I spent a good portion of last month holding a series of small, in-person meetings with more than 60 College senior staff. These free-flowing conversations covered a variety of topics—from pressing resource issues and challenges from the past year, to hopes and dreams for the future. These meetings gave me the opportunity to have direct communication with our staff and allowed me to listen and understand their concerns and aspirations. While I appreciate the efficiency of Zoom meetings, I realized from these in-person interactions what is missing in virtual gatherings: the power of connecting with people in the flesh, with their emotions and energies fully present.
Among the common themes that emerged from these conversations was the concern many of these senior managers expressed over the mental health and well-being of their staff. They described a prevailing feeling of mental fatigue, exacerbated by the profound losses and increased workloads of the pandemic, as well as anxiety from an ominous sense of uncertainty for the future.
I want to devote part of my year-end blog to acknowledge and express my sincere gratitude for Baruch staff who have shouldered a tremendous burden and persevered, juggling additional job demands with new dimensions and ever-increasing complexity—all while meeting increased expectations, often without new resources. Our staff colleagues were nonetheless able to continually discover ways to manage a constantly shifting environment.
Without minimizing what everyone has experienced, I want to share my own mental journey and identify areas we can work on together to overcome. Those of you who regularly read my blog know that I am a hopeless optimist, and my natural tendency is to reflect on the past while contemplating a better future—sometimes with vivid details. I know this can drive people crazy as it is stressful to think: “On top of what I already have to do, which I am barely surviving, I am now expected to do even more? How am I possibly able to manage more on top of the problems that already exist?” Allow me to reframe.
Finding Our Own Reason
My parents taught me from an early age that our brain is resilient and made to think about complex, challenging things. With some effort, we are all capable of appreciating something we didn’t understand at first—even to experience an epiphany. More often than not, it is what we learned in our own way that shapes the deep-rooted insights that we rely on—not only to survive but to thrive. For me, my revelation of late is that we each need to find our own reason for what we do, and sharing that helps us weave our journeys together and gives them greater meaning. But how? Let me first take a detour.
Story from a Friend’s Pilgrimage
I recently had dinner with a friend who, prior to the pandemic, completed the Shikoku Ohenro Pilgrimage in Japan. The pilgrimage—a circuit that stretches more than 700 miles with significant elevation gains over 7,000 feet and passes 88 temples—has been in existence for over 1,200 years. Pilgrims, or ohenro in Japanese, can start anywhere on the trail from any temple and, because it is a loop, will end where they began. They wear traditional pilgrims’ outfits consisting of a white robe and straw hat and carry a walking stick. They are treated with great reverence on the island of Shikoku as they embark on the journey completely on foot.
Each pilgrim has their own motivation before committing to this arduous journey. My friend happens to be Japanese American, and one of his greatest regrets was that he never learned to speak Japanese. “For years, I felt awkward in knowing that I am Japanese by origin and looks, yet not comfortable to speak Japanese and to be around Japanese people. My parents sent me to Japanese language school on Saturdays, but I was a total failure. I wasn’t interested in learning the language; baseball and playing with friends were higher priorities,” he lamented.
Somewhere along his journey, my friend found the peace he was seeking and addressed the regret he had of not being fluent in his mother tongue nor relating to his own heritage. He also found solace from other travelers on the trail, including an Australian policeman who said the journey helped restore his faith in humanity; a Japanese father who showed his son the way of the ohenro, as his father had done with him; and a Canadian woman who expressed the thrill of experiencing an entirely different culture through close contact with locals.
My friend kept a journal on this 51-day pilgrimage during which he walked at least 15 miles each day, spent nights at small mishukus (B&B’s), and met people from all walks of life and other ohenros from around the world. His journey took more than two months, including the time before the pilgrimage when he tracked down official government records of his family roots in a town only a few miles away from the path. My friend described in intricate detail every person he encountered, their interactions, the dishes he enjoyed, and each mishuku where he stayed. His entries were so vivid that I felt as though I was on the journey with him. While I read, I realized that his pilgrimage was unlike the vacation or sightseeing tour we typically experience. Instead of rushing to the next destination, he was emotionally and intellectually present at every moment, with every person he encountered, and that was the point of the journey.
