How to navigate these times of uncertainty

“We must not lose faith”, my colleague Elena recently said to me. How true. I have been thinking about it ever since. More than one month now into the madness of this terrible war in Ukraine, unfolding while we are watching, often in real time through social media, how people lose their homes and their lives, cities being reduced to ashes. One month that has shattered quite a few firm-held beliefs, exposed illusions and left us severely concerned for the future.

But it also brought so many of us closer together, standing firm in our resolve to do the right thing and not let evil win. Hanging in midair between desperate hope and deepest sorrow. If only the power of our thoughts could make it all end – and yet it doesn’t.

I am certainly not the only one feeling this way, that’s why we see so much determination among people, so many outstretched hands and support. People go out of their way to help.

We have to hold on. No matter how nerve-wrecking it may be, how easy it might seem to slip into despair. We got to have faith and hold on even more. We owe it to those experiencing unfathomable suffering. We need to be strong – for their sake.

Yes, our influence on what happens is very limited. But I feel that we nevertheless must conjure the power of good, relentlessly. To create a counterbalance that will turn the ship around one day. 

“I can’t say I have confidence in the future, but I have a lot of confidence in its unpredictability, based on the fact that the past has regularly delivered surprises…. We need to have confidence that surprise and uncertainty are unshakable principles, if we want to have confidence in something. And recognize that in that uncertainty is room to act, to try to shape a future that will be determined by what we do in the present.” (Rebecca Solnit)

In the space of the past weeks we had our share of surprises already. And so had our governments, realizing that their citizens are far more decent and reasonable in the face of adversity than they had previously assumed. Yes, people take responsibility, in many different ways, often unusual and surprising.

Proving again that most people are indeed pretty decent. The worse the situation gets the more we must be at our best. And that is the only thing we can do. Good and evil usually lie very close to one other in daily life. Sometimes, they are even two sides of the same coin. What does matter is on which side we decide to focus on.

It’s good to remind ourselves that nothing is perfect in any way: not people, nor their behaviour nor any decisions taken. It can always only be as good as it gets. We need to bear that in mind, as there never is a perfect solution. But focusing on the good does make a real difference, and effecting change inevitably requires making adjustments while moving along. We’ll get there.

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. (Desmond Tutu)

Only in the darkness can you see the stars. (Martin Luther King)

At first, I was watching the news daily, almost continuously, longing from day to day for the war to finally stop, hoping not more lives to get lost, not more destruction to happen. As if turning away somehow meant abandoning these people in my thoughts.

Imagine having to flee your country because your life is threatened, but knowing full well the place you called home could be erased from the map forever. What a profound sadness this evokes. I understand how people can get uprooted by such a traumatic experience of losing everything they hold dear.

However, we are doomed to watch from the sidelines. Failing to push events to the back of my mind, I struggled to focus on my own life which did me no good. Once these images entered into my dreams at night I just couldn’t go on like this. That’s when I drastically reduced my news intake. 

What also really helped to calm me down was taking care of a little lamb in my friends’ flock of sheep. It is the second time in the last years that I am helping to raise a lamb, and spending time with these peaceful animals in the stable every evening, knowing they trust me, is so good for the heart and soul. 

My hope is on the things we don’t see, things going on behind the scenes, hidden from our view. The people who covertly connect, negotiate and work on solutions. I put my hopes on them. Not all is lost. Help is coming from unexpected sides as well, and maybe we will never even know about all of it.

We Europeans are painfully aware of how much more is at stake now. It’s also our freedom which is being defended in Ukraine. 

There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster. (Dalai Lama)

It is hard to bear looking evil in the face – and that’s what we are doing, listening to the pleas for help knowing full well we ordinary citizens cannot do more. While hoping for a miracle where to turn our thoughts? And what to focus on?

