Each interaction we have with people opens a metaphorical circle. Simple interactions, like those we have passing a stranger on the street, cause the circles to open and close quickly without much work on our parts. But those interactions we have with people in which something significant takes place create larger circles with larger openings. To close these requires more mindful awareness of our responsibilities in the relationship.
If we move through life learning to open and close our circles with mindful awareness we live happier, more fulfilled lives. Those of us with lots of unclosed circles experience a “cluttered” feeling in our interactions because we have so much unfinished business with others.
With this explanation, I introduced my kindness class to their new assignment – to do something kind for someone who at some point in their lives had helped them. At its core, the assignment was intended to help my students identify circles that were left open in their lives and to try to close one.
“If more people did this the world would be a better place.” So said Elizabeth at our next class session. She was actually quoting what was said to her by the wife of one of her college professors, the person she chose to be the recipient of her kind action.
Elizabeth explained, “In college, I was in my senior year and paying my own way. I got a notification that my bill was unpaid and I wasn’t going to graduate. My professor and his family suggested I stay with them to save on room and board. After all these years, I was able to thank him for his kindness. Without it, I don’t think I could have gone on in my schooling, met my fabulous spouse and got my wonderful job, also teaching. I think we will correspond for a long time, a kindness for both of us.”
People who have helped us, been generous toward us, or have served as a source of inspiration for us are our benefactors. These folks come into our lives to help light our way on our own unique paths.
And they often come into our lives in a way and at a time in which we may not fully appreciate them. This can be, perhaps, for reasons having to do with our youth, how hectic our lives are at the time, or for a number of other reasons. We often best recognize their influence in hindsight.
Other students shared their experiences, including:
- “When I suddenly found myself alone with five small children and very little money, a friend offered help without unsolicited advice or criticism, including organizing a painting party for my dilapidated house. Today, ten years after her untimely death, I placed flowers on her grave. Her widower and (now) grown children were surprised and touched to find me there…”
- “I called my cousin this evening to more fully express my gratitude and why I sent her the mum plant. We both had tears and laughter as we talked. A full 35 minutes of deep connecting and appreciating of each other. Yes, we’ve said it and we say it often, but decidedly acknowledging and honoring that gratitude more fully makes it come alive in my own being, and my heart expands from the activity of expressing this gratitude.”
This assignment required Elizabeth and the rest of the students to think about the past, to bring something positive from their lives into the present to both relive and more fully appreciate it. Bringing these stories into the present helped the students acknowledge their importance.
Expressing their gratitude for their benefactors then helped them close the “circle of the story” and feel a profound sense of satisfaction. In closing a circle left open, some of them also were excited to open a new one.
Also of importance, the kindness extended to the benefactors included a solid kindness for the students, too. The statement, “my heart expands from the activity of expressing this gratitude” summarizes this concept perfectly and poetically.
We all have repetitious tasks that may seem tedious, even boring to do, so much so that we might complete them on auto-pilot. But these are often the tasks that need to get to done to ensure the bigger projects get done.
If it helps, think about what happens to your teeth if you don’t brush them every day.
This also holds true in our relationships with others, be they personal or professional. In the relationship dynamic, we all have tedious jobs to complete in order for the relationship to work.
For a little exercise, get out a pen and piece of paper and write down at least five tedious tasks you do that enhance one of your personal relationships.
If you’ve chosen a home relationship and you live with others, your list might include grocery shopping, doing the laundry and/or the dishes, making the bed, cleaning the bathrooms, changing the toilet paper roll…
In all likelihood, your list quickly grew to more than five tasks.
Next, consider what kind of breakdown would occur if you didn’t do one of the tasks. For instance, if your list includes grocery shopping and you don’t do it, there won’t be food in the house. And if there isn’t food in the house, what would happen next?
People would be hungry?
You’d have to eat out, which might mean you wouldn’t be eating healthy food, and you might go over your budget, thus impacting your plans for an upcoming vacation?
Again, you can likely extend this pretty far and pretty quickly, including the lack of food having a negative impact on your relationships.