Finding Time to Be Present
Reading his journal reminded me of a book I read a while ago by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who talked with a man who was overwhelmed by the tension of daily life and stressed by the fact that he was unable to find time for himself. Then one day, the man had a revelation: “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks. But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”
Making Meaningful Connections on Your Journey
The stress, anxiety, and challenges of our lives are unlikely to disappear, so it is important to realize that overcoming adversity in our lives is not unlike embarking on our own pilgrimage—the experience is different for each of us but the trek can be just as difficult: long and tedious paths complete with steep inclines that can feel like a never-ending cycle. It’s a serious commitment that fills each person with tears of frustration and triumph—but no matter our reason for going on the journey, we know it will be worthwhile if we make meaningful connections along the way. One way to accomplish this is by shifting our attention away from our own journey once in a while and paying closer attention to those around us—find out what they are thinking, experiencing, and do what we can to help. My friend taught me that shifting the focus away from ourselves to others around us is another way to be present.
When I feel overwhelmed with all the tasks on the horizon, I try to remind myself of Leo Tolstoy’s saying: “There is only one time that is important—now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary person is the one with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else; and the most important affair is to do that person good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life.”
Let’s set aside a moment this holiday season to find some peace, harmony, and balance and to discover our own way to frame why and how we are doing what we do, and what motivates us to embark on this journey called Baruch. While on the journey, I hope each of us is able to make ourselves present and savor the moments we share with our follow travelers.
We can all use that perspective in the new year.
Note: I will take a short hiatus from my monthly blog in January and resume in February 2022.
Your story reminds me of the pilgrimage I took in September to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. It was not nearly as long as your friend’s in Japan (only 6 days over a little more than 100 kms), but it was similarly, spiritually, inspired and physically challenging. 4 of the 6 days brought rain, which made the steeper climbs over ancient Roman roads more difficult and sometimes exasperating. It was the focus on the present and service to fellow pilgrims that continued to bring the reason for the exercise into perspective. Thinking of it as a traditional vacation was not as helpful as framing it rather as an opportunity for self-reflection, yes, but more importantly as an opportunity to do service to others in the moment. Thoughts of lost keys and how to get my COVID test in Santiago to return to the U.S. were easier to dismiss once the choice was made to incorporate the service to other pilgrims into “my time”, rather than solely focus on me and my enjoyment. What was useful on the camino can also be helpful when persisting with my work at Baruch in service to its students and staff. Thank you for the reminder to be present. Best wishes for the holidays.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the (world famous) Camino pilgrimage and the spirit of serving and connecting with fellow travelers. I like how you relate this to your Baruch work when you serve others–you completely captured the mindset I was trying to describe. Thank you!
When a person marries and has children they immediately incorporate them into their lives and the time spent with them id definitely a part ones own life. When a person becomes a teacher the lives of their students also become part of their lives and the time spent teaching, preparing and meeting with students becomes part of one’s own life. There was a time at Baruch when spending time with ones’ students was encouraged and faculty incorporated hours spent with students as part of their schedule and they were paid for that time. This should be encouraged once again at Baruch to serve the mental health of students and faculty.
Thank you, Professor Reichman, for making the important point that as educators, the time we spent teaching, preparing and meeting with students becomes part of our own life. To be present and making time for our students is perhaps the most important role we play beyond disseminating knowledge. I spent some time reflecting on this in my October blog, recognizing the competing demands on our faculty’s time. Instead of compartmentalize how we use our time, we may try to integrate them as a whole.
Professor Leonard Lakin was definitely one of those professors who spent time with his students. I can remember in one of our conversations, clearly like it was yesterday, him telling me that he wants me to be the next Simeon Golar. Thanks to professors like Professor Lakin, and Baruch for the journey. Thank you for the reminder to be in the moment. Best wishes for the holidays.
