or: why interacting with others brings us joy

A few months ago, over an invitation to lunch, a friend asked me: “Hans, what have you found truly fulfilling recently; what has made you happy?” After thinking it over for a moment, several things came to mind – all of them situations involving various kinds of encounters.

Growing in mindfulness
I’ve been mulling over a saying by Martin Buber: “All actual life is encounter”. Once again I realize how my own mindfulness – including being attentive and interested in others – enables meaningful encounters in my everyday life. When I’m too caught up with myself, when I fall back on exaggerated activism to reach my goals, or when I push through life driven by pressure from within and without, I risk losing my mindfulness, and losing out on meaningful encounters.

What fulfils me?
We live in a country where many try to find fulfilment, happiness and satisfaction by reaching a higher standard of living. They invest most of their life’s energy and time into reaching that goal. Yet such an investment yields limited returns. Naturally, I need a certain standard of living that allows me to meet basic needs. But it’s a mistake to believe that more material comfort automatically brings more satisfaction and more fulfilment. Various studies on the subject of “Happiness and Contentment” underscore this. Does the third vacation per year, the second car, the latest technical gadget … really make me so much happier? In my travels, I often meet people who, despite the simplest standards of living, have an aura of contentment, happiness and a love of life. Many of our most basic needs such as love, security, being understood, acceptance, identity, and a feeling of belonging are primarily met through positive relationships or quality encounters.

Emotional dead end
So many people want more love, understanding, closeness, security and joy. Yet with the pace of life and the pressure of expectations intensifying (some pressures coming from the church as well), people find themselves running on empty, no time or energy left to nurture and enjoy the kind of relationships that could meet their needs. No wonder burnout, exhaustion and depression are now so common in our culture. Of course, sometimes life itself pushes us to our limits. Often, though, it’s our own decisions, our striving for recognition, trying to reach our goals at any cost, or our increasing material demands and our constant striving for “more” that ultimately leaves us with less happiness and contentment.

Happy Jesus?
In that conversation with my friend I asked myself: what made Jesus happy? I found that Jesus invested a main chunk of his time and energy into his relationships with other people and with God. His level of mindfulness in everyday situations enabled many intense encounters, all with a wealth of emotion, love, attention and compassion.

Encounters and enrichment
In the Nehemiah Team, we’ve become aware of four key areas that impact and enrich our work and our personal lives; namely, encounters with God, friends, other cultures and “God’s VIPs“. We find blessing again and again in the inspiration we receive through the Bible and prayer. We find fulfilment and expand our horizons by reaching out to people in so many different cultures, whether through our projects abroad or our work with refugees and immigrants here. Above all, though, it’s friends and family who sustain and enrich our lives. This becomes especially clear in times of crisis. Last but not least, we keep allowing people in need or with challenges (we like to call them “God’s VIPs”) to become a part of our lives. In them, we experience how encounters with “the poor of this world” also enrich our lives. And sometimes it’s the chance encounters, the plain and spontaneous kind that touch us deeply.

I need help
As a child of my time and culture, I notice just how contagious this urge for more material goods and more wealth is. I’d rather suppress the thought that much of this is made possible at the expense of other people (especially in the poor parts of this world). I’m not immune to our society’s progressive individualism, its push for more recognition and status. Yet it’s mostly encounters with others which challenge me and help me to change my way of thinking, to change myself and look beyond my own bubble. Through them I learn to give and share, to be attentive and mindful, to show appreciation, take time, reach out to others, and to grow a little in contentment. There’s also something special in discovering more togetherness: to do things together, share what’s on our hearts and invest more time in friendships. Sometimes this means growing beyond painful experiences in the past.

Remain a seeker
Only the open heart of a seeker can allow God and other people to come closer and experience real depth. A closed mind ultimately leads to a closed heart. This is why every fundamentalist way of thinking is so dangerous, whether in Islam, Judaism or Christianity. Fundamentalism thinks in terms of black and white, of enemies and exclusion, and fosters a lockdown mentality that only allows contact with the like-minded. This way of thinking makes it tough to truly reach out to anyone, but especially to those who think differently.

True colors
God is a God of color and created a world of color. Color has to do with life. Love works like a prism and breaks light into many different color patterns. There are no simple solutions for so many of life’s challenges, conflicts and problems. But we can find solutions for problems of all kinds if we allow our opinions, our actions and above all our way of seeing others – no matter what their skin color, heritage or belief system – to be filtered through the prism of God’s love. Suddenly we’re able to see a new way forward, solutions begin to take shape – and above all: people encounter one another. The world needs us to stand to our “true colors”. Love opens my heart for close encounters – with my family, friends, neighbors, refugees, the poor, the handicapped – and with a living Jesus who longs to reach out to me in and through these people.

Challenged and encouraged
It takes time to reach out to someone, and courage too. Sometimes I’ll have to force myself to stop and think. The conversation with my friend recently helped me to grow in empathy for others. Wherever I encounter other people, I’ll also encounter their fear and their joy. Becoming a part of that challenges me, but it also helps me to grow personally and feel that much more alive. Could it be that’s what Paul was getting at when he said “weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice”?

Salvation beyond myself
“Salvation” means so much more than the forgiveness of my sins; one aspect of salvation that Jesus wants to give us is to set us free from striving for “more”. Jesus also wants to shift my focus and thus free me from dwelling on myself. I can learn to trust him with my life and my future, and to find rest in him. Both discontentment and self-centeredness often hold me back from reaching out to others. But wherever I touch another person’s heart, I gain a sense of that person’s worth. My respect for others grows. My horizon expands. I discover new things in myself and others, experience completion and find a kind of abundance: a life worth living, contentment and happiness. These encounters, often small and unimpressive, make me rich. When I avoid them, I stay poor – even if my material wealth increases.

I could say so much more about some deep and special encounters I’ve had over the past months with people, other cultures and with God. Yet it’s hard for me to put into words just how much these encounters have meant to me. I’d just like to say one more thing in closing: I feel very much alive and most richly blessed!

Hans Heidelberger (Nehemiah Team)