It was a strange time in New York City. The busy avenues and streets were quiet during the usual midday rush. No one was around. The sidewalks were empty of pedestrians and everyone was quarantined in their homes, glued to their televisions to hear the news and updates. Businesses were shut down. Stores were closed and the office buildings in Manhattan were empty. All that was around were the essential workers. Meanwhile, the media reported the daily numbers and reports about the pandemic. People were panicking and there were restrictions on when to go to the supermarket, which aisle to walk down and where to stand while waiting at the register. This was the year 2020. All of the world was brought to a standstill.
Of course, there were disputes about the virus. There were arguments about politics and more and more, the news reports offered disturbing threats of violence and upticks of restless citizens, revolting and protesting in the streets.
If ever there was a time for a community to come find unity and work together, this was the time. If ever there was a time for cooler heads to prevail, this would be it. However, difference created more difference in which case; never the two would meet. More now than ever before in my time have I seen such division. Not even religion was argued the same as politics because simply, politics became the new religion and politicians became the new scientists.
Meanwhile, back in the trenches of everyday life, there were people at work. There were people who manned the empty commercial properties. There were the store clerks and the mail carriers. There were the sanitation workers and the emergency workers. Of course, there was the medical profession who saw it all, firsthand, in triage, in emergency rooms, in I.C.U. and C.C.U. units.
Classrooms were empty because kids were at home with remote learning. Oftentimes, parents were home because they were working remotely. Classrooms and offices alike were left exactly as they were with the same papers on the desks and the same St. Patrick’s Day decorations on the walls.
A wellness professional told me, “The one thing Covid did was normalize depression. At this point, everyone is going through something.”
The commercials on television normalized talk therapy and the importance of mental health. Of course, this was a good thing. Only, it’s too bad that awareness like this had to come in the wake of catastrophe. But yet, somehow, we made it through. Although no one is out of the woods yet and the future is yet to be determined, nevertheless, our society is working on a big return.
There are reports of a hybrid return to the workplace at an incremental pace. There’s talk about how to return to workstations and cubicles in open areas, and yet, how do we create this successfully? How do we loosen our guard after being so isolated and secluded? And more, how do we create a comfortable culture to rid the dissidence and mend the division that has set us all so far apart?
The idea of bringing people together and away from technology is a great idea. But how do we get people to buy into this?
For more than a year, our practice has been social distancing. Our faces have been covered with masks. Our experience is of constant threats being reported of recent outbreaks and surges of viral infestation. Not to mention the split between the two parties of vaxxers and anti-vaxxers who waged war on one another. To vax or not to vax; this has become the question.
We find ourselves in interesting times. No one can say for certain who is right or who is wrong. We all come from different backgrounds. We all have our own opinions, ideas, cultures and beliefs. And yet, somehow, we have to find a way to bridge the gaps and return to the offices and the classrooms. But how? How can “Be the Better and Embrace the Culture” and allow each other the individual right to think, believe, be, pray, eat, drink, live, love, laugh and learn at our own unique pace without this being a threat to everyone else?
Be the Better and Embrace the Culture:
As a child, my room was not the cleanest. I was not always a good listener nor was I someone who took direction well.
I remember a teacher once told me, “The only way I can get you to do something is if I tell you not to!” And she was right! The quickest way to get people to argue is to tell them that they are wrong. For example, tell someone who opposes your opinion about their political choice. What happens? Tell someone who is an anti-vaxxer that you support the vaccine. What happens?
The truth is there will always be differences. The fact remains that there is nothing wrong with thinking or believing differently. However, it is when opinions are imposed, almost as law, we find ourselves locked in the tussling inability to agree to disagree. I’m right and you’re wrong are seldom constructive ways to conclude a conversation, and yet, we find ourselves so divided and at a time where unity is crucial, how do we build this new bridge that will bring us back together?
