Hope During Uncertainty

Oregon, United States

I just had the extreme privilege of being the closing keynote speaker for Relocate Global’s 2020 Great International School and Education Fair. It brought together some of my favorite authors, coaches, and speakers in the globally mobile and cross-cultural world to share wisdom insight and knowledge.

Closing out a conference is an honor and a daunting task… and I wanted to close on “hope” which could easily be considered even more daunting considering the fact that it’s 2020 and a lot has erupted this year that’s eroded our certainty.

One thing that’s been highlighted is interdependence – and I think that’s a good thing. Technology has provided ample opportunity for us to function more independently – which is convenient, but I still think we need to engage interdependently for our own emotional and social wellbeing. If anything, the global pandemic has caused us to lean more on each other and realize how much we miss connection when it’s taken away.

I often quote a study from the University of Michigan which found that since 2000, there has been a 40% drop in empathy in college students. That’s a worrying trend, and various factors are at play as far as the reasons for the drop – but I think it’s an obvious indicator that we need to intentionally hone our empathy skills. Empathy (the ability to be moved by the feelings of others) isn’t just a “touchy-feely” term, it’s a basic underlying framework that holds society together.

The pandemic has brought interdependence and empathy into focus as we’ve had to scramble to find new ways to connect… and there may actually be some longterm benefits to our renewed focus – and the necessity to get creative to stay connected. Loneliness was an issue even before the pandemic. In fact, in 2015 TIME magazine ran an article titled, “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue”. Loneliness isn’t good for us, and 2020 has highlighted that on an amazingly wide scale… as a result we’re more focused on dealing with it than we may have been otherwise.

Working with Third Culture Kids, expats, and the globally mobile has made me very appreciative of how the skills they possess, an increasingly globalized world needs; and the challenges they face, we’re all now facing. Going back to the pandemic again, it’s as if the entire planet has been sent on an assignment to a completely different situation and is having to learn to adapt… much like many in the expat and globally mobile arena have done… just on a far larger scale.

I really do believe we can use hope to navigate uncertainty. TCKs and the globally mobile community are – as the sociologist, Ted Ward, said in the 1980s, “the prototype citizens of the future.” At this point, the future is now… and even though our problems, challenges, and issues are now more on a global scale – so is our power to overcome them. As the world continues to globalize and move closer and closer to the experience of TCKs, I take hope by looking at what the cross-cultural community has to offer.

Loneliness

Oregon, United States

In recent discussions with students, teachers, and even parents – the topic of loneliness has come up frequently. Loneliness is a feeling common to everyone… which is a bit ironic: a feeling associated with isolation is something we all share. But that’s the thing about loneliness – it’s complicated. To combat it, we need to unpack it.

Loneliness is closely related to feelings of loss. Loneliness is the feeling that we’ve lost connection, lost our role, or even our value. Loneliness is the anticipation of or recognition of these losses. It can be a powerful motivator because being alone is incredibly unhealthy. One study suggests that loneliness, living alone, and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases your risk of dying early by as much as 29%!

We’ve all experienced what it’s like to actually be alone, and we are usually pretty good at recognizing it in others. For example, being the new kid in school is a terrifying feeling of loneliness – made all the more pronounced because you’re actually in a crowd. That sense of being alone is so powerful that it motivates us to divert a lot of effort into finding friends, being known, and belonging. It’s often memories of what it was like before those connections that fuel our feelings of loneliness even as adults.

The phrasing of that last sentence is important because we need to bear in mind that loneliness is really a feeling, not a fact.

Most often we feel alone because something has triggered a memory of abandonment or isolation: we’re more likely struggling with a memory of being alone (and the resulting anticipation of loss) rather than actually being alone or isolated.

When we encounter feelings of loneliness, we try to make sense of them. We try to rationalize our feelings, which seems appropriate – but feelings aren’t always easily translated into logic so we can sometimes end up with faulty reasoning… for example: I feel alone so it must be because nobody cares, nobody loves me, or I’m not important enough. That gives a logical framework to the feeling, but probably not an accurate one, just an easy one.

The challenge is that while we’re trying to bring logic to bear on feelings (to make sense of them and move on), if our logic is false it allows insecurities to creep in. That’s what makes feelings of loneliness so dangerous.

Many people report feelings of loneliness during this pandemic because we’ve lost a lot of the normal ways we connect. It’s easy for our minds to race to make sense of these profound feelings and tell us that we must be unloved, uncared for, or unimportant… and that’s simply not true.

