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stress

I hope today can feel like a new day. I am up early, blinds drawn, sipping coffee from my favorite mug, the sun peeping over the foliage outside my window and landing on my tired face. I slept fitfully last night, woken by sirens and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. I wondered who they were looking for, whether that person was afraid and if they needed somewhere to shelter.

Shelter is such a simple yet powerful word. It is what we have been doing for three months now in the face of a virus. It’s what we stand under to protect us from the rain, wind, sun as we wait for a bus to take us where we need to go. It’s an act of kind offering to let someone into our homes when they are in need – come in, be warm, have my friendship.

I was moved by the story of Rahul Dubey, a DC resident who was sitting on his stoop on Monday night when protesters were cornered, police advancing on them from either end of his small street. He didn’t just watch – he saw their plight, the fear in their eyes as they contemplated their fate in the hands of police officers after the curfew had fallen – and he acted. He opened his home to 70 strangers. He gave them shelter. He ordered pizzas, he helped them to wash the tear gas from their eyes, they no doubt left the next morning rested and ready to continue their mission.

Shelter isn’t just practical – it’s emotional and spiritual. I’m sure his actions gave those 70 young people hope; hope in the inherent goodness in most human beings, hope in solidarity, hope in how society can be.

When I myself have offered shelter my overwhelming emotion has been frustration – that I could not do more. I’ve sat with wives facing demands they cannot meet from terrorists holding their husband hostage, mothers watching along with the rest of us a video depicting their child’s murder, casually and callously uploaded to YouTube by their captors.

What I have come to understand is just how simple yet powerful shelter is. It is the smallest and most heartfelt acts of kindness that are most gratefully received; listening, being present, trying to understand, finding a way to laugh at the appropriate moment to allow a vital temporary release of pent up energy. And asking for nothing in return.

I have found the last few days terrifying, confusing and also uplifting. I watched as protesters of every color, creed and background took to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd, who died with his neck under the knee of a police officer. They took to the streets for George, for those who died before him, in the hope that no one would have to die or suffer in the future. They took to the streets because they want this to end. I have been moved by their bravery. On Saturday, we stood and watched hundreds of cars drive past our apartment building on the corner of Maine and 6th in SW DC, honking their horns, protesters spilling out of every window and sun roof with fists raised and banners flapping in the wind.

I was surprised by my own reaction – tears formed in my eyes, my arm lifted, self-consciously at first yet with passion and conviction soon enough. In the face of what these young people were fighting for, the very least I could do was raise my arm in solidarity.

I have watched in horror at the violent fringe of riots and looting – the stores in my old home neighborhood of Georgetown smashed, the contents plundered, often discarded on the sidewalk as an afront to the hard work and industry that went into their production. As if our communities weren’t suffering enough after three months of imposed sheltering, small business owners and shop workers about to return to work following the relaxing of lockdown must surely be heartbroken as they clear up this mess with the sound of broken glass crunching under their feet.

These thugs and fools not only bring destruction to communities, they sully the protesters and their cause as so many people fail to distinguish between the two.

And then on Monday night I watched the President send in the military to clear peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets to make space for him to visit St John’s Church for a photo op holding a bible.

In the preceding speech, he declared himself the President of Law and Order, name checking second amendment rights, threatening to overrule governors by imposing force and declaring a nebulous grouping a domestic terrorist organization.

I watched his speech with terror in my heart; these are the words and sentiments I have heard spill from the mouths of tyrants in “other” countries. With him on my television screen – his bile, hatred and division – my home no longer felt like my shelter.

On autopilot, we put on our shoes and went outside, standing on the same corner we had watched the protests on Saturday. At first we stood in silence side by side. I felt my eyes fill again with tears of worry. I instinctively turned to Paul and asked him to hold me. We stood like that for a long 10 minutes without saying a word.

When we came back in, I reached out to friends; I needed to connect. One immediately replied to ask if we could talk. It wasn’t enough to text, we needed to see one another’s faces, share our feelings, listen, check we really had heard the same thing. “This is what your family fled Poland for in the last century”, I said to her. She nodded slowly and silently. We took shelter in our friendship and one another.

As I lay in bed last night, listening to the sirens and wondering who was out there, who was worried about being picked up, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach about where this goes, where this ends. I did not feel immediately worried for my own safety, but I had a deep concern about the implications of what I heard and saw on Monday night.

