Just this week I finished reading Michelle Obama's book, Becoming, and in it she says of her adjustment to life in what at first seemed to be the "museum-like formality of the White House": "Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth."
It's true, isn't it? Like children and animals, most of us tend to be drawn to that which is genuine, warm, real, and approachable. Sure, we may be entertained by something more showy; we might occasionally find some bit of appeal in a more formal and other-worldly setting. There's room for professional, distanced, and boundaried engagement with others that keeps us safe and protects our hearts. At the end of the day, however, we all want (and dare I say need?) spaces in which we are warmly embraced emotionally, held close physically, and given room to simply be as we are without pretense or guardedness.
The people I gravitate toward are down-to-earth, open, warm, and compassionate. Like you, I have numerous encounters weekly with a variety of people, and one of my personal goals is to show up with warmth, engagement, and a genuine interest in and curiosity about the lives of the people I encounter, regardless of their political perspective, religious beliefs, economic status, or level of education.
I commend to you Mrs. Obama's book. It's an insightful, honest, and inspiring look into her experience both as a female, African-American from the South Side and as the First Lady of these United States. Regardless of your perspective on her husband's policies and the initiatives she herself implemented, you will find good humor, honesty, an education about politics, and plenty of warmth in its pages.
What if you could get out of your head and into your body in ways that feel good? What would it feel like to show up in increasingly genuine ways? What if your unique values and personality were the launching space for every encounter you every have? How might you work toward creating around you the space you want to inhabit - one that is kind, sincere, transparent, and warm?
This week I have been reflecting anew on Thanksgiving as a national holiday that inspires gratitude, and in the process I have been reviewing my own annual gratitude list. I find that the process of giving thanks is one that regularly has huge benefits for my perspective when I am feeling frustrated, disillusioned, and otherwise discouraged in my life. In terms of energy converters, gratitude is the fastest draining to life-giving energy convertor I know of. It’s extremely difficult to be both genuinely grateful and lost in anger, sadness, grief, and pain.
As is typical for me, my gratitude list is most often comprised of people. I have always been, as my mother often said, a “people-person,” and as such I highly value connection with other humans on the planet. Recently I realized that just as some people collect stamps, shoes, or stories, I collect people.
I first articulated this reality when one of our special people (whom we know solely as our favorite librarian) was preparing for retirement, and I asked how we were going to keep in touch with her. She said she’d have to give us her phone number, and I shared with her that I often have this dilemma when I grow to care deeply for someone in a professional setting. I recognize how much I value the person and yet I feel a sense of incongruity in the reality that I might not ever know if they moved, retired, or died, and with such ignorance I wouldn’t have an opportunity to bring some sort of closure to that relationship.
I feel sad when I outgrow relationships or circumstances arise that make it necessary for me to move on either physically or emotionally, and I carry pieces of all the people I’ve ever known well with me as I grow. I once thought that everyone valued people and relationships in the same way that I do, but I’m older and wiser now. This is an aspect of myself that I appreciate, and one that I must treat with tenderness; I can easily overextend myself relationally, and I sometimes struggle with knowing which are my inner circle, which are my middle circle, and which are my outer circle of connections.
Last week, while thinking about connection with others and the concept of family, I realized that while I have the family I was born into, I also have many other families or places of connection that have brought me joy, hope, support, meaning, and growth through the years.
I am deeply grateful for my nuclear family and the many ways they have loved, nurtured, and patiently tolerated me through the years. As a child, I never felt super connected to my own family because my siblings were 21, 17, and 13 years old when I came along, and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents, but with time and perseverance, I have made peace with this reality and come to accept that my place in my family has given me as many opportunities for joy as it has for learning. This reality has contributed greatly to my lifelong desire to connect deeply and well with others, and looking back over my 43 years I have many people who have been an important part of my process of becoming.
There was the local preschool family who cared for me during my 3rd year of life when my mom went back to work as a teacher. I remember being loved and growing in my sense of independence and confidence. I then transitioned to the private Christian school and church community, where I spent the next 14 years among the school and church family that so fundamentally shaped many aspects of my foundation as a human being. It was there that I learned about kindness and doing what was right. I learned to unquestioningly obey the rules, and I found out that there were many good people in the world who cared for me and valued both my vivacious personality and the contribution my parents made to their own lives.
As a girl, I had a neighborhood family that consisted of several families we knew well and in whose homes I often visited to play, share a meal, or just hang out. I learned much from each of them, not the least of which was the important beginning cross-cultural lesson that not everybody lived the way my family did; in fact, the family across the street cut their breakfast muffins from top to bottom rather than side to side in order to insert their pats of butter!
During my young adult years, my college family was comprised of my fellow students, colleagues on campus in the Disbursement Office where I worked for two years, and several outstanding and kind professors whose thoughtful input and challenging perspectives I have been able to more fully appreciate only in retrospect as I have looked back with quite some distance at the footprints they left on my life.
When I graduated from college and began working in business for a local Fortune 500 company, I formed another family of a sort, whose appreciation of my youthful energy and optimistic perspective was varied, and I grew to know and love several of my colleagues during my time there.
I then moved to Central Europe and lived in Slovakia for a couple of years in order to teach English as a 2nd language. In that season, I developed two new and rather diverse family connections – those with my American colleagues whom I had never before met despite being from the same country and several lifelong friendships with local Slovak people, and to this day I have multiple family members whose first language is different from my own, and we continue to correspond in small ways despite the years and miles between us.
I have had five different church families over the course of my life, and as a Southerner, there are many benefits to being a part of a church community, not the least of which is the regular interaction with the same people and the sense of connection and joy that can come from such repeated association.
There has been my recovery family who offered me new perspectives on myself and my ways of being in the world along with a realization that just because my childhood experiences were closed and isolated, not everybody, even in the South, thinks and feels the same way about God, country, life, love, growth, and the purpose of relationships.
In 2014, thanks to my husband’s enthusiasm after having been on his own the year prior, my family and I attended Family Camp at The Omega Institute together for the first time, and now we have a whole group of Omega family who, though we see them for only one week out of the year, many of them have become a regular part of our lives as we stay in touch through a variety of avenues during the 51 weeks we are apart each year.
My family continues to grow as I am in the process of becoming certified as a Life Coach through the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC) and my training has introduced me to a number of new people who are quickly becoming not only my colleagues but also my friends.
I have also recently begun the Chattanooga Singing Circle and am meeting and singing with heretofore strangers who are becoming new friends and family with whom I can laugh, cry, learn, and love as we play with song, rhythm, and movement in ways that heal our hearts and bring us both joy and connection in the process.
I am deeply grateful this season not only for the many connections with others that I am privileged to enjoy but also for the growing acceptance of connection as a value of mine. I feel supported, loved, and cared for in the midst of my various connections, and I am honored to walk alongside so many amazing people as together we become more than any one of us could be on our own. My life is rich beyond measure and I am profoundly thankful for the journey and the many folks who have chosen to journey with me along the way.
Who do you count as family this week? Who or what are you grateful for? What values are you living out as you pursue your own versions of meaning, hope, joy, and peace this holiday season?
This Extrovert's Attempt to Use My Words to Make Sense of My Life