Finding a new way to share the road

I recently returned from two weeks in Ireland, including a week spent driving on a lot of country roads. Toward the end of the trip, I was reading Rick Steves’ advice on driving in Ireland. One has to remember, he said, that there’s no “my side” and “your side” on the narrow, twisting roads, there’s just “the road”. 

What a metaphor for a lot of life’s encounters! We spend so much time jockeying for position, trying to gain the upper hand in work, in relationships, and yes, while driving, when we might benefit from remembering that we’re all in this together. Being flexible, knowing when to give and take, even yielding to someone else is often the wiser course of action. 

Just as there’s an inherent conflict in two cars driving in opposite directions on a road that’s only wide enough for one or one and a half, many of life’s struggles often appear impossible to resolve in a win-win sort of way. But sharing the metaphorical road doesn’t mean giving up (although I do admit to just pulling off the road in Ireland at times). It means learning how to approach, rather avoid or attack. 3-Co. Kerry-Gallarus hike (1)

There’s a conflict resolution model called the Thomas-Kilman Mode Instrument that describes five different styles commonly used by people, depending on the situation and on their personalities. They range from avoidance to collaboration, with accommodating, competing and compromising falling in between. While not everyone may use all the styles, they each have appropriate uses, depending on timing and what’s at stake. The two styles that I find most comparable to driving in Ireland are Accommodating and Compromising. 

Accommodating means that you sacrifice your own needs for someone else’s (thereby not being assertive). It is agreeable, friendly and yielding, but also cooperative; and appropriate in these instances:

  • When the conflict is about something that’s not very important to you, but it is important to the other person.
  • When it is necessary, and worth it, in order to maintain the relationship
  • When you turn out to be wrong about the situation
  • When damage would occur if you continued to compete, and you know you can’t win [think Bernie Sanders]. 

The Compromising style falls somewhere between being assertive and being cooperative. Using this style means that you try to find a middle ground where each person gets some of what they want. It is most useful: 

  • When you attach a certain amount of importance to your goals, but not so much that you want to assert yourself fully.
  • When people “of equal status are equally committed”. [Think 2 cars passing on the road.]
  • As a temporary measure in a complicated situation until some better solution is reached.
  • When you need to get resolution quickly in an important situation. 

As we drive through life, we’re often avoiding the narrow roads (being unassertive and uncooperative) or competing to take up the whole road (being aggressive and uncooperative), when we might “gain” more by using the accommodating or compromising styles. Ultimately, the gain comes in reduced stress and more time spent feeling relaxed and enjoying the view. What’s more important? 

Here’s what I learned on my vacation: It’s okay to yield, even to be soft sometimes; not everything has to be a fight to the finish. As Wayne Dyer has said, “Conflict cannot survive without your participation.”

 

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Who’s your Sputnik?

We go through our lives circling, and being circled by, a changing array of characters: parents, siblings, children, spouses, friends and cousins. Our social networks and relationships change with the lifecycle, first one, and then another, becoming more or less important, a few of them constants. These circles of enclosure resemble nothing so much as satellites.

A satellite is a celestial body that orbits a planet, such as Earth’s moon. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit, naming it “Sputnik”. Since that time, the word “sputnik” has become a Russian idiom meaning a special friend or life partner – in other words, a person around whom your life turns, and whose world revolves around you. The staff of the aid organization Partners in Health was so taken with this concept that they gave the name Sputnik to one of their treatment programs in Russia, signifying their commitment to patient-centered care and support.

But the term “sputnik” could be synonymous with any kind of social support. Who are the sputniks in your life? The people to whom you turn in times of crisis, as well as the ones in whom you confide on a daily basis? And for whom are you a sputnik? Which people would you drop everything to help? Whose well-being is vitally important to you?

Parents are like satellites orbiting and protecting their children; and sometimes in later years, that circle turns inside out and children’s lives begin to revolve around their parents. Sometimes we lose someone in our orbit; other times, new friends or spouses join it. We are members of overlapping orbits around other people, our social networks looking like elaborate Venn diagrams. The beautiful thing about a circle is that it can always expand.