Beautifully said. Thank you for sharing and for everything you do for the Baruch community. I feel grateful you are our leader.
thanks alot of information
FUNNY YOU SHOULD MENTION JAPAN
Japan has suffered catastrophe after catastrophe over the last 100 years. But Japan has bounced back, repeatedly, resiliency, it is called. And we are developing that in New York. “New York Tough!” was the call to action and to persevere, that Cuomo cried to shepherd us through the worst of the pandemic, building on our surviving 911 and the Big Apple’s customary grit and savvy.
Life is, essentially, what we actually do as we go about, feverishly planning what we want our life to be. Life is a journey. Thus, an ohenro is a journey within The Journey, a microcosm of life and what life truly could be.
40 miles north of the city lies Bear Mountain/Harriman State Park, an unending stretch of wilderness at the start of bucolic upstate New York. Every few months or so, a motley crew of Baruch staff and alums hike to the top of Bear Mountain, a two hour rigorous, sweaty trek that intersects with the Appalachian Trail. They oft encounter individuals on ohenros of sorts, from as far away as Virginia and beyond. And the conversations, stories and jokes they share become part of these interstate hikers’ inner journey.
Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces notes how all cultures have tales of a young person starting off on a quest, a journey of discovery to attain some crucial, elusive goal, be they prophet, warrior, explorer, spiritualist, scientist, you name it. And on their journey they meet others and form a band of companions, to achieve the objective. However, as they proceed, they come to see that the thing that they were after to tame, control, find, or whatever, does not lie without, but is found within. Thus, they discover the central adage, All Knowledge is Self-Knowledge. Campbell says thus was Buddha, Einstein, Jesus, Pasteur, MLK, Perry and all the rest. The disciples of this Northern California professor took this concept and crafted Luke Skywalker, the Ahab of Jaws, Michael Corleone and a host of others in a series of Hollywood blockbusters.
As Professor Emeritus Walter Reichman seemed to be saying in his comment, the journey, that is the Baruch Experience, is an ohenro. In their time under our auspices, our mainly multi-lingual students, together with their peers from around the world, go through a formal, credentialed, rite of passage, while living and working in this cosmopolitan center of global finance and commerce.
And the Baruch professors, meanwhile, are embarked on their own ohenros, many of them, in fact. In each class, should they realize it, they have the unique opportunity to be the leader of a crew of interactive, creative young people on a quest whose goal, on paper, might be to complete the syllabus, but which has the potential to be much more than that. And each of prof, is on a far longer ohnero, that is, their career at Baruch, presiding/leading a subtly, yet over time profoundly, changing body of students. And in each and every one of these many overlapping, intersecting journeys, in each of these Baruchohenros, we have the invaluable opportunity to learn about the world and ourselves.
Beautifully put, Arthur. I particularly appreciated what you said about the ohenro(s) each Baruch faculty is embarking on, and the unique opportunity–and privilege–we all have to lead our students through their life-changing journeys.
I feel so fortunate to have a president of one of the colleges where I teach write so well and share so generously. Lucky us!
David—I’m moved simply by experiencing your willingness to bring up these topics, as well by what you have to say.
And I want to comment on what my old friend Walter Reichman has to say. I agree entirely with him about the importance of spending time with our students. But I confess that my sense of things when I came here in the mid-1970s is that many of my colleagues perceived students as obstacles in the way of what we’re really here for, to publish. I think some of the difference in our perspectives is in the eye of the beholder. My perspectives changed radically after I received tenure and began spending time with faculty who really worked closely with students, people like Angie Anselmo, Joe Freeman, and Harvey Jackson. They were teachers first and saw themselves that way, and they walked with me a ways as I made my own pilgrimage from PhD to teacher.
And on this general topic, I have to mention Rutger Bregman’s brilliant new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. It provides a hopeful framework for surviving in these turbulent times.