) valuables in. Not only were they generous with their money, but also generous with their time and support. It was a shocking and scary experience, but whenever I needed to talk about it or make sense of the situation, I could turn to anyone on the trip and voice my concerns freely.

I felt so taken care of by my group that I can hardly express my thanks to them now. One friend made sure I always had my morning coffee and even offered to get me an Uber when we returned to the States, since I had lost my train card. Another friend gave me his sweater because I would be returning to a cold climate, whereas he was going to the southern, sunny U.S.

2. Share what you have.

Through this experience I discovered the joy of being able to share what you have with others, especially when you have very little. Without any material items of my own to share, I still wanted to pay back those who were helping me. So I tried to share any food I had, my time and my ear.

Those who hadn’t lost everything in the robbery still lost a lot – at the very least, their entire suitcase – but they shared whatever they did have. Hair ties, spare change, makeup, shampoo, jackets, you name it. It certainly bonded us more closely and quickly than we would have had the chance to do had our trip gone as planned.

… I discovered the joy of being able to share what you have with others, especially when you have very little.

3. A sense of humor is invaluable.

While I wasn’t ready to laugh about what happened right away, a sense of humor absolutely helped us process later on. One of my favorite ways to laugh about our circumstances was when we had to go shopping at a dollar store – with limited offerings to choose from – and everyone ended up matching all day, every day.

We came up with creative outfits re-wearing our new Chilean clothes and laughed at how funny we must look, traveling together as a group of foreigners in matching grocery store clothes. Though most of us had lost brand-new Christmas gifts, many of which were clothes, we were able to forget about that for a bit and created funny hashtags for our new fashion trends.

bw coat

4. Everyone deals differently.

I know my personality type and I know that I am a feeler. I’ve never been able to hide my emotions, but I also don’t like to discuss them all the time. I keep things inside until I’m ready to share. As I’ve grown up I’ve learned healthier ways of viewing and processing my emotions; feelings are part of the human experience.

However, our reactions to our feelings or the way we let them control us can be wrong. It’s important to realize that each person processes things in a unique way and that no one way is right or wrong. We need to let each person process what he or she feels in the way that they need to, as long as it doesn’t harm that person or others.

5. If you can’t change it, then learn from it.

Dealing with this robbery certainly caused frustration. It was inconvenient, expensive and time-consuming, but it also helped me stop dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone over the moments before leaving the bus in my head, but I can’t change what happened. So instead of trying to change it in my imagination, I should spend my energy on learning from it. Instead of focusing on those “what ifs,” I should spend my energy thinking about “what now.”

As difficult and perhaps as uncomfortable as it can be, in situations beyond our control, it’s better to move beyond what happened and move forward.

Though it may sound odd, the experience of this robbery filled me with renewed gratitude. No one on my trip was harmed – or even present – when the robbery happened. We were safe and we had each other. I was still able to share incredible experiences with my classmates and friends in a foreign country, which is a gift in and of itself. Being in a large group made such a difference to me throughout the experience. As I went over what happened in my head and tried to recover the things I’d lost, I realized they were just things and I would always have the memories attached to them. I’m still myself without my things and I can never be robbed of my memories.

Shedding those items, though involuntarily, freed me in a way I would not have otherwise experienced. It simplified what was important in a dramatic, sudden way. When something like this happens or we’re just faced with circumstances that we didn’t expect, it will change us no matter how we react. But if we focus on what we can control, like what we share with others or what we spend our energy doing, and open ourselves to the moment, we might be surprised by what we learn about ourselves.

Have you ever had a sudden, dramatic experience like this? What did it teach you?

Images via Molly Zaidman


  1. I recently went through a situation where I was assulted and robbed of a slew of personal belongings and work computers. After the initial shock, I was overwhelmed with a sense of thankfulness that the outcome was not worse as I walked away with only a few scrapes and bruises.

    I was moved when my bosses not only got new equipment for me quickly, but gave me a donation to cover some of the personal items I had lost. Throughout this process, my perspective on what is actually important in life was redirected. (I road rage a lot less in traffic now 😉

    I’m a firm believer that any situation you face is a character builder. There will always be light and darkness in the world, so don’t let tough times make you bitter, let them make you better!

  2. This is brilliant! Nothing one doesn’t really know, but most can’t learn from such experiences. It applies to so much more than just getting robbed abroad. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Not quite as bad as losing all your stuff abroad, but I was recently robbed of my wallet while having a coffee with a friend in Chicago. It was frustrating at first, but to my amazement, I quickly felt pretty chill about it. There was nothing I could do, and getting upset wasn’t going to change that.

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