Just as Saturn has 53 moons, but the Earth has only one, it doesn’t matter how many people are in your social support orbit if the ones who are there are giving you what you need. That support takes different forms:

  • Feeling cared for and loved
  • Feeling valued and respected
  • Having a sense of belonging
  • Having somewhere to turn for advice and guidance
  • Knowing that there is a safety net of physical or material support

These resources we can tap from our social relationships are powerful players when dealing with stress. The perception of support can either prevent stress from occurring, or be a buffer against stress after it starts. Whether it is someone to listen or someone to give advice, someone who gives a hug or someone who loans you money, someone who raises your self-esteem or someone who stitches up your wounds, support from the people in your orbit keeps you healthier, both physically and emotionally.

The people in your support circle should not be taken for granted. Thich Nhat Hanh writes that investing in people is more important than having money in the bank:

We can get in touch with the refreshing, healing elements within and around us thanks to the loving support of other people. If we have a good community of friends, we are very fortunate. To create a good community we first have to transform ourselves into a good element of the community…We have to think of friends and community as investments, as our most important asset. They can comfort us and help us in difficult times, and they can share our joy and happiness.

During medieval times, many early scientists believed that there was something divine or perfect in the shape of a circle. Is that any less true today? Isn’t there something supremely magnificent about the satellites that slowly rotate around us, keeping us safe?

Spring recharge

We take for granted that our phones and other devices have to be recharged every day or every week. If we don’t do it, we lose the ability to communicate or do our work. The same is true of our minds and bodies, but because we don’t totally shut down, we don’t sense the same urgency to recharge.

April is coming to a close and it’s starting to feel like spring. What can we do to refresh ourselves? The weather teases us, with a few warm days followed by a really cold one; the pollen is challenging some of us to keep our heads clear; flowers are blooming, yet we’re still wearing winter jackets; kids are getting restless in school, but they have two months to go – we can answer that uncertainty and unsettledness by learning what serves us well and making changes in our routines.

Here’s what my spring recharge looks like:

Rediscovering nature – Sustainability is a buzzword all year long, but Earth Day still serves as an opportunity to get people outdoors. A few days ago, I went on a Nature Conservancy hike at Great Falls Park in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac Gorge. As many times as I have been there, I never fail to be awestruck when I see the falls with all their power and beauty. Vultures, cormorants and herons were soaring over the gorge as the river rushed over the rocks. In the park we saw the first spring wildflowers, and I learned that the flowers of redbud trees are edible (salad garnish!) It doesn’t take a whole day to do something in nature: in the May issue of Yoga Journal, there are ideas for connecting with nature in a minute, an hour, a day or a week.Great Falls NP_1

Fresher, lighter food – The warm, comforting foods of winter will soon be a memory. Florida fruit is starting to appear in my grocery store, and I love tracking the progress of the blueberries for sale: first Florida, then Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey and later in summer, Michigan. Spring and summer will mean more local food, more raw or lightly-cooked food, more fruits and vegetables. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a book about the best basic foods including best fruit (guava, watermelon and kiwi), best vegetables (kale, spinach and collard greens) and best beans (soybeans, pinto beans and chickpeas). Think of the combinations!photo

Cleaner spaces – Our homes suffer over the winter too. They’re closed up with stale air; dirt and toxins have accumulated; and closets are cluttered with heavy coats, sweaters and boots. Last week I cleaned out my coat closet, and I can’t stop admiring its organization and empty space. (We’ll see how long that lasts!)

A clearer head — Working on mind clutter is valuable too. Could you possibly let go of activities that are draining you and wearing you out? Sometimes I realize that just the process by which I’m doing something is too complicated, that there is a simpler way that uses less energy. Often it’s because I’m trying to control something too much. But by letting go of some control, the process becomes easier, and I am freer in a way. Recommitting to a meditative practice helps me figure this out.

Reuniting with friends and family – Feeling other people’s energy can be a great way to recharge. Spring is the perfect time to connect with people who stimulate and challenge you, support you and nourish you. It’s the time when we start planning family reunions and summer picnics. Maybe it’s a time to commit to putting out more love, and less fear and judgment; to look for the beauty in people that mirrors springtime’s beauty.

Great Falls NP ChickweedI don’t think there is any season that nourishes the spirit, or gives us more reason to feel hope and optimism as spring does. As the writer and abolitionist Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote, “The beautiful spring came; and when Nature resumes her loveliness, the human soul is apt to revive also.

On our wedding day, many years ago, my husband started to say the vows he had written. “I will study…” he began, and then he paused.  I was confused – had he started to give the wrong speech? What did studying have to do with loving me or being committed to our marriage?

