On Loss, the True Meaning of a Handshake, and Recapturing Your Creative Soul

On Loss, the True Meaning of a Handshake, and Recapturing Your Creative Soul

Create October 30, 2020 / By Larry Robertson
On Loss, the True Meaning of a Handshake, and Recapturing Your Creative Soul

A reflection on what we miss right now... and what we might be missing that's more important.

The other day I took a walk outside. I needed clarity. It was a fine autumn day, with the trees decorated in a rainbow of soon to fall leaves, and the houses resplendent in Halloween colors and images. In one neighbor’s yard were the requisite tombstones, about a dozen of them, together cordoning off a graveyard of things past. One caught my eye. It read: In Memory of Handshakes and Hugs.

It’s funny what moves us these days. Seeing this dark humor brought forth a flood of memories of handshakes and hugs, so much a part of my 5+ decades of life that until recent months, I barely even recognized their centrality to my world. I grew up in a small city out west, a place that over its history attracted orphans. I don’t mean orphans in the traditional sense, so much as people who came from distant places alone to settle in this one place. It was natural, human you might say, for those parties-of-one to be drawn together, to see one another as family, as a support system, as a source of joy and a cure for loneliness. The pattern was so pervasive across the four generations that members of my family had lived there, that I grew up believing I had dozens of uncles and aunts – for that was what I was taught to call them – even though not a single one was a blood relative. Whenever I would see one of them, we would greet one another with a hug or a handshake. It’s what we did.

While both acts held deep importance, in that place and time, I was taught that the handshake in particular mattered, and for a raft of reasons. It was an important form of greeting. It was a bond as well, in both work and personal settings, a surety punctuating an agreement or conveying a promise, no matter how small. It served as a show of thanks, a signal of farewell in parting, and sometimes a hug-substitute when a hug felt like a little too much. And then, after decades of this practice, suddenly both acts became memories.

As I continued walking through that fall day, I wondered at the accuracy of the grave marker. Not knowing how long the current uncertainty will dominate, I began to ponder a world in which the handshake in particular never came back. Thinking about how it might end led me to think about how it began.

When I was about ten, a friend’s dad began making a point of schooling us in not just the importance of a handshake, but the art and science. Whenever I would visit their home, my friend’s father would test me, a sensei to my grasshopper. In those early years of my handshake schooling, the focus felt to me to be on the power in the act. For years, his massive hands would envelope mine. Each time they did, he would squeeze just a bit harder than I could. In doing so, he was sending a signal – not that he had dominion over me, but more to remind me that I had not yet fully absorbed the lessons. When my own hands and strength grew, he would still dominate the exercise, later revealing to me that much of the power wasn’t shear muscle, but in the grip, and even in how you caught the other person’s hand. Later, he showed me how holding back power was often more effective than laying on all of your might, trying to prove how strong you were. On and on it went – the tests, the lessons, the joy at becoming better at mastering the act. Returning in my thoughts to the here and now, I felt the pang in the knowledge that now it was gone, or so it felt.

Silly as it may sound, there was briefly a feeling of grief. In the intervening years since my early schooling, the handshake had become integral to my life. It was how I met people I did business with, and strangers equally. My male friends and I enthusiastically shook hands every time we saw one another, even if we’d seen each other the day before. As automatic as it was, it was never perfunctory. Beyond friends, shaking hands had often been a way to build bridges with foes and enemies, like a human bridge from misunderstanding and common ground. I had even taught my own son and daughter many of the things my friend’s father had taught me. For years of their youth it was a continuation of the lesson, but also a fun game, as it had been for me in those early days when my hand was the one being swallowed up. And now it was gone, I thought. And then, it hit me.

As I’d walked down memory lane in my mind, I’d been picturing this man in my youth. And while I could see his huge hands and even feel his greater power, what I saw most brightly were his eyes. From the beginning, even in those days when it seemed like the focus was on act and on strength, in my mind I suddenly heard loudly what he always said to us when he shook our hands: “Look me in the eyes. Mean it.” And each time he said this, he was smiling – not a joking smile, not even a carefree or care-less smile, but a knowing smile.

What he knew, and what I had also come to know but had unintentionally buried, was that the handshake was a mere conduit. Rather than the primary thing, it was simply a means for conveying what was in a person’s heart, soul, and mind. Indeed, it was central to why the handshake had mattered so much in so many parts of my life. But over the years, inadvertently, I’d overemphasized the act and underemphasized the meaning – the meaning in the eyes and in the smile, the true watercourses to the mind, soul, and heart. It’s a common error, especially in uncertain times.

In my own work in creativity, entrepreneurship, and leadership, I know and teach the criticality of that inner connection necessary to make real any form of desired success, breakthrough, or advancement. In less volatile times past, it’s often been a challenge to hold people’s attention to that central and true source of power. Often, we are overly dazzled by the idea, the promise of the thing we hope to create, the reward we long to reap, and the handshake that seals it all together. We don’t plan to, but we often forget to ‘mean it.’ Maybe, just maybe, the ‘In Memory’ reminder about the handshakes and the hugs is less one of dark humor or sadness, and more about that deeper resonance – something that is always there, pandemic or not, waiting to be tapped. It’s a more powerful, meaningful, formidable something capable of vibrating through any medium. We need only remind ourselves of this and create a new path.

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