The Ghosts of Christmas Present, Future, and Past and an Alternative Timeline

Imagining Silver Linings in the Future Makes Them Feel Scarce and Leads to Appreciating Them More in the Present

Photo from The Old Vic Theatre, London (From a production of A Christmas Carol)

’Twas the night-shift before Christmas and all through the warehouse

the team were quietly working to the festive music of Strauss.

Each lost in their thoughts of the year that had passed.

Each thankful for all lives that hadn’t breathed their last.

While each one focused on the task in hand,

their mind couldn’t but wander to where their future might land.

For now they were thankful for interaction, food and a bed,

tomorrow they could think about the unknown road ahead.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present, Future and Past and an Alternative Timeline: A Case Study:

With all the preparation to bring the community together on Christmas Day complete, Aisling reached for her journal, as she did every night before falling asleep. She had developed a practice of reflecting on her day, expressing gratitude for everything that was good in her life, while also thinking about what could be better. What she wanted to remain constant and what she wanted to change. For herself and for others.

Covid-19 had taught her about the need to build an enterprise in a way that made it anti-fragile. The pandemic had demonstrated there is so little that we have within our control.

Wanting to find a way to navigate the unknown, through journaling Aisling had explored what her future could be, She asked herself what she wanted it to be, what were the new things she wanted to discover, and what were the things she wanted to bring with her that she already had. Through journaling Aisling had reminisced about her past. In the knowledge that life and life plans can change in an instant, Aisling also journaled on alternative endings.

Aisling began to read the journal entries she had made over the previous months, which brought back to mind where she had begun the most recent chapter of her WorkLife from, to the changes she had made in the present, to the dream and vision she had for her future, to the nostalgic trip she had taken back to her past, and to the pondering of the possible alternatives to the life events that had occurred.

True to the meaning of her name, Aisling always had a dream and vision for her future, however that had changed over the last year, and in many ways not only was Aisling ending her year differently to how she had envisioned, she was also beginning a new year with remnants of uncertainty as to what her future would hold.

She had learnt not to take anything for granted again, and she was grateful for that, because it had helped her to recognise and appreciate all that had been good throughout her life; and also to embrace the unknown, the unexpected, and the uncertainty by doing what she could, with who she was, and what she had, learning through it and from it, then moving on.

When lockdown had first happened, Aisling’s work had immediately stopped. On the one hand as a freelance educator this caused her concern as to how she would survive financially; on the other hand she figured as she wouldn’t need to spend money on anything other than her basic living expenses, and by adopting a frugal approach, she would get through it. So, she decided to use the time that she couldn’t go out to deliver her existing work, to focus on developing new work, so she could hit the ground running when things got moving again.

This simple shift in how she chose to navigate the situation took her to the place she enjoyed most: a place of learning. The inspiration in creating her education programmes came from a lifelong passion for learning, and having helped people through previous economic downturns, she had learnt that the one thing in life that can never be taken away from you is your learning.

Aisling’s belief and value in the importance of learning from people, companies and industries across all walks of WorkLife, brought her to Masterclass — an online education platform on which students can access tutorials and lectures pre-recorded by experts in various fields.

Exploring the classes brought her to Science and Technology and to Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut who teaches a class on Space Exploration. As she worked through the course, the following words spoke to Aisling, and she considered them to be:

Sage Wisdom

Chris Hadley is ultimately optimistic in the face of adversity. He believes that humans and life itself are tough, that our planet is tough, and that you should deliberately pursue the things that you think are worthy, in spite of the risks. Seeing Earth from space gives him optimism for how rugged and ancient our planet is, and gives him hope for the future of life on Earth.

Wanting to learn more about astronauts and their philosophy on WorkLife led Aisling to discovering two books.

Book Wisdom

The first book was: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: Life Lessons from Space by Chris Hadfield. Hadfield attributes the secret to his success and survival to an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst — and enjoy every moment of it. He takes readers deep into his years of space training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible.

The second book was: Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly.

Words of Wisdom

“Enter Scott Kelly’s fascinating world and dare to think of your own a little differently.”

These words were enough to get Aisling on board on a journey into an unfamiliar and different world, a world she knew she could learn and gain much wisdom from.

Kelly’s humanity, compassion, humour and passion shines as he describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight, both existential and banal. He talks about the sadness of being isolated from everyone he loves, and the still haunting threat of being absent should tragedy strike at home.

Along the path of Aisling’s learning, she discovered the concept of mastering the art of time travel, specifically mental time travel. Through the powers of self-awareness and observation, recognising and acknowledging what was happening in the present — this is what led Aisling to begin her daily journaling practice. Fast forwarding to think about the future, rewinding to think about the past, and using counter-factual thinking to transport herself to an alternative timeline. All of this had given Aisling the capacity to find meaning in the mundane and happiness in the midst of sadness, and make time pass faster or slower at will.

As Aisling began reading her journal entries, moving away from her present, the first destination for her mental time machine was to the future. She had imagined how she wanted to feel when her trip as an educator was over, when her WorkLife experience ends, and not just what she wanted to accomplish.