After a second or two, my husband went on to say something about studying our past to learn how to keep our relationship strong in the future. But as I think about it now, maybe a commitment to studying has its place in the vows along with “in sickness and in health”.

A new report from the U.K. shows how our brains can continue to develop new neurons, preserve the existing ones, and possibly improve the connection between neurons, if we challenge ourselves mentally. The researchers looked at people training to become London taxi drivers. Over a 3-4 year period, the drivers are required to learn the names and locations of about 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks in London. By the end of the training, brain images of successful driver trainees showed an increase in gray matter in the part of the hippocampus related to spatial navigation and memory. In other words, they grew new brain cells.

The study’s authors concluded that our brains remain “plastic” – capable of adapting – even as adults. But learning new tasks and skills is what prompts the response. Their work offers hope to people recovering from brain injuries, and refutes the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. If we needed more encouragement to be lifelong learners, this is certainly it.

Lifelong learning” has been associated with continuing professional education to stay abreast of the latest developments in your field of work. It has also fostered programs such as Elderhostel and other classes for seniors. But in the current economy, with so much job insecurity, continuous learning has become critical for people wishing to remain competitive by learning new skills that will enhance their ability to get and retain a job.

Becoming a lifelong learner is also a way to spark personal growth, and to find meaning in your life. Taking classes, or getting involved in new experiences that have nothing to do with a job, can prompt a renewed sense of curiosity about the world. For people who might be facing job insecurity, studying something unrelated is both a distraction and a way to succeed in another arena.

What are some other benefits of learning new things?  Greater knowledge and experience can help people deal with stress better because they can use it to dispute some of their irrational beliefs about stressful events. Mastering new skills also gives self-confidence a boost, which can increase resiliency. Since chronic stress can actually cause cellular aging, reducing stress and boosting the development of new brain cells might slow some of the decline we see with age.

So what does all this have to do with the marriage vows? By staying mentally sharp and healthy, the “sickness” part of “in sickness and in health” could possibly be minimized. By learning new things, being open to growth and change, someone is more likely to be open to a partner’s perspective. And let’s face it: often when people say they are bored with their husband or wife, they are really bored with themselves. So taking a class, learning a sport or finding your way around a new city makes you a more interesting person, and possibly keeps your relationship interesting too.

When my husband said he would study, he referred to us and our relationship. But I see now that studying the world, staying curious, and engaging in self-discovery is what makes each of us, and all of our relationships, stronger and healthier.

Human connection

Our search for connection was something that has been on my mind for a while. It started with some books I was reading when I noticed how many had the words “I” and “You” in the title: Titles such as I See You Everywhere, The Last Time I Saw You, and I Still Dream about You. They made me wonder how much we really know or see anybody; otherwise, why so much striving for it?

Over the last week, a series of seemingly unconnected experiences raised this issue for me again. The first was an event I attended in support of some friends who have suffered a great loss. Afterward, I realized that I have a sort of intimacy with them now that I probably was not on a trajectory to experience if their lives had not been irrevocably altered. At first that intimacy feels awkward, because we have everyone neatly categorized into family, work friends, college friends, parents of our kids’ friends, neighbors. How often do we run from these moments when relationships have a paradigm shift? There’s an instinct to turn away, go back to that comfortable corner where I didn’t know their pain so well. But I can’t, I won’t – I’m connected now.

The next evening, I attended Shabbat services where the Torah reading had to do with separating “unclean” people (such as lepers, menstruating women). In addition, the guest speaker of the evening was there to talk about gays in the military and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. I was reminded yet again of how we separate ourselves from what is uncomfortable, unfamiliar or frightening. We make it into “I” and “You”, instead of “Us”.

Finally, on Sunday, I went to see the new documentary, “I Am”. I thought it was going to be about values, and it is, but it was more about connections. I was fascinated by some of the science that shows how we are “hard-wired” to feel empathy, compassion and connection. So what has gone so wrong to make us so afraid of connection sometimes? Why do we turn away – and how can we change that? One of the most intriguing parts of the film had to do with an organization called HeartMath, which has done a lot of research about how the heart communicates with the rest of our bodies. Tapping into the intuitive power of the heart can calm us, change our perspective, and help us feel more fulfilled. The heart also connects us bioelectromagnetically to other people. Maybe if we learn to focus more on the heart instead of the head, we can meet people with love, rather than fear.