*being a non-native English speaker, this article may have language mistakes. If you find obviously ones, that should be clarified, please, give me a comment. Many thanks.
This article is the second of 21 about my Empathy Cycling Tour in August 2019. I choose a subject for each day of my journey to share things I learned or gained insights that I find worthful to share.
This post is about courage, self-reflection and willingness to stand up for what is, or should be, important to you.
Let’s start with some questions that came up on my journey:
- How is it possible that more people are actively engaged in situations that they care about?
- What could the world look like if there is less apathy?
- What can or should you do yourself if a challenge seems too big, or if there is a doubt that you can make a difference?
I reached Harwich on the second day. Perhaps not the most appealing town I’ve ever seen. I passed ordinary houses that were somewhat required to be renovated and I would describe it Harwich as a working-class town.
After I got my ticket for the ferry, I set off to watch out for people that I could talk to and more attractive spots. The route led me through parks that were partly littered until I arrived at the small city centre. Eventually, a Coffee House got my attention.
The man who knows everyone
I went into the Coffee House. Next to the entrance sat a guy who was joking about something. I just ordered a coffee at the counter, served by a friendly lady. I resisted the cakes, which looked very inviting, and asked if I could have my drinking bottles refilled later with water. The joking guy now turned out to be the owner of the Coffee House, because he walked behind the counter, and kindly offered help and gave instructions to the staff. His name was Gary.
More guests came in, and it seemed that he knew every single person that came in personally and by name.
I planned that Harwich would be the first day on which I wanted to get very active in talking to strangers, and not just those who serve me at the till. The Coffee House was not a place where the elite of society, or particularly trendy people, stopped. “Just” ordinary folk, that should be an opportunity to get some insights.
I started a conversation with Gary. I mentioned my journey and that I wished to talk to different people. I thought, who would be better qualified for a chat than someone who seems to know the whole city? He seemed not very interested and was busy anyway, so he introduced me to Laura, who sat at one of the tables on the terrace. She knows the area and the people he said. At first, she seemed a little shocked and confused, but I asked her if I could join her for a chat.
An unusual involvement in a conversation
Laura is a teacher for adult students who, among other social problems, have difficulties in getting jobs.
She had a smoky voice, just as you would expect from someone who consumed as many cigarettes as she did. Somehow all people around me seemed to invest half of their wage in smoking. Lighters kept clicking, and in the worst moments, I sat in a cloud of smoke. But I wanted to show up empathetic and accepted this situation. I intended to listen, understand and to be open to everyone. Sitting in the smoke of cigarettes is really an empathy training for me.
Understandably, Laura was a little restrained at first. After all, she probably didn’t intend to visit the Coffee House to talk to a stranger with a German accent. But she became more relaxed during the conversation.
Laura generally seemed to like her job but was far from passionate about it. Her subject was giving young people chances for a better and safer life by applying for jobs.
She described problems she faced in her profession, and on my request, shared things, that she could describe as a success. In the end, however, she did not seem like someone who thrived in her profession.
During the interview, we agreed that especially in social professions, skilled workers are needed, who are motivated, trained and empathetic.
But one of these skills, in particular, is becoming increasingly difficult for many people in these professions — the motivation.
The lacking motivation was also the case for Laura. She felt oppressed increasingly in her work, by more and more bureaucracy and increasing responsibility, without equally relieving staff in other areas. Not to mention that they often don’t get high salaries. A problem she is certainly not alone with, right?
A familiar problem
In the process, Laura spoke about the difficulties with Ofsted, the institution that evaluates the school and education system in the UK.
When I asked her, she told me about achievements with her students, but also about the hopeless cases. But most of all, I realised how pessimistic she appeared.
I listened to her stories about how she and her colleagues increasingly just had to follow the rules. She added that the rules were becoming more and more restrictive and that often only checkboxes had to be ticked off. That looked like an all too well-known problem to me.
I asked her if she wouldn’t have to do something about it. Because the situation wouldn’t change for either the students or for the working people if one just obeyed. But it seemed as if she wouldn’t notice a single word of my questions, because she agreed with me without me wanting to agree that “nothing can be done”.
Wouldn’t it be necessary to resist this pressure? She did not recognise any personal responsibility for the situation. She just had to live with it, she said, and apparently so did everyone else involved. Despite my inner protest, I did not start a discussion.
However, I think that there must be discussions about it. It is not my intention to criticise Laura’s opinion. Instead, my aim was to stimulate debates what could actually be possible if everyone joined forces and tackled such problems rather than accepting them.
Recognising self-responsibility is not an easy thing to do. I do not exclude myself from it.
Be it in professional life or with problems in my own family. It is easy to find guilt among other people and even easier if it is a seemingly superior force, such as political decision-makers, or the big “evil” companies.
Recognising and accepting the role of victim is one of the most unpleasant things one can experience. But to withdraw from this role rewards you with power.
Too rarely, I stood up for something in the past and got angry about things every day. And the worst thing about it was that it happened again and again. And then, months, or even years later, exactly what I had been demanding for a long time was realised. But did I really raise my voice loud enough? Did I deserve appreciation?
But how do I measure that I have done my best to be heard or my proposals get accepted? Especially when the other side seems to be superior?
Impact where influence seems impossible
The conversation with Laura reminded me to pay attention not to do what ultimately promises the maximum success, but to do what is valuable and essential for other people and me. If I don’t advocate for my concerns, I may not be doing anything wrong. But in the long run, eventually, I am causing damage to myself and others.
Do not try to become a person of success but try to become a person of value.Albert Einstein
What was important to me at the end of the day
I thanked Laura for her time. We had been talking for a long time, and as you can see, the conversation triggered a lot in me and reminded me to take care not to become a victim. I didn’t try to convince her to change something, as this journey was learning for myself, not to paternalising others. And maybe, she is already doing many things, that I’m just not aware of.
In which area of life do you seem to be stuck, because you believe that you are not successful with your demands.
In what area of your life should you actually stand up for because it matters to you? Write me something in the comments section.
Take away – The summary
- For those in leadership positions: The loss of authority leads to abandonment and displeasure. The more the authority of someone is undermined (e.g. teachers who have only checkboxes to tick), the worse problems become in the future. It’s vital that people can think and get recognised as important and can involve themselves.
- Apathy worsens any situation in the long run and leads to a lack of authenticity and integrity. Beware of resignation. You can find many examples in everyday life, look around and see how many people complain about something. Be it their work situation, their boss and so on, however, how many people then take action to change the situation? And what is most important, ask yourself: How often do I behave authentically and with integrity?
- Be mindful! Where do I find myself in the role of victim without being conscious of it?
- Stop being a victim and take responsibility!
Summary of the bike ride on day 2
The following section is a short entry about the route travelled, about further conversations that were not explained in detail in the article and just as a bonus.
- Approx. 30 miles
- Assington – Harwich
- 5 conversations
- camped under clear blue sky on the beach
- Accompaniment found (Martin from Norway) – more about this person in the next article.
- I got help and tips at Harwich Harbour from a lovely couple.
- Gary, the owner of Coffee House, who knows everyone. He even talked to almost everyone on the street.
- Staying overnight on the beach under a starry sky.
- Enjoyed a pack of chips in the evening, sinning a little bit.
- Empathy for dogs: I passed a small bowl with water for all dogs in front of a small cottage, including a message. What a kind gesture of the owner.
- Fruit for free: I stopped at a tree full of yellow plums. I picked some for later.