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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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I’m…37? Yeah, 37.

Self Improvement 150Yesterday I celebrated my 37th birthday by watching Kubo and the Two Strings, playing two rounds of mini-golf, and having a dinner out with a few friends. It was tremendously fun, and I really appreciate folks coming out to help me ring in another personal new year. I have amazing friends, and to say that I appreciate all of you would be an understatement. You inspire me, you encourage me, you elevate me closer to being the rabbit I would like to be. Thank you all so much for being in my life.

Year #36 for me was a pretty big one. I went back to school for a time, reconnected with my family in fairly tragic circumstances, fought with despair and anger about the direction our country is going, and always kept trying to build on the gains that I’ve made — wherever they might be. Through the loss of my sister and helping my mother, the passage of time and the inevitability of death have been weighing on me. In three years, I’ll be 40; it’s such a strange thing to write because of the weight we place on middle age. In a lot of ways, it feels like we should be calcifying into the person we are by then; change happens much more slowly, through concentrated and difficult effort.

That doesn’t feel like the arc of my life at all — or the arc of most of the people I know. Human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I watch as my friends struggle to cope with the setbacks of life, changing and strengthening through their experiences. Some of us have figured out our path and the struggle becomes how to walk it consistently; others of us are still seeking out a foothold that will allow us to see the way forward. But no matter who we are, we are constantly changing, molding ourselves towards our goals and the times, becoming the people we need to be.

To be honest, it’s been a joy to watch — and to experience. For all the difficulties this year has brought me, it’s helped me to see how change can be weathered and how the support of the community can be essential for that. When Teneka died suddenly back in April, so many people stepped in to help when they really didn’t have to. They gave me emotional support, direct assistance, financial support; knowing that I didn’t have to face this nightmare alone helped pull me through one of the most difficult parts of my life. It restored my faith in humanity at a time I badly needed it, and it helped encourage me to try and do the same for others. This tragedy, and all of the chaos that followed, made me stronger and more compassionate. I have everyone who helped to thank for that.

Looking towards the future, it’s easy to be frightened and overwhelmed. Personally, it feels like there’s an ugly undercurrent in our society bubbling up to the surface, threatening to consume us all. Beyond an erosion of trust in our institutions — our governments, our media, our businesses — there seems to be an erosion of trust in the concept of society itself; it feels like so many of us distrust the goodness within our fellows, that the purpose of our lives is to take as much as we can for ourselves and maybe the people closest to us while we can do that. The American Dream isn’t a just and prosperous society; it’s elevating the “virtue” of selfishness above all.

This kind of thinking will lead to our ruin. We have not evolved to be a purely self-absorbed species; we are a social animal, built for collaboration and cooperation. We share this planet with other human beings with different ideologies, cultures, histories and perspectives; we share this planet with other animals who depend on us to make sure we keep things in balance as much as our limited understanding will allow us. We can’t focus only on the things that we have while ignoring the suffering of others. We can’t preserve our safety and prosperity if our neighbor is poor and in danger. We can’t keep taking whatever we want without making sure there’s something left for others, for our children.

I really don’t know how we rebuild our trust in our society. I don’t know how to encourage people to care about each other. I can only trust in the goodness of my fellow beings, know the selflessness and compassion I have seen in others, and see that in everyone I meet. I can only treat people as if they were their best selves already, because in so many ways they are — fearless and resourceful and far more beautiful than anyone gives themselves credit for. I want to be a mirror that reflects the Buddha-nature of everyone I meet.

But that takes a lot of difficult and consistent practice. In order to shine and reflect as well as a still pond, I must first smooth out the ripples of fear and anger within me. In order to reflect Buddha-nature, I have to realize my own.

That, I think, is what I will strive to do with myself in year #37. I’ve lived through a difficult year, and I know that I can live through another one. That’s not enough. I want to develop an equanimity through difficulty that helps me move through my own fear and anger; I want to be calm and reflective in even the most difficult of circumstances. That sense of stillness doesn’t mean inaction, or disinterest in the world around me. It means that no matter what happens, I can engage with a clear mind and a full heart. It means recognizing the poisoning influences of fear and anger, working with those difficult emotions, and ensuring my actions don’t only come from those places. That is much easier said than done.

Thankfully, I have 36 years of experience to draw upon. I have the help of my community. I have the wisdom forged by countless difficulties through thousands of years, lived and remembered through the stories we tell each other, the stories we tell ourselves. I have the hope that one day, we will look at someone different and see not a stranger or an enemy, but ourselves and our capacity for boundless compassion and love. I only hope that we won’t make things too difficult for ourselves before that happens. I only hope that we don’t fall to our fear and anger and destroy ourselves.

I love all of you. I know I’m scared. I know I’m angry. But I am choosing to struggle past that. There is something so much better on the other side.

 

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