One frequent actual cause for feelings of loneliness is simple misalignment. Not everyone feels how you feel at the same time. Not everyone needs what you need (or knows what you need) at conveniently aligned times. For example, you may be in need of company but those around you are busy and distracted. We all to easily project our needs onto other people so we make assumptions that they know we need company but are too busy with other priorities. This situation is not an assessment of how valuable or important you are, it’s just misaligned circumstances.

This ties into the fact that we often put ourselves in the center of the story we’re using to interpret reality. A busy friend isn’t focused on you and intentionally ignoring you – they’re just in the middle of their own story. We aren’t the center of every story, and that’s actually a good thing! Putting yourself at the center of everyone’s story makes you create scenarios where people value you less than they really do. In actuality, I can love you sincerely without thinking of you every minute of every day… you do the same for the people you love.

With all this in mind, one powerful way to combat loneliness is to stop focusing inwards, and intentionally empathize with other people. You can use feelings of loneliness as reminders to check in on someone else – it’s a win-win scenario because you focus your attention away from dwelling on loneliness and may help someone else as well!

Reaching out can be a challenge because sometimes loneliness tricks us into wrapping ourselves in it, rather than getting out of it. It’s like finding ourselves outside in the cold – and loneliness offers us a blanket. We can put that on and stay in the cold… or we could just move inside where it’s warm.

Don’t stay in the cold. Don’t be fooled into wrapping yourself up with loneliness. Don’t wait to be reached out to: if you feel lonely, do the reaching out… even if you don’t feel like it. Remember that feelings of loneliness are not facts, they’re feelings – and feelings (good or bad) are temporary. You may not be the center of everyone’s story (which is good, that would be exhausting) but that doesn’t mean you’re not loved and valued, even if your needs sometimes misalign with other peoples’ stories. Be honest about your feelings and needs and it will help connect your story to that of others. Remember, if you’re feeling lonely – you’re not alone.

Good Grief

Oregon, United States

Grief is universal to the human experience. It’s not a fun part of the experience – which is why we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it. Few people actually know how to grieve well…

We’ve known for some time that Third Culture Kids and those in more mobile or transient environments and situations tend to suffer from more grief, more frequently, and with less recovery time. Moving causes loss of familiar places, people, and experiences, as well as social standing and the comfort of being known… and these griefs can be experienced both by a person leaving, and by people being left.

In the wake of the current pandemic, people across the globe are experiencing more grief because of more losses. Many have lost familiar places and the ability to interact with familiar people because of quarantine measures. We’ve all lost a degree of certainty we thought we had before the outbreak. Many have lost livelihoods and familiar ways of life.

We’ve all lost things… and loss causes grief – and (this is important): grief is going to be expressed.

It’s going to come out, whether we like it or not. We can decide to give our grief attention and try to direct it’s flow – or it’s going to chart it’s own course out… but it’s going to come out.

Many behavioral problems experienced by students in international schools can actually find their roots in unresolved grief. A loss of control not properly grieved can easily lead to overly controlling behavior in other areas of life. Focusing energy on containing unresolved grief steels from resources that could be used for academic, social, and emotional growth.

We all need to grieve better, now more than ever, as we deal with the losses added to life by our current pandemic situation.

One of the best coping strategies I’d ever heard of was from a family who moved frequently and decided to make baking part of their grieving process.

Whenever this family would move, the first thing they would set up in their new home was the kitchen. On the first available weekend, they would spend all day together baking cakes, pies, tarts, cookies, brownies, muffins… all the tasty treats they could. While baking, they would share with each other the things they were sad to say goodbye to, talk of the friends they were missing, and share the fears and unknowns they were facing. Then, at the end of the day… they’d eat their sadness – or at least the baked representations of all they’d shared.

It’s a genius plan for several reasons. For one thing, it gets an intangible emotion (grief, sadness, or anxiousness) out in the open though a means we can experience with our senses (seeing and feeling ingredients, smelling the baking, tasting the treats). That’s a great way to feel resolution: experiencing externally something connecting to a feeling internally.

Baking was also a great way to talk more comfortably about less than comfortable emotions. We seem to work best in the second order when it comes to these things. If the family just sat down and made sharing their pain the priority, it would have likely been more awkward than focusing on baking and letting the conversation be the secondary activity.

We all experience grief, and we could all probably do better at dealing with it on terms we have some control over rather than letting it come out in bursts we don’t plan for (but will inevitably happen… grief is ALWAYS going to be expressed).

COVID-19 has caused unforeseen losses for all of us, and the harsh reality is that we will likely rack up new losses even as we transition out of quarantine – we’ve started habits now that may (whether we liked them or not) actually be missed: we’re getting more family time, time to reflect, time we can wear sweatpants, etc.

