Each of us has experiences we can point to that were pivotal moments in our growth or understanding. What follows are three experiences that had a profound impact on the course of my life, through greater awareness of my connection to others. I hope these stories inspire you to recount the moments of knowing and connection that shaped who you are so far.
Humans are made for authentic connection.
I remember this moment that I shared with my brother Tom like it was yesterday, that’s how vivid of a memory it remains. I was 13 and he was 10, and we were watching the Oprah Winfrey Show after school. Well, I was watching. He was attempting to wrestle with me. We were latch-key kids before there was a no-no, and we lived on a quiet street, so I was the only playmate for this brute of a boy.
As she often did, Oprah had a psychologist on the program who was talking about the differences between men and women and how boys are programmed by society not to talk about their emotional needs, which left physicality as their primary means of expression. At that very moment, the doctor on Oprah said “If a boy is rough-housing he usually just needs to be close to someone but doesn’t know how to express it. Try rubbing his arm and watch the behavior subside”. So that’s exactly what I did…I started rubbing Tommy’s arm and he instantly stopped trying to pin me to the floor.
To me, it was like I’d just learned a secret power! This cause and effect relationship between two people ignited in me a lifelong interest in human psychology. But deeper still, I realized that knowing something about a person’s needs would help me relate. How many other similar secrets of the mind were there to be unlocked? I began to really pay attention to the impact words, actions and deeds had on others around me.
Takeway: There are so many cues being sent our way by the people with whom we interact. Knowing how to read the cues, what to look for, and how to respond in a loving way, allows for human connection and authenticity.
We are in this together.
When a teen is learning to drive, she starts paying attention to how her parents drive. One night I was in the front seat of the car with my Dad. As I’ve mentioned before, we lived in the country so there were many dark and winding roads. We passed a police patrol car parked in a field facing the road with its lights off, but I clearly saw the officer’s radar gun pointed at oncoming traffic. As a car approached us, headed for the speed trap, my dad flashed his high beam lights three times. The driver waved and I saw the car’s brake lights come on. I said to my dad, “Why did you flash your lights at him?” to which he replied, “I was warning the driver that there’s a cop ahead so he doesn’t get a ticket”. I thought that was the coolest thing EVER. We, the community of motorists, look out for one another? How absolutely awesome is that?!? I knew then and there I’d be the kind of person who flashed her high beams at other drivers. As it turns out, I’m also the kind of woman who has made every effort to help other women be successful. If we have the ability to help others navigate through life, we have an obligation to do so.
Takeaway: What good are knowledge and awareness if they are not shared with others?
Being Kind is a Human Imperative
This next story had such a profound effect on me I submitted it to NPR for one of their programs. I cry now, just thinking of it. The year was 1999 and I was reeling from heartache, despair, confusion, and sadness. One Sunday I found myself in a large, mostly upper class (and predominantly white) Presbyterian church in Sonoma County. I hadn’t been inside a church in 4 years but because I was raised in the Presbyterian faith and because I was so far from home, I longed for the familiar hymns and prayers as a means of solace. I thought I could handle it, but as soon as the first hymn began, I started to cry. Do you know how hard it is not to draw attention to yourself in church when you are stifling sobs? Still, I thought I was under the radar. Until the woman sitting in front of me reached her arm over the back of the pew and, without needing to look, grabbed my hand and squeezed it. She held it for some time, giving me the silent ‘I know’. It was the most humane, connected thing a stranger had ever done for me, and I was so incredibly touched by her gesture.
After the service, shame kept me from thanking her. I ducked out quickly. I regretted almost immediately not using that moment as an opportunity for even deeper, meaningful connection. Fast forward a few months and I’m now living in New York City. It can be hard to find compassion for others in the throngs of humanity making their way to work each day. But on a subway, all alone, was a young woman quietly crying with her head down. Without hesitation, I got up and offered her a tissue and said quietly “Whatever it is, you will be ok”. She nodded and I squeezed her hand. Finally, I could pay it forward. Yet I wasn't done.
That very night I went home and typed a letter to the minister of the church in Northern California. I wrote, “I’m not sure if this lovely, kind woman is still a member but if you are so inclined, I’d love for you to read this letter describing our silent interaction to your congregation so they may know someone among them showed true Christian compassion for a stranger. For that, you should be very proud of your flock”.
Since then I have often thought of the woman who happened to be in the pew in front of me, in the church I happened to attend, on that Sunday when I needed some sign of hope. Sometimes, we are that ray of sunshine for a person who desperately needs it.