Years ago, I worked for a man who was one of the top property owners in New York’s commercial real estate. He was a billionaire, and yet, he had the grace, the courtesy and the wherewithal to acknowledge the people who worked for him. He remembered names and conversations. He would say things like, “How’s your family. I heard your wife was ill,”
“Is she feeling better?” He would ask and then politely ask to follow up, so that he would know the outcome. Meanwhile, the person whose wife was ill was a day porter in charge of cleaning bathrooms.
In fact, one night, there was construction going on in the executive floor. The building’s assistant chief engineer was onsite. The hour was late and the assistant chief was tired. He was known for being excessively heavy but moved extremely well for such a big man. Nevertheless, the assistant chief was tired. There was a demolition crew working late to finish a new addition to the corporate office. The assistant chief felt tired but he knew he could not leave the floor. The demolition crews were breaking walls with water columns in them and should one of the pipes accidentally break, this could result in millions of dollars in damages. There was a couch in one of the offices. The assistant chief sat down and eventually laid down and drifted off to sleep.
He was awakened by the sound of drawers opening and the clicking of a desk lamp. When the assistant chief looked up, he was surprised to see who it was. It was him, the billionaire himself, quietly maneuvering through his desk so as not to disturb the engineer on duty. When the assistant chief looked up, he was met with a kindness that he did not expect. “Shh . . . Don’t worry about it. I’ll be out of here in a minute.”
The assistant was sure he was going to be fired the very next morning. Rather than wait for the news, the assistant went upstairs to the executive floor to apologize. He was met with a much different approach. He was met with a smile. And never a mention about the couch was made.
“I want to apologize,” he said.
“For what?” asked the building’s owner.
“For being on your couch.”
“It’s okay,” said the owner.
“I work late too. I know how it is.”
From that day on, the assistant chief worked very differently. His dedication to his job was brought on by a sense of personal obligation that was born from a personal acknowledgement “I would have done anything for that man,” the assistant chief told me. “He really knew how to treat people.”
It seems that we forget ourselves sometimes. No one likes to be admonished or punished or told what to do and how. We all have our own cultures and rather than shame the differences, what if we simply allowed them to be different and embraced the benefits of our similarities, which are made up of simply this: to be happy.
All of our backgrounds and all of our mental computations are done to understand our surroundings and protect us from harm. Our subconscious programs are based on our experiences and pathways of thinking. More importantly, our belief system is formed from this. So then how can we interact and work together when we have so many differences?
It is clear that we behave on the matter of obligations. The reason for the assistant chief’s dedication is because he saw his top performance as an obligation. So then how do we encourage one another to Be the Better and Embrace the Culture?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The facts remain that people respond to anabolic energy and positive reinforcements, encouragements and welcomeness.
Moving back into the world, we are all tasked with the project of tolerance and respect. Our cultures are all different. However, by building new systems and allowing old habits to be shaped in new categories, we can both honor and learn from new ways of living and adapting to each other’s unique styles.
There was a person on the third floor in a building that I work in. Her office was small and private; however, there was a need for repairs. When the repairman came in, he was not wearing a face mask.
“Where’s your mask,” asked the woman who owned the office.
“In my pocket,” said the person who came to repair her air conditioning.
“A lot of good it does there,” she added.
“Would you rather I leave and not fix your air?”
The argument that followed was less than healthy and less than in need for description.
Two people at odds will only remain at odds. However, imagine if there was a different line of communication. What if there was a sense of kindness instead of an irate, “I’m right and your wrong” sort of tone?
It seems the only way to create and build upon an upcoming change is to build a system of mutually comforting principles so that to each their own is not just a saying. The steps to reconvene are moving slowly. As a mental health professional, I was asked how I would help prepare a workplace to return to the office. Make health and wellness an obligation. Make it a habit. Make the return have personal value and allow this to celebrate our personal rights to be who we are. Let the focus be health and allow people their voice.
Rather than discuss their differences or political views, focus on the wellness side. Focus on the commonalities and see where this goes. Talk about things that make changes. Talk about things that build empowerment. Rather than mandate, encourage and empower. Rather than focus on what’s wrong or what’s different, Be the Better and Embrace the Culture.