The weather gave us a gift this weekend. We had sun, blue skies, and temperatures perfect for being outside. (Although nothing really seems to stop Germans from being outside, which I like very much.) I was out late Sunday morning revisiting a route I’d taken with a friend some weeks ago. We had looked in vain for sunshine that day and the walk was bound to feel different this time.
One thing I have always noticed about walking with my camera is that my senses are sharper, and not just my eyes. I see the world differently, but am also more aware of how it tastes, how it smells, how it feels, and where I stand within it.
In other words, the more present I am, the calmer and more peaceful I feel. The camera around my neck acts as a reminder. Likewise, the more experienced I become in meditation, the more easily awareness seeps into my everyday life. I pause more frequently, slow down, notice, breathe. This is what it means to be mindful.
Lately there have been several loving-kindness, or metta, meditations in my routine. The warmth that I experience through these practices is not unlike the warmth I experienced last weekend in the sun. The world opens wide and it calls.
What I like most about metta meditation is that it makes obvious our connection with one another. There is a physical sensation, a warm glow, that comes from that realization.
There is a warm glow that comes from wishing loving-kindness to others, similar to the sense of rejuvenation that comes from being in nature. I have learned that these are needs for me, needs rather than wants. I would like to think that I am a better person to those around me for having learned this and sought this out.
It is easy to form connections that are light and fun, to play outside on a sunny day. It is not always so easy to get out in the rain or cold, not always so easy to touch another person. But so often, it is the experience of doing exactly this, of embracing difficult conditions and searching for the light, that plants us firmly on the ground.
It’s a conversation better left un-had and it goes something like this:
“We missed you at the party last night.” “Yeah, I would have liked to have been there.” “You could have come.” “I wasn’t invited.” “Well, it wasn’t at a time that was really convenient for you anyway.” “I could have moved things around, or you could have moved the party an hour.” “We didn’t think you’d want to, and someone else was in charge of organizing. But you should have said something when you found about it.” “But I wasn’t invited.” “Don’t worry, it really wasn’t that much fun anyway.” “Okay.”
The point is not that the party wasn’t fun or that I couldn’t be there. The point is that nobody thought to ask. Nobody in the group of nearly two dozen people in two countries thought that the person farthest away, completely separated from everyone else due to the pandemic, might have wanted to be involved. And even if there was a momentary glimmer of thought, nobody spoke up and nobody asked.
It’s a little bit like the time several years ago when I heard through a friend that another friend was mad at me for not attending her wedding. My response was one of genuine amazement for I hadn’t been invited. Likely, I hadn’t been invited because I live overseas and the wedding was at a time when I could not have feasibly gone. But to be mad at me? If she wanted me to be there, she could have gotten married a month earlier when I was there, just like another friend did. Or she could have invited me and let me work it out. If you’re going to make a choice, at least own the choice.
And likewise, give me the chance to do the same.
A different example: Last November, a friend planned a birthday party over Zoom. She sent me the invitation and wrote, “I know you can’t be there but I wanted to invite you anyway.” I called as she was setting up and wished her a happy birthday and fun party. It really can be that simple to do the good thing.
The issue weighing on my mind is that people don’t think. They don’t think beyond what is immediately in front of them. And I don’t know why.
As a friend said over tea yesterday when I was agonizing over this for the second day in a row, “Just because we think about them all the time doesn’t mean they’re as focused on us.” This seems accurate. Having not seen my family in nearly two years because of the pandemic, and with the need to make decisions about my next move far too soon with so many variables in flux, I think about my family all the time. They are not together in the same place or even the same country, but they have time in common and I do not. This is why I make phone calls before work. This is why I watch the calendar and count hours to get everyone’s birthdays right in their time zone. This is why I send emails just to say hello.
When I first moved overseas, a friend had her watch set for the time in Glasgow, seven hours behind us in Malaysia. I asked why and she said that even after four years of living away, she had never stopped thinking about what her family were doing.
I have never been an adherent of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, and I fully understand the power of the contrary. However, I know a little bit about the power of shared experiences. People who spend time together deepen the connections they have with one another. This is among the reasons experiential education brings people together. This is why a late-night conversation is so often a turning point in a friendship or romantic relationship. When we no longer have things in common, it is easier drift apart. Our conversations remain superficial and it is easy to grow disinterested or disengaged. It is already difficult to maintain a sense of connection through text messages, email, and too-short phone calls. It is impossible when we are so used to others not being there that we neglect to include them at all.
