As I walked to school this morning, I came across a moving sight - a blind Asian man was walking alongside an elderly African-American man, holding on to his sleeve to be guided. My mental chatter cleared for a moment as I witnessed them, a pure expression of how we need each other.
We need each other to grow and we need each other to see clearly. Oddly enough, this feels surprising to me. I suppose I've internalized that deep myth of the individualist, of solo self-development. There is a part of me that fantasizes about developing my skills in some remote cave somewhere, only returning when I'm truly a Jedi. Perhaps for some this is their path...but for most of us, the solo path of development is a distorting experience. We need other people to help us see ourselves clearly.
To be more specific: for most children and even for most adults, we need help to see our own magic.
A few times in my life now, I've had the opportunity to sit with a small group whose members know each other well, and we've paused to deeply see each other and reflect back the beauty and potential we see. It's one of the simplest and most radical things I've ever done. Recently we did this exercise with 6th and 7th grade students at my school, and the results were profoundly moving. Here's how it worked.
We began the exercise by taking on the mindset of looking at a work of art. Only this time, the art is the people around us. In our small advisory groups, we asked two students at a time to sit in the center of a circle and simply be witnessed. The students around them, all members of a group that meets regularly to hear about each other's lives, look at the two "work of art" humans in front of them and write down what they see in a letter or a list. What strengths they see, what amazes them, what potential, what they admire.
After everyone has had a chance to be in the center, we collect the letters and package them as a gift. In our case, we gave them as a gift a week later, at the next longer-format advisory meeting. With a bit of ceremony, each advisor gave a package of letters to each student. They absorbed them quietly, laughing here and grinning there, eyes popping up to look around the room and guess who wrote what to them. Their advisor then asked them to share the letter that moved them the most, reading it aloud for the group. (It goes without saying that this exercise only works in a group that has established a safe space, where kids won't be teased or bullied for sharing what is true to them). The letters they shared were some of the most moving examples of witnessing I've ever experienced, in that surprisingly honest tone that kids often take. Noticing a struggle without judgment, and noticing a strength with sincere awe.
Can you imagine going through adolescence with a sense for how you're loved and cherished by your peers? For me at least this is a radical idea.
And it turns out it's just as radical for adults. I've now participated in these circles twice, and witnessed the tears flowing as people consider, for a moment, that others see more in them than they see in themselves. I've received the guidance from one of my teachers, Michael Mervosh, to just listen in those moments and not worry about whether you believe it or not, whether you can accept the compliment officially. Just notice that people think this about you, that's all. Consider that you are a work of art.
I know this may sound like the ultimate ego-inflating exercise. If done with the wrong tone, it could easily be. I do it because for most people I know, when they feel they are being seen deeply (not just in a particular work role, for example), they tend to think others will see their worst traits and not their strengths. Nearly all of us compare ourselves to others and somehow believe everyone else has it figured out. Adolescents certainly have this tendency. So if it's done well, framed as an act of love to others and witnessing of oneself, we can receive in this exercise a powerful, positive mirror of our virtues. What a gift that makes!
Special thanks to Michael Mervosh, whose teaching and facilitation inspired this post.