I was reminded of Martin Niemoller’s powerful words:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak up
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

On Monday afternoon, I spent an hour or so collecting together the examples of leadership I’d seen from governors, police chiefs, rappers who gave me hope. Leaders of compassion and connection, using their titles, offices and privileges as a platform for good rather than a barrier to shelter behind. I needed to do this to remind myself of the goodness in the face of division and despair. Erika Shields, Atlanta police chief who came down and spoke to protesters and heard their anger. Genesee County Sherif, Chris Swanson, who asked the protesters what they wanted and when they said “walk with us” he did. Killer Mike, a rapper who cried in pain and told his fellow Atlantans to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilze. Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who talked to her city as a mother and and told the rioters to go home.

There is a reason their words and actions have gone viral – we need them. Just like Rahul Dubey’s quiet act of leadership on Monday night, their leadership offers us the shelter we need right now. Just like him, the shelter they offer brings us hope – hope in the inherent goodness of most human beings, hope in solidarity, and hope in how society can be.

As we wake scared in the night to the sound of sirens; as we watch the news worried about our cities, our young people, our cohesion; let’s ask ourselves what can I do to offer shelter? Shelter – physical, practical, emotional and spiritual – is our most important currency in these difficult times.

Three weeks into my Quarter Gap Year, everything about Julia Hobsbawn’s new book appeals to me: The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world.

It’s the book for our times and Julia walks us through the data; we pick up our smartphones 80 times per day or roughly every 12 minutes, we are on the internet six hours per day or one-third of our waking time, and being ‘on’ 24/7 is the norm at work. All this when we know the human brain cannot hold more than about seven things at any given time and research shows that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain attention and focus after being distracted.

It’s not surprising that over 15 million working days were lost to stress in the UK last year, stress costs $300 billion annually to the US, and – sadly – the WHO reports one death from suicide every 40 seconds. Our lives are too complicated for us to keep up with ourselves, let alone the Joneses. [For more on these refs, read the book!].

Having spent the last five years relocating from the UK to the US, standing up a new nonprofit and building it to the point of it having a solid year’s worth of running costs in the bank (handy during a global pandemic), I know all too well the picture being painted here: always on, constantly multi-tasking, dozens of plates spinning, pressure to succeed, and no social support structure. The ends are hugely rewarding, but the means to get there have taken a toll.

Lucky for me, I’m in a position to take a break, step back and reassess my priorities. So while it’s most definitely the book for our times – it’s also come at just the right moment for me.

Julia outlines six sides of a hexagon which together encapsulate the six sides of simplicity: clarity, individuality, reset, knowledge, networks and time. Each has six ideas within it, which come with six fixes or takeaways and calls to action.

I can’t say the narrative structure of the book worked for me – bees, hexagons, nature – but that doesn’t detract from the central idea and the practical suggestions about how to incorporate the simplicity principle into your own life.

Here are the key things I’ll be building into my life:

Clarity:

  • Minimize the number of decisions you have to make and make them swiftly
  • Take a technology break at a regular time each week
  • Say no much more than you say yes
  • Declutter and have a designated place for everything

Individuality:

  • Distinguish between your online and offline identities
  • Pay attention to place – where you live, work and your journey between the two are critical to have you live and work

Reset:

  • Make sleep a big priority
  • Find ways to switch off, whether through meditation or more active ways that take you out of your day to day
  • Seek out a change of scene regularly
  • Spend time in nature
  • Make time for fun in your life

Knowledge:

  • Always bring what you know already to new situations – it’s your wisdom
  • Focus on your soft skills
  • Use a Knowledge Dashboard to streamline the information you receive
  • Don’t have too many things to focus on at once

Networks:

  • Make time for face-to-face
  • Organize how you communicate with someone according to the quality of the relationship
  • Approach networking as a relational activity, not a transactional one
  • Create social capital by being part of communities
  • Create small intimate gatherings and generally avoid large conferences
  • Identify your ‘social six’ – the people who really matter to you

Time:

  • Don’t do deadlines unless you’ve set them yourself
  • Keep control of your calendar and be intentional about how you spend your time
  • Organize your day in the way that makes most sense for you and your body clock
  • Don’t bother with offices unless you have to

I’d recommend this book to anyone asking themselves why life seems relentless, whether it could be different, and how to get started. It’s a great read, much more accessible than your typical ‘self-help’ book, and offers a practical roadmap for how to make change happen.