As I said earlier, the point here is that the little tasks getting done is what leads to the bigger projects happening. When you do the grocery shopping, for instance, you are saving toward the family’s summer vacation.
Now it’s all well and good to simply think about the little tasks that WE, ourselves, do. It’s a more challenging exercise to identify the little tasks others do and from which we derive benefit.
In other words, who else in your relationship dynamic is doing the little things in a way that helps ensure your family will get to go on its summer vacation?
On your paper, try to write down five tedious tasks that are done by someone else in a personal relationship with you. You’ll likely find this to be more difficult to do than creating your list of tasks, the reason being that we tend to take for granted the tasks completed by others.
We are even more likely to take them for granted when they are done consistently, for the simple reason that we don’t notice them being done. For instance, if doing the laundry isn’t on your list, the fact that you have clean underwear in your drawer is due to the efforts of someone else.
With these things in mind, consider the word “synergy,” which, at its root, means “working together.” In practice, the word has come to mean working together WELL.
When there is food in the house and underwear in the drawers, and hundreds of other things are completed and/or available, there is synergy at play. This synergy allows for smooth functioning in the home, which stabilizes the home lives of everyone.
So think again about those little tasks you do, but do so with this awareness of synergy. You are contributing to the smooth working of your home.
Further, we all have had times in which we are functioning so well with others that we feel we are part of a whole. It is at these times that we gain glimpses of the concept that we are part of something greater than ourselves. This form of synergy awareness is warming and provides us energy.
Here’s another way to think about the ideas of synergy and that we all are part of something bigger than ourselves:
Holographic images can be recorded on glass. Looking at them, they appear 3-D despite being in 2-D form, and seen from different angles give you the look of seeing the image from different perspectives. Further, if the glass that holds the image is broken, each piece contains the whole image. It’s not like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that have to be reassembled to form a whole.
Each piece CONTAINS the whole (learn more here).
With that in mind, consider the value each member of a team plays in making the whole team function, like the five basketball players on the floor during a game, that have to work together well in order for any one of them to excel.
Next, consider that every person on a team is one piece of glass of a broken hologram, each piece containing the whole. Seen like this, our responsibility as individuals is to contribute positively to the whole, to do our part to make sure the team functions at its best.
Now apply this same concept to those with whom you share a home.
Are you familiar with the Dr. Seuss book “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” Many people see this book, intended for children, as a way to focus on how to feel better about their lives by comparing them to the lives of less fortunate, albeit silly, characters.
For instance, this quote comes from page 24:
And poor Mr. Potter,
He has to cross t’s
and he has to dot i’s
in and I-and-T factory
out in Van Nuys.
Yes, poor Mr. Potter.
These may seem like meaningless tasks he has to do, but if Mr. Potter doesn’t do them, an attention to detail is lost that will contribute to a significant problem down the line, just like what would happen if you didn’t do the grocery shopping or someone else didn’t doing the laundry.
As such, I encourage you to appreciate when you have to be Mr. Potter and to acknowledge when others are doing their “Mr. Potter” tasks. Extended to our places of businesses, to our cities, to our country, and to the world, it’s how everything keeps functioning.
Ultimately, we’ll come to appreciate that it’s completing the repetitious tasks in our lives that move us closer to peace on earth.
(I’m reviewing articles I’ve written for my professional website, narrowing them down to some favorites. Here’s the first, which focuses on a life lesson I received from a respected teacher and try to pass along to some of my students who I think might appreciate it.)
I’ve often told my students an allegory that was told to me by one of my most important teachers when I was a young adult, the story of two people walking at dawn one morning, the rising sun at their backs. One paused and turned to look at the beautiful sunrise, awed by its beauty. Wanting to share it, he tapped the shoulder of his friend, who turned to look and was equally awed.
I invite my students to stop and consider this story, to contemplate it for its meaning or meanings. One comes from recognizing the important role we have to help those in our lives be aware of meaningful things.
Related to that, however, is the truth that try as we might, we can never MAKE another person be aware of something. We may WANT to share things with others, but they still have to turn, literally and/or metaphorically, to see them. THEY have to do the physical and mental work.
If my students get to that understanding, I’m pleased.