Aisling had learnt from Hadfield and Kelly that a mental trip to the future can help us to think less about the monotonous ‘how’ of our days and more about the meaningful ‘why’. We’re able to get out of the dull weeds of the process and shift our attention to an exciting purpose. The further ahead we look, the easier it is to tell a coherent story about our experience. One of the challenges of the current pandemic is that we don’t know when our mission will end, but we do know it isn’t endless, it will end.

Hadfield’s and Kelly’s teaching had encouraged Aisling to ponder on the following thinking and questions, which she’d reflected on over the course of the year, which had allowed her to give herself the feedback to do what she wanted and needed to do:

  • Think about how you want to feel when this crisis is over.
  • How do you want to have gone through it?

Hadfield and Kelly said: “You might still find yourself worrying about what is going to happen in between, but worrying isn’t a bad thing, astronauts have to think about, ok what is the next worst thing that could happen to us now? And how do we react and respond to that? Worrying is basically an attempt at problem solving — ok what could go wrong, what’s the next worst thing, how could I avoid that. Rumination is when you get stuck in a loop and worrying about the situation but not trying to act in the face of it. Bad things can happen, we don’t have control over them but we can prepare for them. Add worry time to your daily schedule — 15 minutes for rumination.”

That was exactly what Aisling had done in her daily journaling. She journaled on the answers to each of these questions, she journaled on the worries these brought up, she journaled on how she could react or respond.

Aisling wanted to feel equipped for the future, and she also wanted to feel a sense of serenity. Throughout her life she had always been a serene person, but she had somehow lost that part of herself over recent years, and she wanted to get it back. She wanted to go through the crisis with a sense of serenity. Being alone through the enforced self-isolation helped Aisling to begin to regain this.

Learning was the key to equipping Aisling with everything she needed — learning in the present, learning from her past, would give her what she needed for the future. In previous downturns the first thing companies cut was their education and training budgets. As a result people’s learning, growth and development was negatively impacted. Aisling’s dream and vision were to create continuous WorkLife development programmes that are accessible to everyone, at all times.

Then she thought about silver linings, aspects of being remote that she was going to miss:

  • Having more alone time;
  • Having more flexible time;
  • Not having to travel or commute;
  • Not having to change out of pyjamas!

Imagining these silver linings in the future makes them feel scarce and leads to appreciating them more in the present.

Aisling’s second destination for her mental time machine was to go to the past. To think about her memories from her days as an educator. Throughout the lockdown when people asked her what she missed about delivering her work, she would reply, it was the people she was there with — the people who helped her deliver the work, who had also helped her develop it, and the people who booked and participated in her events. It was also the sense of purpose all of that had given her. She was feeling a strong sense of nostalgia,

She had learnt that the Greek words for nostalgia are return and pain — the pain of being unable to return to the past. Travelling in her mental time machine, Aisling felt happier when she did return to those places. It gave her a stronger connection to others, together with more willingness to give and seek help.

Being a freelance educator had caused Aisling to become fiercely independent. While at times she collaborated with people, ultimately she was responsible for how successful her WorkLife was. As a freelancer there are always highs and lows — the highs being so busy with work meant she didn’t have time for people, and the lows when she had little or no work meant she’d retreat from people, because she had to focus on somehow getting work in, in order to survive.

Aisling had grown up with a strong sense of community — family, friends and colleagues once she had begun her WorkLife. When she had first moved from Ireland to London she had maintained this, but over the years she had somehow lost that sense of belonging. She lived in Shoreditch — a vibrant part of London, but a part of town that didn’t seem to have a sense of community, that was partly because there were more business properties than residential homes. But that said, Aisling hadn’t taken time to explore the community, she had kept herself to herself. Reflecting on, and reminiscing about her past, allowed her to know she needed to meet and learn about the people in her neighbourhood and to find a way to become involved in her community.

Aisling had gained a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life, by thinking about nostalgic events in her WorkLife. In particular the smaller things she had before the pandemic, but no longer had. For Aisling it was sitting in cafes reading and writing, being in restaurants with friends, short breaks every now and then to escape the hustle and bustle of London life. Remising about those moments was bittersweet but the aftertaste was sweet, it motivated her to make the most of the present, and as soon as it was allowed, to begin to bring these things back into her WorkLife. When she did it was from a place of great appreciation, from a place of never taking the smaller things for granted again, from a place of recognising and valuing the simple things in life.

This in turn allowed her to get to know the people behind the businesses in her neighbourhood. It began with the people behind the cafes and restaurants, and grew from there. It led Aisling to becoming more involved in community events, and to the event that was taking place tomorrow, which she was helping out on tonight. The Christmas community breakfast, lunch and dinner, a day of bringing people together though sharing food, interaction, and ensuring everyone had a bed for the night, at the end of the day.

Hadley and Kelly said It doesn’t just help to remember pleasant memories from the past, it also helps to reflect on painful ones too. Aisling remembered the sadness of losing her closest friend, Norma, just over a year ago. And also how in time she had been able to move beyond this to remember all the happy times they’d shared together. She had learnt that death is part of life, and that there is life after death for those left behind. She had learnt that life can be taken away at any time, without any notice. She had learnt that life is for living.

