From Separation to Connection

by Martin Marquis, Open Circle student

Moving from Montreal to Hamilton for my Master’s degree was quite a challenge and outside my comfort zone. I didn’t know anyone and I only knew a few basic directions to get around the city. In the midst of this complete change, I received an email about a Personal Discovery Course for Graduate students that Marybeth and Jeff facilitate.

Joining the group was quite unorthodox for me. In the past, I went to one-on-one counselling, but joining a group where I would open up to people without the professional barrier between client and counsellor made me feel uncomfortable. Questions such as: “What are the other participants going to think of me?”, “Will there be people who are smarter than me?”, or “Will I look stupid?” raced through my mind. But for some reason I kept feeling a push to participate. Eventually, I talked myself into going to the first meeting and I said: “If I don’t like it, there is nothing stopping me from leaving!”                                                     

Before I came to the group, I saw myself as a separate person and I easily passed judgement on others without a second thought. … I have become more kind in my interactions with others and with myself

I remember how nervous I felt when I arrived. My heart raced as I turned the doorknob, opened the door, and entered the room. Jeff and Marybeth greeted me with a friendly “hello” and invited me to help myself to some snacks and to have a seat in the circle. The other students were very quiet. I simply stayed silent and ate a few cookies. What astonished me was that some of the other students were also nervous. I noticed how they, like me, avoided eye contact and distracted themselves with their cellphones until the meeting started.

Marybeth and Jeff opened by introducing themselves and explaining the aims of the group and the guidelines that everyone needed to respect. Then, it was our turn to introduce ourselves with our name and something that we like doing. What I really appreciate about their approach is that they allowed us to skip if we didn’t wish to speak, and we had the choice to express our ideas either vocally or through drawing. This was the first time I experienced a group that encouraged different avenues for communicating our thoughts. I also really liked that we were divided into smaller groups, giving us the chance to know each other more profoundly. By talking in these groups it became clear to me that I wasn’t the only one who was nervous about what others would think of them. This gave me a sense of relief and I quickly became more comfortable with sharing my thoughts and feelings.

In this moment, I realized how much I have in common with others. Even though we all come from different personal backgrounds, we all have similar fears, hopes, and dreams in the end. For me, it was the first time I opened up to strangers and it felt great. I also didn’t feel anxious about having the right answers to the questions that were posed. I was even quite alright with not knowing. I realized that what was important in these sessions wasn’t so much the answers that we produced. It was the journey that we were all beginning to take to get to know and listen to ourselves.

Now, saying that “process matters over results” is a motto that we see in all sorts of ads and healthy cereal boxes. Frankly, it’s a motto that has cheapened the complex nature of such a truth. In my case, it’s one year after having attended the group that I am truly beginning to experience and recognize how I have grown through this process. It’s only today where I am back in my hometown that the process of challenging who I am is truly put to the test. I reflect about the exercises we did and it helps me to trust and feel comfortable with the idea that not knowing exactly where my journey will lead is ALRIGHT!

One exercise we did was to draft our personal life mission statement. We were encouraged to think about questions such as: “What type of person do you want to become?” and “What personal values do you want to uphold?” Each week, we were given reflective exercises to help us look at various aspects of our lives and examine our personal conduct.

If you would ask me what I got out of the group that mattered the most, I would provide a visual image of an exercise we did in the last meeting that marked me. Jeff asked us to stand in a circle and he gave one of the members a ball of yarn. Jeff asked her to say how these meetings will affect her life going forward and then, while holding on to the string, toss the knitting ball to another member to continue. We ended up creating a large web which showed me how we are all interconnected even though we may feel completely separated from others. Before I came to the group, I saw myself as a separate person and I easily passed judgement on others without a second thought. This web showed me how interconnected our lives can be, and I became more sympathetic as a result. I have become more kind. By being less harsh with myself, I have also become more understanding towards others. That is what mattered to me the most.

I thank Student Open Circles with my heartfelt gratitude for facilitating the Personal Discovery Course. It truly made a valuable difference for me.