Four Walls and Zoom Calls – The Importance of Personal Connection in Tough Times

I have had some wonderful opportunities in the last several years.

I’ve visited historical and archaeological sites, gardens, old city markets, and museums across the world.

I’ve watched the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo (Look it up – It’s not what you think!). I’ve explored the haunts of C.S. Lewis in Oxford and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ve backpacked many trails in Alabama, in the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and Tennessee, the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, Mount Ascutney in Vermont, and in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico. I’ve hiked in the Scottish Highlands, and walked and rode bikes in the countryside of the Peak District in England.  Sometimes alone, more often with others.

I’ve trekked along beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and the South Pacific. I’ve dipped my toes in the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. I’ve sipped water from Gideon’s Spring (I’ll let you guess at whether I cupped my hand or lapped like a dog). I’ve done the same from many mountain creeks (with appropriate filtration or purification). I’ve had boat rides on the Sea of Galilee.

I’ve eaten a sanduiche de mortadela in the mercadão in São Paulo. Haggis in the old city of Edinburgh. Meat I couldn’t identify, (explained in a language I couldn’t understand) in Mexico. High tea in a grand hotel in Victoria, BC. Pub food, fish and chips and curry in England. A glorious assortment of olives at every meal in Jerusalem. I’ve even tried kangaroo sausage in Australia. My Aussie friends tell me they’re the only country that eats their national symbol!

I’ve built deep connections through worship with believers in churches around the world.  I’ve been invited into their homes and favorite gathering places to share meals and fellowship.

I’ve studied leadership and character by walking the fields of many great battles of history.

I’ve developed vibrant networks of friends and acquaintances through HR, safety, quality and leadership workshops – often in places where the accents are  different but the desire to serve and lead is universal.

I’ve walked hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles along streets and through parks of dozens of cities around the U.S. and the world, avoiding transportation whenever possible, in favor of shoe leather.  My desire was not to see these places from the protected cocoon of a taxi, bus, or Uber, or even a train, but up close and personal.  Sometimes with a friend, sometimes solo and meeting new people along the way.  I didn’t always know where I was going (and got nervous one or two times) but that was part of the adventure.

I have a wonderful family that has grown through the addition of 2 sons-in-law, 2 daughters-in-law, and a little boy who calls me “Poppy.”

There is much more but perhaps you get a taste of some of the things I’ve been blessed to experience.

Through all of this, the recurring theme has been a wonder at God’s creation, a growing appreciation for the diversity of the world and its people, and a vital connection through personal (and in-person) relationships with those who have crossed my path.

Then there’s these last several months in 2020.

There had been a buzz in Australia mostly related to cruise ship passengers being trapped onboard for weeks, and later quarantined as the government first began to take stock of what would soon become a changed world.

It was very early in the morning when our Boeing 777 landed at LAX at the end of February, after a long trip across the Pacific Ocean.  I had never seen a major international airport so quiet, even at this time of day.   We waited to deplane for nearly an hour, for the customs teams to arrive.  

Inside the terminal, the only people I saw were those who had been on my plane and a sparse airport staff.   Restaurants and shops were closed.  There were apparently new passenger screening protocols in effect to detect illness, but I saw no clear evidence of this.  We processed quickly and I went to wait for my connecting flight.

Soon after I arrived home, the world, and our lives, began to rapidly change. We moved swiftly into COVID response. 

February also marked 27 years working at the same company.  This was my only job since leaving active duty in the Army after over ten years.  At 60 years old, I had been with Progress Rail for almost half my life.

With so much time with one company, you might imagine that I made a lot of friends and acquaintances. That is very true. There have been many that I knew for my entire time at Progress Rail. I’ve also continued to make new friends, especially as I’ve traveled to our facilities or as some have traveled to Alabama. There are many who I’ve worked directly with on the various teams I’ve had the privilege to lead or to be a part of, and many who have participated in workshops I’ve helped lead.

While blessed with those relationships, they also made the last several months very difficult.

In April, when I tearfully told my little team that I was retiring, it was in a building that was already nearly empty. By then, most were working from home, I could go an entire day without seeing more than one or two other people, most from a distance. We were having to rapidly adjust to the “new normal” of remote work.

While I had been thinking about retiring sometime in the next few years, I hadn’t really made any firm plans to do so.

The changes surrounding COVID encouraged me to speed up my timeline. With that came a cost I did not anticipate.

I cleaned out my office in late April, with the help of my dear assistant of many years, Julie. As I was filling the final few boxes, Julie and I paused for a goodbye. Since we were all nervous about the virus, I asked if she minded if I gave her a hug. We did, for a long moment, and I headed out.

That was the last, and only, in-person goodbye I had.

