When I retired a year and a half ago, I thought my life was going to be one long vacation. Although I had planned to keep a hand in my field as a professional communicator, picking and choosing projects that interested me, I knew I’d never again have to work on anything I didn’t want to or drag my sorry tail into a Monday-morning team meeting. And that’s been pretty much how things have gone.
Lesson 1: Everyone Needs to Air Out Sometimes
Enjoying the luxury of being shown around the Continent by a close friend from London with extensive European travel experience, I was free of the stress that can accompany getting your bearings in unfamiliar places.
Nevertheless, I learned during my summer holiday in Switzerland that everyone needs an occasional break from their day-to-day lives, no matter how ideal their situations may be. I call it “airing out” — a feeling I first discovered and gave a name to back in the mid-1980s when I took my first extensive European vacation since getting into my career in earnest. Enjoying the luxury of being shown around the Continent by a close friend from London with extensive European travel experience, I was free of the stress that can accompany getting your bearings in unfamiliar places. Somewhere between the rows and rows of colorful original art lining Montmartre in Paris and the ancient, cliff-side maritime village of Lagos in Portugal, I experienced a feeling of extreme calm, contentment, and openness to life – a sensation almost drug-like in its absence of mental chatter and worry. I guess you’d call it a true natural high.
An image came to mind of a white sheet on a clothesline, gently flapping in a pure summer breeze outside a simple country house situated somewhere in the heartland.
I’ve since found myself there, maybe on a long train ride passing along a scenic vista, or when wandering through old cobblestone streets hand-in-hand with my wife or with friends who make everywhere feel like home. Mostly, I feel it on the best vacations, like the one my wife and I just returned from, in Switzerland, where we’d lived as expats from 2001 until just last year. Life lessons seemed to pop up before me like the mountain flowers along the hiking paths in Zermatt, or like the glistening heads of the hordes of summer swimmers making their way downstream on the beautiful Rhine in our beloved Basel.
Lesson 2: Duty Calls, Desire Picks You Up in a Limo
My dear friend Sharon (not her real name) is a coach who has a rule not to counsel people she’s close to. But she will occasionally offer friendly advice. Walking high up in the rare air surrounding the Matterhorn, I confided to her that I didn’t “feel I was as happy as I should be lately.” I hadn’t been accomplishing enough of the things I’d told myself were important. I wasn’t being disciplined enough and feared I was blowing it – risking running out of time before I’d fulfilled my potential.
“Wow, I almost can’t count the number of judgments you’ve just made,” Sharon responded. With that, she launched into the kind of argument for the abolition of “should” that I’ve heard for years and always rejected, if only on the grounds that it’s a bona fide word in the English vocabulary possessing a clear meaning and common understanding. It also strikes me as the perfect description for feeling a sense of duty to act on things not yet acted on. Be that as it may, Sharon was adamant about the dangers inherent in the dark six-letter word, which she equates with “falling short of expectations, failure, and disappointment.”
She expounded in an email after our hike. “Should,” she said, “is full of judgment – of self or others. It stymies change and growth. And the mere use of ‘should’ puts the focus on the gap between what is and what is wanted and away from the desired state.”
It occurred to me that there’s another feeling, like “airing out,” that I get sometimes. It’s a feeling of doing things purely out of an intrinsic motivation that springs naturally and unforced from my free-flowing desire. I call it being in flow. I can’t summon it whenever I want to, but when it happens, it’s heaven – so much better than doing things because of a sense of discipline, duty or diligence. My shrink used to encourage me to find and cultivate that state, rather than always beating myself up for not being more disciplined. I’m still working on it.
Lesson 3: Somewhere Along the Way, Humans Have Become Illiterate at Reading Natural Signs
My talk with Sharon along the Alpine path turned to her recent trip to Africa to study the art of communicating with animals – something she’s been exploring as a loving and longtime cat owner. She and her classmates were asked to spend time with a female cheetah who’d been found by rangers in Skeleton Coast, Namibia, in a badly injured state and gradually nursed back to health.
