The power of connection

This September, after a long time, I enjoyed my first short holiday in Spain. Lovely Sitges, situated at the rocky coast close to Barcelona, is a welcoming town with friendly people and a very relaxed atmosphere. Walking along the promenade was safe even at nighttime, and outside the main tourist season it turned out to be surprisingly quiet and restful. 

Reconnecting with a friend I had not seen in ages while staying at his local B&B in a room with a spectacular sea-view felt very special. Communication through phone or video calls provides a bridge I am thankful for, but meeting and talking with someone in real life is so much more enjoyable. And we had a lot to catch up on.

So I found myself waking up to the sound of the ocean, looking at pink coloured clouds in the morning sky while getting served a fantastic breakfast. Sitting on my balcony in the evening, it was amazing to watch the sun setting behind the famous landmark church of St. Bartomeu and Santa Tecla turning the sea into shimmering gold. Enjoying walks along the coast in the balmy air filled with the aromatic scent of pine trees and gazing at surfers riding the waves.

I cannot remember having ever been at a place where I felt compelled to take so many pictures of the same view at different times of the day. Again and again, trying to capture the beauty, the changing colours, these delightful moments full of relaxation, peace and joy. A wonderful place.

Time slowed down it appeared and so did I, living at a very different, intentional pace savouring every minute. It did me good and made me connect with myself again. It also tipped me off balance somehow. 

When time came to return home I wasn’t ready for it, instantly regretting not being able to stay longer. This longing for a change of scenery, the connection I had built already during these few days to this place, to my friend and people I met were stronger than I had expected.

Back home now, I am trying to maintain this somehow detached sensation, feeling happy and sad at the same time and dreaming of the ocean waves at night.

Life is a journey, not a destination. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I had missed traveling a lot. During the past two years since covid turned our lives upside down and we all had to stay put, my mind had often traveled instead: to people and places I could not visit, wondering if and when I would find them again, changed somehow or maybe unchanged, connecting to them in my thoughts and wishing them well.

Telling myself not having the need for traveling and being ok with breaks at home certainly worked by pushing this thought to the furthest corner of my mind, but I hoped to return to it for sure one day.

Life goes on regardless. We are looking at the same sky, and all that was left for a long time was hoping we’d come out of this situation unharmed. 

Now it feels like emerging from a long tunnel, blinded at first by the light, incredulous to find the light is still there.

Carefully adjusting, still cautious while stepping back into life. Noticing changes, losses and new realities. Questioning old approaches and trying new ones.

We know more now. We are counting our blessings. We remain watchful, realistic though confident. We made it.

Looking at the Spanish people who survived covid and all the heartbreak coming along with it I felt deeply for them. People having lost loved ones, their business or livelihoods, the toll it took on them is enormous.

What struck me was their rigour and discipline complying with the rules still in place – far more strict than in my own country – and on the other hand how much they enjoyed life with family and friends making the most of every minute. Sensing resilience in these friendly faces of people sitting outdoors in cafes or walking on the promenade, I felt happy they had pushed through. The human spirit is not broken.

The pandemic has hit us hard and left its traces. Some decisions taken turned out to be too harsh, but nobody knew better when all of this started. Some decisions were not strict enough, too little too late or being enforced half-heartedly. Some wrong turns were taken and it became obvious that many governments simply chose the usual complacent, unimaginative modus operandi, opting for “the easy way” instead of making bold moves and focusing far more on people’s needs.

Imagine, what we could all do – together – if we really wanted to. (Greta Thunberg)

But then, as is so often the case, it is the ordinary citizens who do the right thing. So many people extending a hand, generous, committed, exploring solutions and offering help in a multitude of creative ways. Building new networks, taking care of, supporting, upholding and inspiring each other. Not giving up. Suddenly, things shifted fast. And that shows us where we should be heading.

I am really curious: what will change further, what will remain? Will we build on what we have learned and build back better? Will we fall back into old mistakes?

Will we finally pluck up the courage to set the course for a sustainable future and a people focused society?

