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…

Birthday Laugh Track

Oregon, United States

Thank you so much for the birthday wishes!

As I adapt to changing times, I have taken it upon myself to create my own laugh track to help my transition to doing more online streaming presentations lately – and I could use your help… SEND ME YOUR LAUGHTER!

But most of all, thanks for the birthday wishes and a fantastic year of laughter and memories. I am sincerely grateful for you!

Fasting

Oregon, United States

I’m writing this right in the middle of April, 2020. With Easter just having passed (and therefore the season of Lent ending) for many Christians in the western world, Passover only a week ago for the Jewish faith, and Ramadan starting soon – at some point during this month at least half of the world will have been fasting (usually abstaining from food) in their own way. In reality though, the entire world is currently “fasting” in other ways as we endure the Coronavirus pandemic.

The past few months have seen unprecedented changes for almost everyone on the planet. Many have endured incredible loss: of life, loved ones, previous freedoms, certainty, and human contact. At no other point in history has such a global concerted effort been undertaken to help humanity.

As of now, we’re all having to undertake some fasting: social distancing means that for the sake of our own safety and that of others, we are fasting from our normal levels of in-person interaction. School, work, and home life have all been drastically affected. There are a plethora of memes and social media posts showcasing how creative people can be in isolation – as well as how those more introverted vs those more extraverted are dealing with the situation.

We really are all sharing a season of social fasting together. Usually fasting is done intentionally as a way to focus on something noble or of a higher purpose: holiness, devotion, or gratitude for example. From my understanding and experience, the basic idea of fasting is that by denying yourself something (like food), you get automatic reminders (hunger pangs) to focus on something else intentionally. It’s basically setting up internal alarm clocks to remind you to focus. I honestly believe we could learn a lot from the discipline of fasting right now. We may not have chosen this social fast, but for the good of everyone, we’re in it… so why not take some lessons from the discipline of fasting since we’re already here.

Fasting is a great way to form a new (hopefully beneficial) habit. Maxwell Maltz published his idea that it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit back in the 1960s. More recent research shows that it takes on average about 66 days… regardless, the truth is that the longer you repeat a certain action the more imprinted as a habit it becomes. I can’t help but see behaviors like fasting that trigger an intentional reminder (hunger for food or company is a great mental notification) as a boost to help form habits.

So, to make the most of our global social fast, what new habits could we be forming? Maybe whenever you’re reminded that you can’t socialize like you normally would you take a moment to meditate, maybe you stop and list something you’re thankful for, maybe you recall a daily word in a new language you’re trying to learn… the possibilities are endless. Most of us have complained that we don’t have time to focus, meditate, learn, be grateful, etc. in our busy daily lives – this could be our chance. Because let’s not kid ourselves, when we come out of this, we’re going to need more focused, compassionate, grateful, and disciplined people to get things back on track. We may as well start the process now.

Brexit & Zero-Sum Games

Pordenone, Italy

I recently flew through London’s Heathrow airport, and I happened to land on the first day of the UK’s official withdrawal from the European Union. I must admit, I didn’t necessarily feel like things felt any more British than usual… which isn’t surprising. But it made me think about the reality that at the heart of arguments used by many in support of Brexit is the notion that to become more British, the UK had to become less European.

That’s a great example of what is known as a “zero-sum game”. A zero-sum game is like a see-saw: when one side goes up, the other correspondingly comes down. To be more British, we have to be less European; to be awake longer, we have to sleep less; and so on.

Those who oppose Brexit would be more likely to argue that British and European identities are not mutually exclusive – you can be both British and European without the two concepts adversely effecting each other.

Many Third Culture Kids, Cross-Cultural Kids, and Expats have to work through constructing identity outside the bounds of a zero-sum game. A student with a passport from Germany who grows up in Singapore may feel attachment to both countries – one through heritage and family influence, the other through experience and familiarity. Those are difficult forces to pit against each other.

There can be great advantages to working through identity in this way, like cross-cultural skills and adaptability. But it can also cause confusion in a world still modeled on a system of exclusive national identity, leaving some TCKs to feel rootless or “fake” when compared to others with fewer international influences on their upbringing.

The argument regarding to what degree identity is zero-sum or not is actually playing out on a scale far more global than just the UK. In a recent poll of more than 20,000 people from 18 different countries, it emerged that the majority of people in developing economies saw themselves more as global citizens first and foremost, while the majority of people in richer nations felt the exact opposite: they were first and foremost national citizens. The divide between the two is only expected to grow…

Money, time, even attention are all limited resources which point to the fact that most things in life are zero-sum. The more time you spend with someone the less you have for everyone else, that’s what makes us feel special and valued. Perhaps that’s part of the reason we can so easily attach the concept of a zero-sum game to identity: it helps us feel special.

But sometimes we can do great harm by assuming everything is zero-sum.

One of the underlying causes of bullying is the assumption that for one person to have more happiness, someone else has to have less. So by picking on someone and making them feel worse, the belief is that it’ll make the bully feel better about themselves. That’s not how happiness works. We can create unlimited happiness, it is not a rare or scarce resource!

Whether in Brexit, the wider debate on global vs national identity, or even our relationships with those around us, it’s worth looking at how we see the world: do we assume everything is zero-sum – because while many things are… some things definitely aren’t, and they can easily be subconsciously overlooked. At the same time, a lot of our resources are limited and we have to make tough choices regarding them. Where does a resource like identity fall on that spectrum?

What do you think? Are you a global citizen first, or a national citizen first, or are you both? Is your identity something to be protected, or something to be shared, or a bit of both? Ultimately, how we think about concepts like identity has a real impact on the limited resources we all have to work with.