You may be familiar with Aesop’s fable about a donkey who chooses to join the donkey that is the laziest and greatest eater in the barnyard.The purchaser returns him to the vendor. The moral of the story is, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” This message is often repeated as a cautionary tale. Stay away from the idle and the gluttonous, or you too may be ousted from the barnyard of finer folk.
But what if we took a Positive Psychology spin on that fable? What if being known by the company you keep is an opportunity for well-being?
Ruminating about Traveling
Before the emergence of Covid, I was an eager international traveler on the speaking and consulting circuit. I would have said then that I knew and was even known by a lot of people. However, when the International Positive Psychology Association announced in 2022 that its July 2023 World Congress would be in person rather than virtual, I did not leap at the chance to apply for a speaker spot. Instead, my Covid worry voice chirped: What if? What if? What if?Aside from the usual travel logistics and expenses, there were still many unknowns about Covid. I imagined, as you might have when contemplating a first trip back into the wider world, what it would be like to be in company with others, sharing enclosed spaces and rebreathing the same air as strangers while sitting just inches apart from them on trains, buses, airports, and planes.
Once at the conference there would be another thousand or more people around me. How would I politely greet (but also avoid) strangers without offending them? Would I recognize the people known to me only from online meetups? Would I feel comfortable hugging the friends I had not seen since 2019? Would I be able to share meals, laughter, and new adventures with them, or would this be unimaginably awkward?
Making Up My Mind
It was unknowable, and no amount of ruminating could solve the dilemma of being in company at an international conference. Rather than making me feel excited and full of anticipatory savoring, I was sad that an event full of so many of my favorite people might instead become fraught with unenforceable rules of engagement. Was it even possible to make an informed decision?
“Are you going? Are you going?” As various conference deadlines approached, other people’s voices added to my own cacophony. The actual conference, still many months away, was in a new calendar year. Meanwhile, the “should I or shouldn’t I?” buzz was growing louder among the virtual company I kept with friends and colleagues. With counterfeit bravery I applied for a speaker spot and registered to attend the IPPA World Congress.Meanwhile, I continued to meet virtually in the mastermind, writers’ groups, and coaching circles that had expanded during the pandemic. These professional lifelines, essential when travel was impossible, had become homes for what felt to me like real friendships. Zoom had blurred our international boundaries, increased our accessibility to each other as colleagues, and helped us cultivate connections across the limitations imposed by Covid.
My social media contacts had also grown during the pandemic. I’d watched so many friends’ lives through the lens of Zoom, especially as it peeked into their homes. We’d met each other’s partners, children, and pets. In the midst of much criticism of social media, I felt grateful for these ways to keep in touch. But I sometimes wondered: Were these relationships authentic or merely virtual substitutes for more real connections? Could I really know these people if we had never really met in person? Importantly….was I known by the company I’d been keeping?
The Joy of Being TogetherWhat I could not have anticipated was the way my virtual professional and personal lives would so instantly and seamlessly bridge when I attended the in-person IPPA World Congress in Vancouver BC. Though I made a daily schedule of the sessions I would attend and listed the people I wanted to speak to, I spent the majority of my time in company: Laughing, listening, catching up. Hugging, holding, dancing. It did not matter if I had met people in person or virtually, or if it was for the first time. I soon gave up on my schedule and attended poster sessions where I could chat with people who shared stories about their research. I accompanied people who simply asked me to join them for tea or a stroll along the waterfront. It was delightful, and I learned a lot.
“Was it worth it? Did you learn anything new?” People who did not attend asked me to share these things when the conference was over. Here is what I did discover by being present: what was important was just showing up, being present, and “I am with you.”
The Company You KeepBeing known by the company you keep may be the key to well-being. I also believe it is the reason our field has grown so much in only a few decades. It is why we care about well-being in the workplace, at schools, and in our personal relationships. This kind of knowing is the most basic building block of connection.
The next World Congress will be in Brisbane in 2025. Right now, that seems quite far away. Between now and then, see how you can develop a practice of being known by the company you keep.
The Ass and his Purchaser in Aesop’s Fable, based on the translation of George Fyler Townsend.
Donkey photo by Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash.
All other pictures courtesy of Sherri Fisher