Community Building

Going Back to Basics: What Walking in Little Shoes Can Teach You { Guest Post }

{ This guest post was written by a beloved friend of mine, Nelli. }

There are so many poignant things happening all around the world these days.  Within just a few minutes of scrolling through my news feed, I can feel completely devastated, then blissfully hopeful, then utterly disgusted, then surprisingly intrigued…

Images, videos, shocking headlines followed by a sombre account of events almost minute by minute…

A great mix of light, encouraging, derogatory or displaced comments trailing still further down the page…

Busy billboards, fliers handed off in a haste, pleading petitions, piles of unfiltered unsolicited advertising full of unsolicited advice…

There is so much noise yet there is also so much silence… Silence in the empty space between bus shelter seats, silence that reigns when headphones have securely been fastened onto intertragic notches, silence between two lovers, two friends, a parent and a child whose blank stares go scrolling down the bright little screens after a brief exchange…

Processing this Incredible Amount of Information

So much ingested, but not enough digested. Where does one find the time to process it? How does one recover from the over-saturated feeling of having consumed too much and too fast? How does one reconcile these conflicting emotions? Where was that line crossed? Where did that yard stick go?  Such thoughts and questions are weighty enough to keep someone awake all night. God knows how many sleepless hours I spent with them tumbling through my mind, like clothes in a drying machine.

Luckily, there is always a safe handle I can latch on to when I start to feel dis-connected and slowly dragged into a downward spiral of oppressive thoughts.  Whenever faced with a difficulty or when perplexity so paralyzes me from moving forward, this gentle and powerful advice is the first that comes to my mind: “Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart… These words bring me back to the basics, wash me from extreme thoughts and remind me of my true and primal identity as a spiritual being.  They re-familiarize me with the innocent outlook of the child I once was.  I am sure many of us could agree that the world would be a better place if us grown-ups acted with more of the purity, the kindness and the radiance that came to us more naturally in our younger years.

Back to Basics: Learning from Teaching Children

We are so keen to teach children how to “do it right” but we often grossly overlook all that they can teach us in return.  I would like to share with you, dear reader, some simple things that I continually learn (or re-learn) from children and try to practice now that I am a supposed “grown-up”.  I find it important to practice them because many of us live in societies where estrangement, isolation and other divisive forces are greatly affecting our perceptions of “the other” and our interactions with them.  As I share with many others the belief that true unity will be the only way for the human race to heal from its grave problems, I find that it is becoming increasingly urgent to strive to find points of commonality with complete strangers. These exercises I try to practice can be challenging but are easily applicable and highly affordable too.  One willing to try them out would need a bit of vulnerability, empathy, good-will and a dose of courage.

1. See in everyone a friend…or even more, a family member

It is no secret that children easily make friends; just a few minutes after meeting for the first time, they can go so far as calling one another “best friends” or even “siblings”.  This line of thinking can be carried on into adult years in a more mature way.  For those who believe that the blood that runs through all our veins is the same hue of red and that we are all created equal, it would not be too difficult to accept that we are all part of one human family.  Therefore, the sweet and slightly overweight lady at the bakery can be an aunt, the grumpy bus driver a grand-father, that young refugee from Syria a cousin, that charming little girl with down-syndrome a niece, etc. …The opportunities are endless.  Seeing through these lens, one does not feel as lonely in the world and there is more room for love and forgiveness in our hearts.

How it can be practiced:

Sometimes as I walk on the streets, I acknowledge the people passing by with a greeting or a nod.  When I am up for an extra challenge, I try to look straight into their eyes.  It is amazing what connection I often experience with a person after I have walked passed them and I am almost always sure that the experience did not leave them indifferent. I often feel that in that split second, I was able to take a peek into their soul and allowed them to look into mine as well.  Whereas a quick glance at them could only give me a limited impression worthy of labelling them “plain Jane”, “Dapper Dan” or “nervous Nellie”, the little “soul-peek” makes it easier to recognise them as a fellow human being, a dear friend or as a family member.

Note

Some friends laughingly called me “creepy” after I told them about my exercise and I laughed with them. I had to point out to them the difference between “staring” and taking a “soul-peek”. Of course, one ought to use tact, wisdom and mindfulness of the culture and environment one is in before trying this out.  But when practiced in the right conditions, it has the beneficial effect of beginning to break down of the prejudices we all have, as happens with the exercises below.

