Leopold, a soft-spoken young man with an easy smile, remembers the first heartbreak over a girl he fell for in high school. They would lock their gaze for long periods of time like two lovers lost in each other’s world. When he finally mustered enough courage to ask her to be in a romantic relationship with him, she shattered his world. She didn’t see him that way, she told him. She only wanted to be a friend. More than anything else that Leopold remembers from his childhood, this rejection was a defining moment as he looked at relationships and life in general. "It made me realize that I was living in a fantasy world and that the reality was different. I became more cautious about jumping quickly in any relationship," says Leopold with a slight sadness in his voice. "While this was a defining moment of my adolescence, it made me stronger and wiser, I think," Leopold adds quickly with a confident look in his eyes.
Another painful event that Leopold recalls is when his grandmother would talk to his father about the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband. Leopold loved his grandmother dearly and remembers the sadness and sorrow he would experience listening to her teary stories of domestic dysfunction. It troubled him that he could not help her. "I remember feeling this deep sadness and helplessness because I badly wanted to help my grandmother but I was too young and I could not do anything for her. I still regret that," recalls Leopold sullenly. Fortunately, he was not a first-hand witness to such abuse or it would have likely affected him in much more traumatic ways. The upshot, Leopold believes, was that his father resolved not to repeat the mistakes of his own father, Leopold’s grandfather. Leopold has tremendous respect for his father even though their relationship was typical of his culture - one of obedience and respect mixed with a little bit of fear. "I just did what he told me to do and that's how I got his approval and validation. That was very important for me and for my father," says Leopold.
Now twenty-four years old, Leopold loves his job as a waiter at a famous restaurant in the small beach town of Brela, Croatia. Besides the torturous heartbreak and the helplessness he felt upon hearing his grandmother’s ordeal, Leopold is a positive, happy man although he has become cautious about falling in a romantic relationship too quickly with anyone. He still considers his childhood to be an extremely happy one because of two primary reasons – the simplicity of life without the stresses of today’s social media technology; and the social connectedness he felt with many of his friends who continue to be his closest confidants to date. His happiest moments were playing in his father's farm, building a castle with bails of grass and playing there for hours before they were hauled away to be sold. His parents were always busy at work to try to provide for the family. As a result, Leopold spent almost all his time playing, studying, and connecting with his friends.
So, how did a child who experienced some adverse experiences, admittedly some that were not first hand, become such a positive, pleasant and compassionate young adult? The answer lies in scientific evidence of social connectedness and its relationship with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Unbeknownst to Leopold, that social connectedness was making neural connections in his brain that gave him the emotional stability and the positive outlook on life. In a landmark study conducted by J.S. House, K.R. Landis, and D. Umberson of the Department of Epidemiology at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, social connectedness was shown to have a more significant relationship with our health and well-being than the harmful effects of smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. Studies show that a strong, healthy sense of social connection not only has physical benefits like lower stress level, stronger immune system and even longer life, but it also leads to emotional well-being with a healthy self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and an empathetic attitude towards others.
Leopold's life lessons have some important messages for us that are not immediately apparent but are visible all around us. During dinner at the restaurant where Leopold works, I observed a young couple sharing a meal over what was at least an hour without as much as sharing a word or a gaze. The man was constantly busy on his phone or just looking at his food while he ate as if he was alone. The young woman looked sullenly into nothingness even as she ate. Such examples are visible all around us every day - at coffee shops, at airports, in restaurants, even in our own homes! It is a sad reminder that while social media may have made the world more socially connected, it has lost the most critical element - the human touch and gaze. Perhaps another hidden message in Leopold's story is that a simplistic lifestyle where human connection is prized is not a return into a boring and slow past, it is back to the future if we value our own physical and emotional well-being. Sometimes, less is more.
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