Aisling’s third destination for her mental time machine was to transport herself to an alternative timeline, things that could have happened but didn’t — counter-factual thinking. Imagining how things could have been worse helps us find gratitude: for example, people graduating in a time of recession end up being happier with their jobs a decade later, because they could easily imagine a world where they’re unemployed, so they don’t take it for granted that they have jobs.

That Aisling, and everyone she cared about, had survived the pandemic was quite profound in allowing her to know how things could have been so much worse.

From the very beginning, going through the initial circumstances, Aisling knew they could have been a lot worse. Supermarkets had remained open, which gave people a greater appreciation for those people who kept things going. She recognised how much harder it would have been to work without the internet, and how much harder it would have been to have stayed connected without a phone. How much harder isolation would have been if she hadn’t been able to see the faces of her family as they stayed connected virtually.

Hadley and Kelly said for astronauts looking down from space, it seems like humanity is all part of one big team, and when you’re part of a team you need to work together to solve a problem. This virus has taught us, for better or worse, that we’re more interconnected than we realised. Teamwork is absolutely critical to get through this. We’re really fighting right now the greatest battle of our lives.

All of this had led to Aisling becoming part of a community. People began to come together to build a community of caring and connectivity in a place that wasn’t known for caring and connectivity. A place where people had been too busy with their own lives to stop and think about the lives of others. A place where people had been selfishly living their own lives. A place where people had somehow, somewhere, sometime stopped caring and connecting with their neighbours and their community. Aisling recognised she had played her part in contributing to this non-community. She recognised that by not connecting with people, had led her to not caring — if she didn’t know people, how could she care about them?

The pandemic had changed people’s lives in this respect, it had changed Aisling, it had changed how she thought about herself as a business owner.- Albeit predominately a one-person business owner, Aisling was also a collaborator in her work. She now became a collaborator in her community, together with her fellow business owners and her neighbours.

In the beginning Aisling and her collaborators didn’t know what they were doing, they were just working and letting the work teach them what they had to do next, and learning through and from that. They were looking for ideas, and then the resources to follow through with those ideas. Ideas and resources to build a community based on caring and connectivity. A community that was anti-fragile.

The pandemic had brought about the desire for a collective, a community of moral thinking, imagination and problem solving. People started not from their perspective of what should be, but immersed themselves in the grounded reality of what was needed for what was. People got to know how their neighbours and their neighbourhood businesses had been impacted by the pandemic. Through this they got to understand what would work to help rebuild people’s lives and businesses. From this perspective, as a community people started to build support networks, and supply chains.

And it was hard. People failed along the way, and the community failed with them. People had to get up again. As a community people helped by turning up, starting where they were, with who they were, and with what they had. With growing learning and knowledge, all the time rebuilding the community together. As a community they looked at better ways to support individuals and business owners in ways that was so much different to the broken systems put in place either by the government or the private sector, which so often excluded people who fell between the cracks. This included people who had found themselves without work because of the pandemic, some of whom had become homeless, adding to the growing number of rough sleepers around the streets of Shoreditch.

Aisling’s knowledge, skills and experience helping people learn, develop and transition their WorkLives in times of change and uncertainty gave her the impetus to collaborate with her community to develop a fellowship programme. The foundation of this was to meet people’s basic social needs: a place to eat, interact and sleep. An online university was designed because they had to create new mindsets — a mindset that enabled a sense of belonging, helping rebuild self-esteem and confidence for those who had lost so much. A mindset that enabled a willingness to try, stumble, learn and adapt. A mindset that enabled anti-fragility.

Together the community took ownership of a derelict warehouse, together they worked to restore it to a place where people could come to eat, interact and sleep. Together the community was building a way forward, through caring and connectivity, that was striving towards anti-fragility.

Epilogue

As Aisling closed her journal on the ghosts of her present, future, past and alternative timeline, she did so with a sense of serenity that came from knowing she was not alone. She not only had her ghosts to help her navigate her mental time machine, she also had a community of real people that she could help and be helped by.

Today’s featured books are: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: Life Lessons from Space by Chris Hadfield, and Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly.

This story was featured in my book: How To Fine-Tune The Superpower of Observation, from The School of WorkLife book series.

WorkLife Book Wisdom Stories:

The intention of the stories I share is to inspire you through people’s stories of their WorkLife experiences. Through these stories, you will learn about people’s dreams and ambitions, along with the challenges, obstacles, failures and successes they encountered along the road of their WorkLife journey. And how they used the power of book wisdom to help them find the inspiration and guidance to navigate their path to live their WorkLife with passion, purpose and pride.

My hope is that these book wisdom stories will help you throughout the chapters of your WorkLife Story.

I believe stories are a powerful mechanism for teaching, a powerful medium to learn through, and a powerful way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of School Of WorkLife Books & Your WorkLife Your Way: Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of www.schoolofworklife.com My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.

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