The importance and power of human connection is not a dramatically new insight, but it has become clear once again: this is what matters most, above all else.

Regularly meeting my friends here in Utrecht – outside and at a distance –  got me through pandemic time. What a blessing. 

Being able to visit my family in Germany this year brought back a piece of normalcy into my life and calmed my worrying mind.

Welcoming the first visitors at my place and now finally, starting to travel again and reconnecting with friends further away and in other countries is just great. 

Did we need a reminder to make sure we re-focus our thoughts and actions on what really counts in life?

For sure, connection to others is the invisible fabric that carries us through. We can’t do without it. 

How to overcome the “If only” game

Going through rough times can make us question things in our lives, a habit borne out of utter frustration, exhaustion and sadness.

“If only I had grown up differently with different parents in a different part of the world then I’d have less problems in my life, be more successful, could easily do what other people seem to be able to manage so effortlessly.”

“If only I had gotten that job I applied for, had not failed my exam, if my health were better, if I had found the love of my life, then…what? 

Then my life would be so much better and I’d be happy, had no problems…”

Really?

Sounds as if there was a parallel universe somewhere, pain-free and perfect with endless happiness, and we just didn’t land in it by taking a wrong turn. Or even worse, something completely outside of our control – call it fate or bad luck – decided to drop us into the miserable universe. And so we are dwelling in the past, imagining what could have been. What we lost or presumably missed out on. Wasting our time by thinking “if only”. 

Not so long ago I had a conversation along these lines with my mother about the difficulties my father encountered in his job decades ago. Difficulties which “would not have occurred if this job had been in a big city rather than in that small village he worked, where so much was only about politics”. As if she thought of it as a cloud somehow dimming his otherwise impressive achievements. 

Who you are meant to be evolves from where you are right now. Learning to appreciate your lessons, mistakes and setbacks as stepping stones for the future, is a clear sign you are moving into the right direction. (Oprah Winfrey)

Whatever path we decide to embark on, it always comes with a mixed package of joy, sorrow and clouds. There is always a chance that it might not turn out as expected. We cannot expect things to be easy, and there is certainly no such thing like a perfect life.

A difficult experience however, does no de-value your chosen path in life, because in fact, it’s the difficult things that determine who we become.

And that’s what we usually tend to forget: adversity actually makes us who we are. Always. 

Without it we would not evolve in life. Like it or not – it is the painful things that shape us and make us more resilient. 

Sure, you lose something, but you gain something else for it. Living through a tough experience, you transcend into another person, thereby coming closer to who you are supposed to be. 

It is of course, hard to see it that way, particularly when you are right in the middle of it. And it might sometimes feel impossible to even see the tiniest bit of light. 

We seem to have a reflex going into denial, fighting against it in fear and frustration, which is useless as we cannot make what’s happened undone. We cannot change the past. And over a lot of things we simply do not have any control. Like other people’s minds and their decisions, luck or chance, accidents, illnesses, disasters…

Complaining about life treating us unfairly and that we have done nothing wrong to deserve it, will not change anything either. Life is not fair, there is just this notion in our head that it should be. Also contrary to what some of us believe: what happens to us is not retribution meted out by a higher force to punish us. John Kabat-Zinn calls our daily struggles “full catastrophe living” which I find a very fitting description of human existence.

We only make it harder for ourselves by thinking “I do not want this – where is the reverse button in my life?”.

So, what’s the better option? Stop fighting it.

Don’t mourn your loss in a way as if you were never able to recover. As if you had fallen down into a hole and things would inevitably get even worse from now on.That’s not what it is like. 

You need to mourn for sure, but when you are done you will still be there. The earth will not have opened up and swallowed you. 

And then you get back up.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. (Brené Brown)

Giving up this struggle is an advice I find very difficult to take myself. Finding the trust and confidence to go through a bad experience while waiting for the pain to subside and learning to live with it often feels like a tough order. More than we can (or are willing to) take at that very moment.

It might take some time before we can arrive there. Re-visiting painful time periods and events in my own life years later made me realize how much I have learned and grown since then and how they made me turn into a different direction. How some of them even brought me closer to the point where I am right now. 