It seems fitting here to mention the exceptions. I am very lucky to have friends with whom I can pick up after months of no contact, and it will feel like we last saw each other the day before. This is possible because our relationship was forged through years of shared experiences. In that sense, we have a reserve of togetherness that allows us to maintain close ties. We have done the hard work of becoming and staying friends, and this is significant. The bonds exist because we took the time and energy to build them. Exclusion does not allow for this, and so the cycle continues.
I wonder where this leaves us as humans. Are we so fixated on the present that we are unable to ask questions that look beyond? Are we too focused on feeling good about ourselves to remember that our choices impact others? How is it that we are so certain of our own wants and needs that we fail to consider that the wants and needs of others might differ? And do we make choices along the way that take away others’ ability to make choices of their own?
By no means do I need anyone to make allowances for the fact that I live on a different continent in a very different time zone from all family and many friends. This is an unreasonable onus and I understand that. But is it really so hard to meet me halfway? Is it really so hard to hold out your hand and ask?
The Covid-19 circuit breaker measures here in Singapore mean that we are unable to interact in person with anyone who is not a member of our household. Going to the grocery store for a little human interaction has been very real.
As I’ve written before, I’ve been really good about starting the day with some physical activity, usually going for a run but otherwise practicing yoga. It has been really important to me to create a transition into the working day. A couple days ago, however, my need for human interaction was greater than my need to feel my body move.
So I made a cup of coffee and called an old friend. I could hear the smile in her voice when she picked up the phone and I know she could hear the same in mine. We caught up while on my side of the world, the sun rose and the day began. My friend’s day was just beginning to wind down. Since moving overseas, I’ve rarely made a phone call to another timezone without first planning to do so. People are always rushing about and it’s more likely I’ll miss them than not.
But not right now. Many people I know are waiting with open arms for human interaction right now.
Let’s keep this part of our new world, shall we?
I had conversation over the phone with my mum not too many days later and we talked about how strange she finds it to interact with people wearing masks. I know that this is very unfamiliar in North America, but I’ve lived in Asia for some time now and masks aren’t all that unusual here. The fact that the stores ran out of masks as everyone began buying them indicates that stores stock masks as a normal product (and they were back in stock as quickly as toilet paper). Reusable masks have always been common among people who ride motorcycles and there were always some food service workers wearing masks. And then there were the people who wore masks just because it’s not a strange thing here.
Mum said that people where she is don’t look at each other and don’t interact. My sister, located in another North American city, has said that people regard one another almost suspiciously. People in Singapore aren’t as overtly friendly as people often are in North America, but I have not had the same experience. People still communicate and some wave to the people they see every day. People are smiling, even if you can’t see it.
I started to think about this when my mum mentioned that she’d smiled at someone in thanks and then realised he couldn’t see it. I know I’ve been doing the same thing (because I was raised in a society where that’s what you do) but I also know I’ve become much more aware of the expressions around people’s eyes and foreheads.
When you can’t see someone’s face, how do you know if they’re smiling?
I thought back to my phone call with my friend. I’m not fond of video calls because I make most of my calls to other time zones when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. A good old fashioned voice call suits me just fine. I have never questioned whether the person on the other end of the line is smiling. Probably like you, I just just know.
When you can’t see someone’s face, you still know when they’re smiling. If you’re face to face, look around their eyes. The corners might crinkle or the cheeks might lift. Eyebrows or foreheads might wrinkle. If you’re on the phone, or can’t see each other, or if a mask has thrown you off completely, just listen. People sound different when they’re smiling.
Covid-19 has meant that we need to adapt in ways that many of us never imagined. It has led me to ask questions about the ways in which humans have evolved and why we behave in the ways that we do.
It has also caused me to look at the world a little differently, a little more carefully, and a little more critically. There is not one way to live in the world, this I have learned, but there are some ways that are more pleasant than others. There are ways in which we can honour our social responsibility while still doing what makes us feel whole. We can look at the world openly or with suspicion, and this attitude affects not only our outlook but also the ways we interact with others.
Wearing a mask might be new or strange, but it’s a whole lot better to be out in the world with one than trapped alone at home without one.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place