Duty and obligation are two words that have dominated my life. They are, of course, virtues; doing your duty is better than shirking it, fulfilling obligations preferable to abandoning them. According to the dictionary, they have both legal and moral imperatives.

Duty: a moral or legal obligation; responsibility
Obligation: an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound.

It’s the morality bit that make duty and obligation highly subjective and open to interpretation; some of us assume far more than our fair share, while others restrict their efforts to the more measurable realm of “responsibilities”.

After stepping down from a decade and a half of work running two non-profits that support hostages and their families – where duty really is the watch word – I’ve been reflecting on my own approach; the balance between duty to oneself and other people; the distinction between real and imagined duty; and the corrosive impact of self-fabricated duty.

Duty to self

The oxygen mask has become a clichéd symbol of the wellness world; fit your own oxygen mask before helping others. It’s become a shorthand way of saying that you can’t help others unless you first help yourself, and it’s certainly a phrase I’ve used in training volunteers working with former hostages. For those of us at the far end of the duty spectrum, self-care is justified as a means to caring for others.

That was my line until recently; I’ve been uncomfortable with the wellbeing thing all my life, whether taking the time and effort to cook and eat well, prioritizing exercise, making space for meditation, or carving out opportunities for creativity. Too often, I’ve worked late and missed family life, scheduled back-to-back work trips rather than putting my need for routine first, drunk wine to keep a friend company when I would prefer a sober evening, or agreed to early morning calls rather than saying no for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

What they don’t tell you in the airline safety briefing is that you’ll only have time to put on one mask before you pass out due to the loss of oxygen. It’s not self-care to allow you to then care for others; it’s self-preservation or die.

As I take a few months for myself, I know I’m late to the game on this. For the first time in my life, my days are focused on my health and wellbeing; I exercise and meditate every day, I cook from scratch, I’m scheduling time for things I love to do – reading, photography, calls with family and friends, fresh air and lots of sunshine. It’s an absolute revelation; it’s not just the feel-good endorphins, it’s the joy of prioritizing my day around my health, and then working out whether and how other tasks will fit around it.

Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all

I’m not doing this because it will make me a better wife, daughter, friend, although I have no doubt it will. I’m doing it because it will make me a better me – happier, healthier, calmer, fitter. Duty to yourself is the most important duty of all.

Real versus imagined duty

After duty to self comes duty to others. How much? To whom? Why? If, like me, you have boundary issues, you might imagine duty beyond where it exists. Close friends for years have lovingly rolled their eyes and reassured me it’s ok to say no. I didn’t listen. Net result: over-extended, assuming others’ responsibilities and blurring the lines between colleagues and friends.

Only recently did I step back, see they were right, and adopted a rather formal system for categorizing the people in my life: close family, close friends, friends, people you spend time with, close colleagues, and your wider professional network. For each group, I classified the time and effort appropriate for the relationship. It has counteracted my in-built ‘duty alarm’, helping me to shift the balance to my nearest and dearest.

We should give 80 per cent of our time to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent of the joy to our lives

If someone hasn’t said this already, allow me: we should give 80 per cent of our energy to the 20 per cent of people who bring 80 per cent of the joy to our lives. I’ve come to appreciate that the smaller my circle, the richer my life. I only owe “duty” to my inner circle. Outside them, I have responsibilities, usually codified in a contract or a quid pro quo.

Self-fabricated duty

The most corrosive duty of all is that which we impose on ourselves for no good reason. During an especially tough time at work, I sat down to figure out what was wrong. Honestly wasn’t the bestpolicy – it was the only. Things really were that bad. Taking out a large piece of paper, I jotted down all the thoughts, frustrations, challenges and gripes I could think of – it was painful reading.

One phrase jumped off the page – “I always think I am the only solution to every problem.”

I didn’t mean this in a narcissistic way; it was due to a lack of self-confidence rather than a big ego. I was afraid to ask for help because I thought everyone expected me to have the answer and would think I was a failure if I couldn’t fix things on my own. Instead of reaching out, I became the martyr and victim. I was stuck.