Without them it might have been easier – sure, but it also would have taken longer to learn a lesson I needed to learn. Some doors apparently were not meant for me to open, but others did instead.

Maybe it is about re-arranging things in our mind in hindsight, to make them fall into place, and – more importantly – to make our peace with them as part of our story.

Life is about the journey to understand yourself. Stay curious.

The story I am making up in my head…

As Brené Brown puts it in her fantastic book “Dare to Lead”: making up stories is what the human mind is designed to do. We have the need to make sense of something we do not – or not fully – understand, so we fill the information gaps with our own interpretations. Sounds familiar?

We all experience it. It is bound to happen almost daily, because we usually only have part of the information which we actually would need to assess a situation or a person’s behaviour in a proper way. 

And what comes into play here are our own fears and insecurities which determine the shape of the story unfolding in our head. What we do is more or less brainwashing ourselves, sending us into a negative spiral quickly getting us into a bad or defensive mood. It may leave us feeling hurt and often causes needless conflicts with others. 

It happens many times a day and everyone does it, in every context, if work related or in personal relationships. To move to the point of becoming aware what we are doing and why, then stop for a moment and reflect on the story we just made up is not easy and takes a lot of practice.  

It is definitely worth it though to do some regular “fact-checking” of our self- created stories, because it can give us a spin into a different and more positive direction. It can avoid conflicts. It can make a difference in our day and determine how we sleep at night. It can give us a feeling of achievement if we manage to beat the odds from time to time, and moves us closer to developing a healthy, positive habit interacting with our fellow human beings. 

Some weeks ago I became aware of it again while reading these chapters in Brene Brown’s book and applying her advice to a work situation. Having had a conversation with my manager earlier who – even though sharing my concerns – reminded me to give a colleague “the benefit of the doubt”, was a starting point making me realize that my thoughts and interpretations were filling indeed an information gap. I certainly did not know the full story. We never can. 

That’s why it is so important not to assume too much about other people’s intentions. There is always a reason why people do what they do, and the easiest way to find out more is actually to ask them. We can and should always ask more questions.

Even knowing that, I also noticed how hard it is to get out of this blaming habit, and how easy it is to just keep on giving out about others who are not doing what I think is right, and get worked up about it. I try to actively stop myself each time I fall back into that behaviour in a stressful situation, but I don’t always succeed. Yes, it’s hard.

Don’t believe everything you think

Katie Byron’s “The Work” offers a similar concept. She proposes to ask ourselves certain questions whenever we are assuming too much – and usually negative  – about a person’s intentions or a situation. Questions like: “Can you absolutely know this is true? What does this thought do to you and what would you be without it?” It leads to more self-awareness pinpointing our behaviour of making up stories.

There are several different ways to get to more self-awareness which is the first step toward influencing this seemingly inevitable behaviour. Once it becomes clear that we are the creators of our thoughts we can take control. We have the freedom and also the responsibility to decide otherwise, even if it takes more effort and is easier said than done.

Ultimately, it is about deciding how we want to communicate with others. What feels better for ourselves and is in sync with our core values: being antagonistic, judgemental, getting back at someone – or being kind but setting clear boundaries? 

We do not fully see people until we know their values. (Brené Brown)

What Brené Brown calls “the assumption of positive intent”, she defines as “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.” (Brené Brown, Dare to Lead)

Which means that it makes our lives easier once we are assuming people are doing the best they can, instead of thinking they want to annoy us on purpose. We can never know it for sure of course, but assuming others’ positive intent is certainly the better premise to start from. It ties in with having a glass half full approach, believing that most people are indeed pretty decent.

And once we take this approach we are often in for a nice surprise, realizing that the perceived problem might in fact not exist outside of our head, and a a completely innocent or touching explanation is at the heart of the matter which got us so worked up. Showing someone else that we care to know more about their reasons can strengthen our connection to them. 

Wanting and trying to understand is human, however, the manner we employ to get to this understanding is up to us.