It does not help anyone to put our own lives on hold. We need to uphold ourselves and others in these times of uncertainty, sending signals of hope in the dark:

  • Getting involved helping the refugees of war in whatever manner we can. It might feel like a small contribution but it aids healing and gives a sense of purpose.
  • However horrible it is what we are witnessing: the world doesn’t stop turning and there are people who need us to be at our best: our children, friends or colleagues, or whoever is in need of a helping hand. 
  • Continuing to share our knowledge, particularly with the young, supporting them and making them stronger, is one of the best investments into the future.
  • Be creative. Creation is the opposite of destruction. It enlightens our hearts, and bears witness to the resilient human spirit.
  • Taking care of our mental health is essential. To witness a war unfolding up close is a nightmare, so cut yourself some slack, and take time to re-charge, particularly if involved as a volunteer in helping the refugees. And avoid consuming news in any form in the evening if you want to get a good nights’ sleep.
  • It is not wrong to cherish and appreciate the good we have. We need to enjoy what life offers us. Carpe diem.
  • Be more conscious of the beauty of ordinary things, grateful for their existence and the joy they give us in this very moment. They will keep us grounded. 

This is very much a reminder of our own mortality and how to use our time on earth well.

I will never apologize for embracing joy and beauty – even when the world is falling apart – because joy and beauty are my fuel for activism. (Karen Walrond)

The pointless and evil can never win. That I do believe.

Words of solace in hard times

The world is not the same anymore today. Illusions have been lost forever, and we are opening our eyes to a new and scary reality. Once again. As if the covid pandemic wasn’t enough to show us our vulnerability and recklessness, asking for drastic changes. No catching our breath.

For a moment I briefly hesitated if I should really write about this grave subject of war in Europe. But I cannot ignore what the events of the last days mean for us. There is so much at stake and it has the potential to scare us out of our minds, considering all possible implications. That’s the feeling when realizing you are dealing with someone completely unpredictable who is prepared to go to considerable lengths.

Suddenly, every ordinary thing I look at, every task I do has become so insignificant. It’s a wonderfully sunny day in late February, and I realize once again how many things I take for granted. Having a home, food and water, being able to sleep at night without fear. My life is not threatened. My family and friends are safe.

Starting work yesterday morning, the daily problems we had to solve appeared like petty playground games to me in comparison. Nobody is going to die at our workplace if a report is delayed. (Maybe this should be my answer  in the future in some of our conference calls.) I am thinking more and more about how scary the current situation must feel for my colleagues in Romania which is sharing a border with Ukraine.

Speaking to my parents in Germany who were teenagers during World War II, it’s really tough on them. They were both displaced back then, had to flee their homes. Having to leave behind people and places you love must be unimaginably sad. Watching the pictures on TV now brings back all those memories for them. They are devastated and frightened. 

I grew up with these war stories because they both talked openly about it, hence I had probably less illusions about peace being a given. But when something like this happens it is still a shock. So I spent today moving between crying and defiance. Staying away from the news is difficult right now as fear seems to glue us to the TV or online news, looking at the ghastly empty streets of Kyiv. Then I went for a walk seeking the soothing powers of nature.

There is still hope. There always is. 

Of course, there are chances.

Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word. (Cory Booker)

  • The time is now to respond unanimously. We are stronger together, that is one of the lessons to be learned.
  • Acknowledging past mistakes made and learning from them quickly. Change has to come fast now, and it can. We’ve already seen it.
  • Making hard decisions and accept they will hurt ourselves as well to some extent. Absolute transparency of governments with their citizens about the consequences.
  • Strategically important in the long term: the willingness to deal with crises in countries outside of Europe, to prevent escalation that could otherwise, eventually fall onto our own feet some day. 
  • Another interesting and very hopeful prospect: finding a solution to the stalemate situation in the UN security council.

The time is always right to do what is right. (Martin Luther King)

After all, this is a chance to getting our priorities right. A reality check.

And let’s not forget: we are living in the digital age now, having much more transparency than there ever was before. Let’s use it to our advantage.  (The anonymous hacking group appears to be doing exactly that.)

What I say might sound like a citizens’ wish-list for our governments – and it actually is. Feeling powerless without influence on their decisions, all is left is my hope they will come to their senses, leaving their differences in opinion aside.

This situation is a crucible. It is heartbreaking and sadly, realistically, there is more heartbreak to come. How we will emerge from it remains to be seen. 

But we need to hang in there, refusing to give up. 

Because there is always a chance.

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. 

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