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.