I recently learned a new term from a dear friend who described the general state of wariness I’ve been carrying around with me like a wet blanket. “Have you heard of VUCA?” he asked. He proceeded to share with me what the acronym stands for: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) — a U.S. military term that prepares troops for this challenging combination of environmental and situational dynamics that, taken together, create some of the most difficult conditions human beings can experience.
Over the last 18 months, all of humanity has been wading through an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, without fully appreciating its effect on our minute-to-minute feelings, behaviors, actions, and decisions.
Neuroscientist Amishi Jha’s research suggests that such complex and high-stress environments rapidly deplete one of our most essential human superpowers: our attention, which gives us the ability to plan, to stay on task, to prioritize, to focus, and to filter – the very things that enable us to feel in control of our environment and our emotions. Dr. Martha Welch at the Nurture Science Program teaches that when we’re disconnected from others — not just physically, but emotionally — our bodies become dysregulated. And when our bodies are dysregulated, our stress resilience goes down, and our brains can’t develop optimally, or even function well. This interferes with our ability to regulate our emotional behavior. When we feel overwhelmed, we are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and even conflict with others. Deep emotional connection — the kind that allows you to laugh or cry with a person you love — provides one of the most powerful buffers to disconnection and dysregulation. It’s the vital support we need to be our best selves, especially in a tumultuous world.
Eighteen months is a long time. Long enough to forget a great many things. We have lost long-held habits and routines as we’ve forged new ones out of necessity. We’ve watched our weak ties fade and have developed new social norms. We have felt the presence of big, beautiful questions, many of them still without answers. Amidst so much ambiguity, it’s alluring to think that getting back to what we did before can solve our problems.
Last month, our team held its first in-person meeting since the pandemic began. After struggling with a strategic question via asynchronous document editing, Slack storms, and a few too many Zoom meetings over the course of several weeks, I thought gathering in person to wrestle it together could get us further faster.
Arriving back to our offices felt like some kind of bizarre dream. In many ways, it felt as if nothing had changed. As if the last year and half hadn’t even happened. I dropped my bag at my desk, grabbed my notebook and pen, filled my favorite mug with coffee, and proceeded to meet the team in our conference room, a space where we spent hundreds of hours together in pre-COVID world.
We each arrived preparing to get down to business. We quickly laid out the agenda, and the wrestling began. And before we knew it, the discussion went off the rails. We reverted to old thinking, bad habits, and wheel-spinning. We lost our meeting purpose and kept digging a deeper hole instead of calling a time out. After two and a half hours, we adjourned; the air felt heavy, and each of us felt depleted. I walked home confused and disheartened. How was it that coming together didn’t fix the problem? I thought us being apart was our barrier. What went wrong?
After a restless night, I realized we failed to heed the advice we know to be true from our partners (and often write about in this very newsletter): being together is not the same thing as being connected. Somehow, I believed proximity would foster connection. But when we are all navigating so much complexity, we need to establish emotional connection first, and overtly nurture and tend to it in our encounters with each other.
In so many ways, our team has sustained and strengthened our connection over the last year and a half — despite being virtual — by banding together and persevering to advance our collective work and shared purpose. And yet, by too hastily returning to our practice from the Before Times — without fully acknowledging and appreciating all that we’ve individually and collectively been through together and apart — we forgot to truly reconnect as human beings. How fortunate we are to finally be able to be together, in person, with one another. This was not something we should have taken for granted. We failed to take time for connection and celebration. It was a failure of leadership. And it was mine.
In the weeks before the change in masking guidelines and the reports of breakthrough Delta-variant infections, I was hopeful, optimistic even, about the opportunity to reclaim a new normal. As a manager and team leader, I’ve adopted a motivational tone about getting back to the office and establishing new patterns of hybrid collaboration. Perhaps, I thought, the storm clouds of this extended winter were finally preparing to part, and we could once again plan for our collective future. Again, I was wrong.
The uncertain nature of our current reality makes so much around us impossible to predict and therefore, hard to withstand. The chronic stress of the perpetual attention and adaptation required to live in this tumultuous reality dysregulates our bodies, which makes it harder to be resilient. If someone like me, who has the privilege of working from the comfort of my own home, is experiencing increasing levels of stress caused from living in this unstable state, how much more challenging its effects must be on our essential workers and most vulnerable neighbors.
This extended period of social withdrawal has forced us to reckon with what is truly essential, and what is not. This fundamental accounting, in turn, has brought into perspective our individual and collective humanity. Who are we when transmitted through the internet? And who are we when we are physically together? For how long can we continue to persist in isolation? When and how does it become essential for us to reunite? Feeling connected in this time, whether we’re alone or together, is fundamental to our ability to be whole.
Human connection — specifically emotional connection — is some of the oldest technology available to us as human beings to cope with loss, upheaval, and change. And yet, in the last 18 months, and even the years prior, we have diverted so much of our time and attention to digital space, that even when we come together, we easily forget what’s required of us to be together well.
After this long and dark social winter, we have to relearn and reinvent how to be human together once again. And we get to make choices about how we wish to live.
A week later, I invited my team to join me again, this time outdoors, for dedicated unstructured time with good food, laughter, art, music, and celebration. No agenda. No wrestling. First things first: we created the space and time to rediscover one another. The day ended with a wholly different feeling; the world is still a volatile and uncertain place, but we left feeling more connected to one another, knowing we aren’t facing it alone.
There’s no question that we can get a heck of a lot done on the internet. I remain dumbstruck by everything my team and others have accomplished since the pandemic began – and I feel confident there will be a great many things we will continue to be able to do this way well into the future. And at the same time, I also know there is no substitute for the deep feeling of connection that is made possible by being together.
As we move into a shifting hybrid future, I am holding the deep truths about what it means to be humans together:
I don’t have to ask “Are you there? Can you hear me?” I already know.
There is no substitute for eye contact, a hug, a squeeze on the shoulder, or a knowing smile.
Being truly seen and heard by someone’s unwavering presence, even when not speaking.
The gift of listening to someone’s story without distraction — no pings, notifications, pop-ups or pop-ins.
Singing “Happy Birthday” to a colleague in unison has never sounded so sweet.
Such beauty emerges from the natural cadence of deep conversation that can’t be disrupted by forgetting to unmute or spotty internet.
Looking around a circle and feeling the collective energy and appreciation of our team as we talk about our shared future nourishes my soul; I am reminded how lucky we are to be alive, and together.
As we continue the age-old project of advancing the human experience, I hope the new normal we create together will be rich with connection and effervescent joy. Learning how to be humans together again offers us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to truly see our humanity in a new light.