A linguistic tweak was all it took; instead of asking myself “how can I solve this?” I started asking my colleagues and board members “what are we going to do together to overcome our problem?” It was transformational; it altered my perception of the situation, helped others to see the problem and their responsibilities, signaled a wider effort was needed, and ultimately created better and more sustainable solutions. It turns out no-one ever expected me to have all the answers; I had fabricated a duty that didn’t exist.

Instead of asking myself “how can I solve this? I started asking my colleagues and board members “what are we going to do together to overcome our problem?”

Duty and obligation are valuable concepts that encourage us to think beyond contracts towards a more holistic social covenant that can generate pride, morale, self-worth and tremendous public and private good. But beware imagined and fabricated duty – and don’t forget that your first and most important duty is to yourself.

Slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go

After stepping down from my busy, stressful – but rewarding – job a couple of weeks ago, I gave myself the best leaving gift: time. Three months, to be precise. A Quarter Gap Year. It’s the second time I’ve done it – the last one involved more long haul flights, scuba diving and temples; this time, the quarter gap year has come to me.

As I enter the second full week of the Quarter Gap Year, I’m learning an important lesson: slowing down.

Last week was a heady mix of feel-good productivity: a Johns Hopkins online epidemiology course, dozens of articles on managing pandemics, a couple of blog posts written, and a book on the impact of childhood trauma. I can think of worse ways to spend my days; in fact, it’s really wonderful to feel my brain stimulated, pinging off in different directions. I’m a strong believer in the power of intellectual free-styling.

It was too much too soon, and wasn’t helped by my over-enthusiastic (and age inappropriate) embrace of Peleton online HIIT classes. While Shakira may have warned us that the hips don’t lie, for me it’s all about the neck and shoulders. Thursday it was a slight twinge. Friday needed a husband rub. Saturday extra pillows for my neck. By Sunday the battle was lost and I spent all day yesterday with my left arm supported, sitting upright on the sofa doing nothing more taxing than TV.

Neck and shoulder issues have plagued me all my adult life. The time I almost had to cancel a holiday (and then spent the first 3 days in bed immobile); when I spent a couple of months with a bag of peas on my neck; the frozen shoulder that necessitated opioids and steroids; the countless other times I’ve had to carefully choose my sleeping position to minimize the stress on my neck. It comes, it hurts, I stop. Rewind and repeat.

Acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, sports massage, deep tissue massage, osteopathy, pilates, yoga. You name it, I’ve tried it. I even had calcium deposits extracted from my shoulders with a very large needle a couple of years ago. I’ll spare you the visuals. Some have helped – deep tissue massage and pilates are stand out stars – others didn’t do a thing – acupuncture and physical therapy were a waste of money (for me).

As good as any of these things are, they treat the symptoms not the cause: stress. Stress impacts my posture, which strains my muscles, which are then vulnerable to the slightest tweak, leading to a disproportionate strain, I compensate by changing my posture, and so the cycle continues until I’m in agony.

Meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective

I’ve found meditation to be the only effective way to treat the cause. In 2017/18 when I was going through undoubtedly the most stressful period of my career, Take Five Meditation studio opened near my office in Washington DC. I’d wanted to try meditation for a while and spent a long time getting round to booking my first class. I hoped it would offer an escape from my daily stress. It did.

More profoundly, after a couple of years practice I came to understand that meditation isn’t something you do to take you out of your daily life – it’s something you bring into your daily life to cultivate perspective. When I feel my stress levels rising, when I have to make a difficult call, when a donor falls though; stop, breathe, focus inwards – and let go. Your mind is clearer, you can focus more easily, and your response is likely to be strategic rather than reactive. It’s something you learn in a meditation studio, but put into practice at your desk.

For me right now, the challenge is not stress as I’m used to – I’m blissfully obligation-free for three months. It’s the stress of change, transition, the unknown. It’s the task of letting go of many years of stress and finding what normal looks like again. Unwinding.

As week two of the Quarter Gap Year gets underway, I realize that slowing down is the fastest way to get where I want to go. Realistically, I know I won’t be able to sit still reading novels and watching Netflix for three months, but a little more idling might just be the most productive thing to do. And if all else fails, Omm…

 

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