After receiving some training in ways to open the heart and mind to messages from animals, each student was asked to spend some time one on one with the cheetah and ascertain whether she felt any pain and where, what had happened to her before she was found by the rangers, what help she felt she needed now and what else she wanted to convey.
Recalling what she’d written in her notebook about what she “got” from spending time with the creature, Sharon listed these points: The cheetah “had pain in her left shoulder and the front of her neck; she could not remember what had happened to her to cause her injury; she needed to continue to rest.” Finally, the “Cheetah Mama,” as she was called, wanted to express that she had a cub and wanted to know what had happened to him; she wanted to see him again.
After all the students had gone through the one-on-one session with the animal, the instructor revealed what was known about her. She did indeed have a cub and had been hunting with him on an embankment when it gave way and sent her crashing to the ground below, injuring her legs and knocking her unconscious. Her young cub ran off, apparently out of fear and a sense of self-preservation. The cub had since been spotted and had grown enough to hunt and kill food – small prey and even a springbok — for himself.
Sadly, mother and cub were never reunited, because Mama Cheetah was killed by a leopard three weeks after Sharon’s return from Namibia. But Sharon’s animal communication studies continue, and she’s been exploring how horses can teach us to become leaders by helping us understand the extent to which we do or do not exhibit the traits that induce them to follow us – despite their far superior strength and power – qualities like trust, respect, and empathy.
Many years ago I read a book called “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” by Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. The author postulates that long before the advent of what we know as normal human consciousness, the homo sapiens brain was dominated by the right hemisphere – the pre-language hemisphere, where what buzzed around inside the mind were the voices of the gods and other nonverbal “signs” that conveyed meaning, drove desires and instigated actions. The capacity for language came much later, with the development of the brain’s left hemisphere, which eventually overpowered and crowded out the right hemisphere’s capacity to read signs of other kinds.
I’ve encountered too many people whose experiences communicating with animals are just too convincing to ignore.
I believe they’ve tuned into a capability we all possess but have lost touch with. Who knows where a search for pre-language literacy could lead?
Lesson No. 4: You Can’t Go Home Again
When my wife an I moved to Basel in 2001 to begin what would be a life-changing 16-year stint in Europe, the International Herald-Tribune (now The New York Times International Edition) had a periodic column about expat life called “At Home Abroad.” One of the first pieces that caught my attention was about how the children of expats who had spent their childhoods abroad tended to be extremely bright, high-achieving and self-possessed, but that they had difficulty when returning to their home countries and got along well only with other expat kids.
Where was the warning for expat adults? When my wife and I made our first visit back to our adopted home in Basel last summer, we had a very nice time. When we returned this summer it was more like being a couple of gasping fish dumped back in the Rhine after being out of water till our gills almost gave out. The air seemed purer, the landscape more pristine, and the conversations with people, most of all, less charged and consumed with the inescapable outrage of America’s putrid political environment.
As if on cue, this just hit my inbox from the Linkedin American Politics, Culture & Economy Group. The headline reads: “Disputes over politics have divided Americans’ homes, strained marriages, ruined friendships and invaded the workplace.” The stench of Trumpian politics is persuasive in my home country and was barely better during our visit to Europe – although barely better is a blessing. Still, friends and former co-workers invariably looked at me in utter bafflement, expecting a rational explanation of how a sane and decent society could have allowed such a bigoted, classless, no-character con artist to become its president. They railed at the damage Trump is doing not just to the U.S., but to the world, they live in, too. But they had no trouble moving on to other topics without leaving a bitter aftertaste or causing any strain in our relationship. That’s not always the case at home, even with people whose political views I share, especially if I betray any skepticism about the hard, progressive left and signal softness for “the squishy middle.”
The heading of this section is not entirely accurate: You CAN go home again. But you can’t expect it to be exactly the way you remember it. And you can’t expect yourself to be exactly the way your friends remember you, nor to be able to explain to their or even your own satisfaction precisely how you’ve changed. But you have. Anyone who’s lived in another country for any period of time and come home will tell you so. You will have been changed for better and – maybe not for worse – but for different. I had suspected that for a while, but it took my summer vacation abroad to make it sink in.