2. Smile or give someone a reason to smile

This exercise takes us one level higher than the last one.  There is a wonderful song I used to hear when I was younger; the lyrics written by an anonymous writer always had made a strong impression on me.  The beginning goes: “A smile costs nothing, but gives much. It enriches those who receive, without making poorer those who give. It takes but a moment, but the memory of it sometimes lasts forever. (…)” A few years ago, I was sitting in a mini-bus in Israel with a heavy heart that had me sinking lower and deeper into my seat.  At some point during the ride, a woman and a little girl got on.  The little girl sitting just to my right was eying a flower I had laying between us. Noticing her interest, I picked it up and handed it to her. In return, she gave the most glorious smile.  Not long after, the little lady left the bus with her mother.  I was still so overcome by the warmth and genuineness of her smile that I cried cathartic tears the rest of my ride home.  All that thanks to a smile.

How it can be practiced:

Those who know me will be rolling their eyes after reading that I consider myself to be very shy, but I staunchly stand behind my claim.  It sometimes requires a great amount of effort to simply smile at a stranger.  But when I do, I feel all the better for it, even when the most I get back is a puzzled look.  There have been times when people have smiled without me having shown them my goofy face- that is when I somehow give them a reason to. I have noticed that beauty and colour have the power to bring a smile to someone.  I have often tried an experiment to prove this point.  Just as I was carrying a flower in the story above, I have noticed on numerous occasions that when I carry a single flower or a bouquet, some people glance at it out of the corner of their eye and the line that divides their lips slightly curves upwards, at least at one end.  The same may happen when I decide to wear bright colours, particularly yellow (my friends are well familiar with my silly-yellow-slippers). I learned that from a friend who stubbornly and unconventionally seemed to refuse to wear black, especially in winter.  Most children would very much approve her colour pallet.  With the combination of colours and patterns she defiantly wore every day, my friend looked like a bright ray of sunshine on a cloudy day; she gave me and others plenty of opportunities to grin.  But really, nothing was more delightful than her big bright smile.

Note:

I try to make a particular point to give a smile to people who are often seen as “different” and ostracised.  For example, here in Europe, there can be some indifference towards people with a refugee status and they are easily distinguishable by their “foreign” looks.  I am often amazed by their surprised looks after I smile at them even though I know it is probably because it is still not common for them to get a smile from someone who looks as “white” and “European”. However, nothing beats the look on their faces once I greet them in their language or go rambling off in Farsi if they be Persian or Afghanis- which conveniently brings me to the last exercise for this post.

3. Have a chat – in person!

This bit is still more challenging than giving a smile.  Starting a conversation with a complete stranger can be extremely daunting even though it has the potential for so much enrichment: an exchange of knowledge, stories and connections.  Again, coming back to children, most of the ones I know are masters of starting conversations; they do it effortlessly and with almost anyone. Their cheery chatter is often full of fantastical stories, hilarious segways and embarrassing facts their parents would have rather left undisclosed.  The happy effects of their babble on their interlocutors include brightened eyes, enlarged grins, sometimes belly laughs and most importantly, the feeling of being validated.  Here again, us adults have a lot to learn from the little creatures.

How it can be practiced:

Besides the littles I know who easily start conversations, I also know some grown-ups with the same ability.  My parents may have the natural ability to connect with almost anyone but it is also a skill they have honed over decades of experience.  I was most amazed by them when we were checking out items at a store right after picking them up from the Zurich airport last year. Very quickly, my father who was ahead of me started chatting with the checkout clerk asking her what language he could speak to her in. Meanwhile, my mother behind me had started a conversation with the lady behind her.  I nervously glanced at the stone-faced clerk who did not look impressed by my father’s question and his expectant smile, but soon enough her curiosity got piqued and she asked him what languages he spoke.  The dull check-out line started feeling more like a conga line as the volume merrily rose and marks of exclamation broke out.  Before I knew it, my father was chatting with a few people ahead of the line, while in the back, my mother was hugging the lady she had just met!  I am sure that moment left an impression on all those present. I also realized that my prejudice and nervousness about the Swiss people’s conservative nature crumbled down some that day thanks to my parents’ openness.

TIP:

Though I am very far from being as outgoing as my parents, I have had some good fortune of my own in starting conversations with complete strangers.  Besides talking about the weather, I have found it very effective to find something to compliment anyone about.  I once mustered up enough courage and told the young lady sitting next to me how elegant she looked even in the sporty clothes she was wearing.  A huge smile spread over her face and she immediately expressed how receiving that compliment was the best way to begin her day.  We chatted for the rest of the train ride and were pleased to realize that we had more in common than met the eye.

Final Thoughts

Dear reader, I would be a fool to imagine that world-peace will happen as soon as we start to look more into peoples’ eyes, smile, compliment…carry flowers or even wear yellow. Heck! Some days, I consider myself lucky if someone only but looks at me and acknowledges my existence!  And more often than not, I am too distracted or disheartened to even try any of the above!  But if we are to stick around for some more decades, then we might as well give a mightier effort to build a kinder, more loving and more forgiving world for those darling children we will someday leave behind…simply by remembering from time to time, to go back to the basics.

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