I say we be proactive and bake some sadness…

Global Village

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

This week I am in Dubai, and one thing that I always try to make time for while in Dubai is a stop at Global Village. Global Village is a pretty large park on the outskirts of the city that recreates famous architecture, food, and even dances from various countries and regions around the world, and gathers them together in very close proximity. Not many of my friends in Dubai are willing to make this regular pilgrimage with me – the crowds and overly-touristy-feel seem to be off-putting… but not to me!

I think Global Village is a great visual for some of the complexities we’re all grappling with in globalization. There are aspects of globalization we love: easy access, huge variety, overcoming geographic limitations to our creativity and cooperation… But there are also challenges we’re not so fond of: preserving uniqueness, protecting history and culture, and resolving identity.

That last challenge, resolving identity is one I see at play constantly with Third Culture Kids (and adults). The words we use to categorize people and cultures are less and less accurate. For many people, nationality is not a neatly concise label to cover beliefs, traditions, and experience. Many TCKs grow up with a passport that may have less to do with their experience even if it is a reminder of their (or at least their parents’) heritage. More and more people around the world have an increasingly diversity set of cultures that play into who they are and how they see the world.

I think identity is more dynamic that we realize, and while I certainly won’t say that I can explain, justify, fix, or even completely make sense of globalization – I think adjusting the way we see even the concept of identity can certainly be a useful tool on the journey. I feel identity is a bit like a zoom lens… On one extreme if we zoom all the way in on ourselves, it’s just us. We’re unique at the tightest zoom level, but also alone. On the other extreme if we zoom all the way out, we share a planet with 7 billion others and have a lot in common, but we’re easily lost in a crowd.

There are times in life we need to be unique, and times we need to belong… and sometimes those needs are so close together that we’ve got to zoom the lens pretty quickly to make sense of ourselves and those around us. We often forget there are lots of “stops” between the two extremes of this lens. Nationality is one stop, so is food preference, ethnicity, religious belief, musical taste, and so many other ways we find commonality or difference.

Some of the biggest obstacles in identity, globalization, and just about any relationship arise when we get stuck on a certain zoom setting and refuse to budge. We’ve got more in common than we think and that can be a unifying and disarming realization. We’re more unique than we give ourselves credit for – and that makes us useful and precious. Those are positive takes, but both of those statements can be used divisively as well. I think our responsibility in an ever globalizing world is going to be to use the full span of our zoom lens in constructive and positive ways. How we wield perception has incredible power in this Global Village we’re part of together.

Home for the Holidays

Oregon, United States

We’re nearing the end of what much of Western culture considers the holiday season… and I have been on the ground, in the same country, for THIRTY-SEVEN DAYS. That’s a really long time for me.

I learned a while ago that change almost always causes some degree of stress – but not always in the ways we think. For someone used to stability, disruption is… disruptive – that’s pretty common knowledge. But the reality is that for someone used to transition, stability can actually be just as… disruptive.

For loads of expats and international students around the world, this time of year can be unexpectedly disruptive. Loads of families living outside the country they came from (or at least the country or countries the parents came from) have ventured “home for the holidays” to reconnect with family and friends.

While it is hopefully a time to see loved ones we don’t always get to see, it can also be a stressful confrontation with the harder-to-understand-than-we-think concept of “home”. If your home for most of the year is an international context with a mix of people from different nationalities, beliefs, customs, and traditions – you’ve likely spent some time adapting to all of that… and now suddenly being in your old “home” you may not be ready to… “un-adapt” for lack of a better term. Sure the initial newness and novelty you bring will carry you for a while, but what if you’re “home” long enough for that to wear off, what then?

Coming home for the holidays can reveal that your experiences may not be relatable, your insights may not be welcome, and your priorities may not be shared. This is often felt all the more sharply because you’re supposedly… “home” – the place you came from, where you should feel a sense of belonging, rootedness, and easy connection.

It’s often said that repatriation (returning “home”) is harder than a move to a foreign place… and sometimes, if you’re around long enough for the vacation-like-novelty to fade, being “home” for the holidays exposes us to a little taste of repatriation.

The reality is, you’re more adaptable than you think. The fact that you’ve adapted to your life abroad and now feel less adept in your previous context is actually evidence of your adaptability: well done! Does that make it easier… no. No it does not. But let’s take a moment to appreciate your adaptability once again, it’s no small feat!

“Home for the holidays” is a learning experience. I think “home” is more fluid than we think. The privilege of reconnecting with loved ones, family, and friends from our past, our previous home, or our history is a phenomenal blessing not to be taken for granted… and as a bonus it may well reveal that we appreciate more about our current home or living situation than we realized.