I am so grateful to Progress Rail, for the leadership who supported me, for my boss and the HR team who helped remotely though the administrative tasks of processing my retirement. But…

I missed that last in-person connection with those I care about. That grieves me.

Since then, there have only been a few opportunities to gather in person in any context – each time with a significant degree of nervousness. I’ve had one in-person speaking engagement. We’ve gone to church a few times, but we mostly watch it online. We went to a sweet wedding of two young people from our church. We also said goodbye at two family funerals…

Oh, I forgot. There were actually three funerals.

The Third was Mine

Or that’s how it sometimes feels, when I consider the suddenness of my departure and the lack of opportunities to say goodbye to those who mean so much to me.

I’m not trying to minimize the finality of death by comparison, but simply point out that the emotions felt, when there is no closure, are similar.

High school students have faced these same emotions when half of their senior year was essentially canceled. Graduation, if it happened at all, became an uncomfortable exercise in social distancing. It should have been a time of joyful expectation and celebration with classmates and family with an abundance of hugs and handshakes.

Unlike the many retirement events and other farewells I’ve attended over the years, there was no time for cakes or lunches with co-workers. There was no opportunity to listen to speeches or testimonials, or just sit around and reminisce. No time for hugs and handshakes. It was just…over.

This was no one’s fault and can only be blamed on an insidious disease and the inability of the world to understand how to handle it.

A few times a week people will ask me how I’m enjoying retirement. Honestly, there’s a lot I enjoy about it, but I always hesitate a little in my reply. That pause is because I’m still processing the open loop of missed farewells, all mixed up in the strange virus-laden malaise felt by the whole world.

We Need Transitions

In his book Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices for a World Gone Mad, John Eldredge presents a compelling case for finding ways to build necessary transitions into our lives.

He talks about the world of jet travel and 24/7 connection through smart phones and social media, and about how we lose all sense of timing, as we rapidly shift to the next thing often without finishing what we’re doing. We can’t slow down long enough to appreciate the wonders of the world …or each other, before we’re sucked into distraction or the next big thing.

Eldredge contrasts our frenetic pace with that of Jesus and His disciples:

“I think it was Archibald Hart who pointed out that because we are so accustomed to moving pedal to the metal in our own world, the thing we overlook in the Gospels are all of the in-between times when Christ and his followers were walking from one town to another. When the record states, “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee” (John 1:43), we project our own pace upon it, not realizing it took the boys three days by foot to get there. Three days just strolling along, talking, or sharing the silent beauty; the pauses for lunch or a drink from a well; the campfires in the evening. Even as I write this, it sounds luxurious. Christ does not move immediately from one dramatic story to another; there was down time, transition time between those demands. Time to process what had happened (these are the moments you see the disciples asking questions; “what did you mean by . . . ?”). Time to catch their breath before the next encounter.”

Eldredge, John. Get Your Life Back (p. 66). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

(I highly recommend this book. You need to slow down long enough to read it.)

I went from a face-paced world of big cities, international travel, daily interaction with people (one-on-one, groups, social events, sporting events and more) , to a world of Four Walls and Zoom calls.

It was like a door slammed behind me.

It’s not that I’m out of contact, or that I haven’t had many, many people wish me well.

I have great friends and I’ve felt the love.

While life has changed, in a lot of ways our pace and distraction has not. We’re all still busy in many ways, but it’s in a sterile, electronic dystopia. Many people feel as though their “busyness” is more evident than ever. This is heightened by the lack of clear lines between home and work.

In the world before, the wise among us always encouraged us to build authentic human relationships. We were encouraged, whenever possible, not to email, text, or even call, but, if at all possible to have real, face-to-face interaction.

Pre-COVID, real “Facetime” was not a videoconferencing app, but it was standing close enough to hear voices without having to ask if our microphones are working.

Now, the thought of standing close to someone, shaking a hand, or giving a hug sometimes seems frightening, uncaring or even unpatriotic. It’s the rare person in the world who hasn’t experienced such a big shift, even if the details vary.

We can’t live like this forever.

We were made for relationships. With God and with each other.

The wonders of electronic communication, no matter how well images and sounds are reproduced, can never replace real faces, voices and the human touch.

I know that it may still be quite some time before “normal” returns, but it will return. I hope and pray that day will come soon.

Until then, don’t miss an opportunity to connect with your co-workers, your friends, and those you love. Yes, I know it’s not the same, but find ways to express genuine appreciation and care for those who mean so much to you.

Promise each other that, when this is over, you’ll share a meal, throw a party, shake every hand in sight, give all the hugs you’ve been missing (and a few more). Let’s all look forward to the days when we can see this season of life in the rear view mirror, not as we log onto Zoom, but as we zoom towards each other.

Published by Ed O'Neal

Executive, Leadership, StrengthsFinder & Wellbeing Coach, Workshop Facilitator, Keynote Speaker

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