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.

Finding our Purpose

“Your purpose is changing throughout your life. Your skills and unique qualities remain the same, but what you are using them for can of course change, as your life situation changes, you learn and evolve.”

This thought I heard while listening to Oprah Winfrey’s podcast “Super Soul” is actually very true. It taps into the multitude of interests and talents we have. And it offers new perspectives. We do not have to stand still in life but move forward and enjoy how we grow while doing it. 

When I was younger I couldn’t really make up my mind about what exactly I wanted to do in life and what would be “the right decision”. My creative interests were very broad, but it didn’t occur to me to use any of them to earn a living. Work, I thought, had to be something more “serious”. Well…

Then I started studying the law. This very serious profession turned out to be not my calling at all, nevertheless, I finished the education. The idea to switch to journalism frequently popped up in my head but I dismissed it after encountering too many obstacles. Trying unsuccessfully to get a job in law, I later got into the Tech world, building on my analytical strengths.

“The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.” (Brené Brown)

The concept of dabbling at a few things for fun and learning through the creative process was not clear to me at that time. I also restricted what I enjoyed doing – like painting, singing or writing – to be merely private interests or hobbies. Time went by and I began to neglect these things that were actually so close to my heart, not realizing how much I was missing out.

According to Brené Brown, everybody is creative, the question is just whether a person is making use of these very unique talents or not. She even says that not allowing ourselves to express our creativity is harmful for us. Thinking back on that period of my life I certainly agree that I robbed myself of a source of joy and enrichment which could have been an important influence on my work-life-balance. 

Reactivating my creative interests more than 2 years ago has brought a lot of enjoyment back into my life. To see my fast development in the creative process gave me a boost of energy. Interestingly enough it helped me approaching even my tasks at work in a more creative way. Definitely win-win.

“The resources you need to fulfil your dream will gravitate naturally toward you.“ (Jack Canfield)

Some people find their purpose when they are very young. Others find it later in life, and some might decide not to follow it at all. It has taken me quite a while in my life until I finally began the journey to finding my purpose by following my inner voice, and since I have started writing I feel like coming closer to it. It is also an active decision not to stagger through life on auto-pilot but to take control, be present and question and change my approach. 

What is also very true: Simply by focusing on your dream you will notice things which were in fact, always there, but now you are paying attention. And you will find likeminded people once sharing your thoughts with others. Talking to friends or colleagues of mine I often found them to be on a similar quest. Maybe we should more often start a conversation with the question “What is your dream?”

Re-visiting that old idea of mine to more seriously engage in writing and sharing what I learned, I finally pushed aside previous concerns from long ago. It’s never too late to give it a try.

“The dream does not come unless the capacity to achieve it comes with it.” (Jack Canfield)

What I have learned and realized since then on this journey is that living your life’s purpose means essentially: Doing what you love to do, what you are good at, and accomplishing in life what’s important to you. Finding your very personal answer to the question which difference you want to make.

And once this becomes the driver in your life many things suddenly fall into place. It takes discipline of course to stay on this pathway. Fortunately, you notice the recurring theme in many podcasts, books, TED talks, articles etc. which gives the needed impulses and serves as a welcome reminder from time to time.

Like the little book from John Strelecky which my brother recently gave me as a gift: “The Cafe On the Edge of the World” which is a wonderful tale on the importance of finding one’s purpose. An inspiring and impressive read, it speaks to the heart asking exactly those questions, another reminder for me reinforcing my resolve.  

Because this very individual journey takes as long as it takes, figuring it out. 

What I really enjoy: discovering new insights and learnings along the way, realizing that I can trust the right time for my next move will come. I do not need to know all the next steps lying ahead to get started on something. 

Having a preference for structure and planning, it was of course not so easy for me to take that approach. But moving out of my comfort zone in that regard has worked well for me so far, and surprisingly, I am feeling more in tune now with my inner voice. 

“The world belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”(Eleanor Roosevelt)

So, coming back to Oprah’s quote that “our purpose is changing”: it makes perfect sense, considering what we pick up and learn on our personal quest, broadening our horizon and always asking questions while moving forward. There is no need to restrict ourselves. And the more we learn the more we can give back to others. 

There will never be a time in life when we are finally “perfect” or so accomplished that we would not need to learn anything new anymore. We are constantly learning and trying out new pathways. Our decisions shape who we are and who we become, and our mistakes teach us. It’s important to acknowledge this as a part of life – inevitable, sometimes of course, very frustrating, yet enriching. 

Looking back, I think now that life is not about “taking the right decision”. There is no such thing as a cookbook about life (important to convey this to the younger generation!). Deciding to turn into a different direction at some point leads into a new world, brings new insights or makes us change our preferences. Being able to use our unique personal talents and skills for these different bus stops we encounter in life is a gift.

Actually, our path itself – in a constant state of flux – is the destination. Once you give it a try walking down on it and be open-minded about what you may find, you’ll surprise yourself.

Resources:

You find Oprah Winfrey’s podcast Super Soul on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

Brené Brown is a researcher and author of several highly recommendable books: 

Check out Jack Canfield, success coach and co-creator of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”: 

More about author John Strelecky and his inspiring books – here