The power of proximity

A couple of weeks ago, I had coffee in a charming café in the old town center of Vilnius. It’s a medieval wonder and often overlooked as one of Europe’s most picturesque capital cities. I’d never been there before, which is perhaps not so strange, for what percentage of those who read this piece will have traveled to Lithuania? How many even knew before they read that last sentence, exactly where Vilnius was?  I can’t say, I’d have placed it on a map?

But you really should go, and not just for the sights or the coffee.

The truly striking thing about Vilnius is not something you can see, although I’d argue you can taste it in the air. You can hear too, in the hum of the chatter that’s the base note of its cafés and bars. And though it can’t be touched, it will undoubtedly press on your mind. Because, in the flying of its flag, the posturing of the young, and the lined faces of the worldly-wise… is the ever-present thought, that the Belarusian border, is a mere 20 miles (32.19 km) to the east. 

The leadership of Belarus —if you can call it that—is a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin and supporter of his atrocious attack on Ukraine. More to the point, its border is a potential launch point for any Russian encroachment on the Baltic. For Lithuanians, like those I met in the cafés, this is an everyday existential threat.  

I’ve spent most of the last two decades in the US, Canada and the UK. They are fabulous countries, and it’s not my intent to disrespect their contribution to the world’s progress and prosperity. But as someone who grew up in mainland Europe and served in the military during the Cold War era, I believe it to be true that their physical geography (by which I mean, the separation that distance and oceans confer) creates a barrier to a full understanding of the situations of others. It’s why we must travel if we can. Only by getting up close and personal can we acquire the intimate if intangible sense of what it’s like to live every day under the threat of losing the liberties we take for granted.

That is the power of proximity.

And it applies not just to geopolitics. In living our lives, or indeed pursuing our careers, there’s no substitute for spending time with others in a different situation, of a different faith, from a different social outlook… The point and purpose of this proximity— and I say this as a trained statistician — is that data and its models and abstract theories can only tell us so much. Objectivity may nourish our reasoning, but taken without accompaniment it is cold and unfulfilling fare. It’s also somewhat of a myth. The deeper truth is that virtually all our beliefs — and certainly those which speak to our values — are founded on a blend of facts and feelings. 

It astounds me to think that it’s only a little over thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down. Oh, to have been there that day! As a young man at the time, I remember vividly the sense of hope that followed, and the West’s collective exhaling of breath as the chill of the cold war momentarily thawed. How sad, a friend from home, said to me recently, that events have turned out as they have. 

Although actually, that too is a narrow, and place-bound, perspective. 

Russia may well have returned to being a wretched State and the situation in Ukraine is beyond mere sorrow. We should not forget too, the horrors of the conflict in former Yugoslavia (a short train ride from Austria), the quasi-democracies of many Soviet republics, the annexation of Crimea or the grotesque puppetry of so-called Transnistria (look it up!). To read all this one might think there is no hope.

But I’d remind you that former East Germany is now part of a united whole; Berlin is its capital once again. Travel also to Croatia or even Bosnia and Serbia and you’d see progress (albeit slow) underway. Then there’s Poland, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia and Slovenia …and I’ve not even mentioned the Baltic States. It is one of the joys of my life that these places are freely available for us to visit and for their people to meet us too. We have much to share and even more to learn from each other. 

And that’s because there’s a multiplier effect when we come closer together. Physics may tell us that gravity is a constant, but in the world of understanding, I can tell you that proximity is a powerful force! Ask any surgeon from a war zone or carer who sat with a loved one as they died… Usually, in writing these reflections, I make a segue back to business and organizational values, but in this case, I won’t. More to the point I ought not to need to. Because the parallels will be obvious and if you don’t get them then we’re not on the same planet never mind page.

Instead, I simply say go, if you can, to Vilnius or for that matter Budapest or Bratislava. And if travel is not your thing, then take a trip maybe closer to home, but further from your comfort zone. You’ll be surprised by what you find —and feel — and how it changes your sense of the truth. The café I sat in a couple of weeks ago was as persuasive as they are poignant. I’ll be back for sure, but in the meantime, as I sit in my office, almost half a world away, I can still smell the coffee.

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