As I’ve gotten older, interestingly, I’ve found what has become an even bigger lesson for me from this story. It’s that we all are being tapped on our shoulders all the time. Every second of every day, we are being offered the opportunity to see meaningful things.
Many of us wonder who or what does what I’m calling this shoulder-tapping. Call it Source, or Light, or Intelligence, or God, or some other name. For my purposes, though, putting a name to what taps us is not the most important thing.
What’s important is to recognize that we are being tapped and to practice focusing our attention. In other words, I have the responsibility to do the physical and mental work, to turn and look, so to speak.
As I’ve gained experience doing this, I’ve learned that there is discipline involved in the practice. Undisciplined, my attention is drawn to all sorts of things — negative news stories, certain uses of social media, drama from the sports world — each of which distracts me from what is actually meaningful.
I sometimes even fool myself into believing the distracting things are important.
Disciplined, I learn to see the difference between the distracting and the divine, between the pointless and the profound. In time, I find that I’ve started to internally filter out the things that distract me, which better enables me to gently focus on the divine and the profound.
Like a sunrise.
Loving kindness is all around me.
More love inspires me to be kind.
More self confidence.
I fully flourish.
Sharing free hugs.
Conversations to connect.
Handing out bubbles…
It all matters.
In 1985, at age 22, I was a first-year college student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. I had spent the four years since graduating from high school trying to figure out who I was, my high school having done such a poor job of helping me do that. Having been moved by my experience mentoring a young boy as part of the Big Brothers program, I felt a calling to make a career in education and chose Evergreen as a place to begin my more formal training.
One day, while at the public library near my apartment and as part of a search on child development, I found a paperback book called “Son-Rise.” The book tells the true story of how author Barry Neil Kaufman and his wife, Suzi, helped lead their son out of his autistic world. Reading the book changed the trajectory of my college experience.
At the next academic quarter, I shifted my academic focus at Evergreen to issues in special education. I began conducting independent study projects on topics such as dyslexia, brain injury, and cross-cultural special education practices. I began working with brain-injured children as part of my studies, earning college credit in the process.
The summer of 1986 I signed up for a program of study called “Children of the World.” One of the professors was a Navajo and during one meeting with him he said something that literally stopped me in my tracks. I had been reading about dyslexia and was trying to understand if dyslexia was a condition more about a child or more about the educational settings in which a child was placed.
Sharing a Navajo perspective, but phrased in modern terminology, my professor asked me, “Andy, have you ever stopped to think that dyslexia might be an advanced form of evolution, an advanced way of seeing things?” It was a radical thought for me at the time, an example of outside-the-box thinking that I’ve tried to employ since. Instead of viewing dyslexia as a “dis”-ability, as I had been doing, what if I treated the concept as providing some kind of advantage?
That got me thinking about our school system. Certainly, being dyslexic was not an advantage in a typical American school setting. But how much of this disadvantage came from the beliefs and attitudes of those people working with dyslexic children? Couldn’t teachers learn to accept students for who they were and instruct from their strengths?
My studies continued. Evergreen allowed me to do something I had never done before as a student – study what I wanted to study, when I wanted to study it. The idea of a school allowing this never occurred to me. Such uninterrupted immersion in something could only be done after the requirements were met, and usually after the school doors were closed. A spark that had all but been extinguished began to glow brighter as I welcomed each day with an armload of books, which one day included “Son-Rise,” which I began to re-read.
When I first read the book I was impressed by its clarity. Re-reading, what Kaufman wrote made even more sense to me, opened me up and allowed me to gain access to a part of myself that was waiting to emerge. I became more accepting of myself and others; in his writing I found words for things I had never been able to express. In short, the Kaufmans developed a therapy program for their autistic son based on a lifestyle of love, trust, and acceptance. The basic principle of their lifestyle was that people were always doing the best they could based on their current beliefs, that each of us is our own best expert.
In the spring of 1987, I accompanied a family with an 18-year-old autistic son named Eric to The Option Institute in Massachusetts, the institute founded by the Kaufmans to help others learn from their experience. We spent a week there learning from the staff how to create a home-based therapy program for Eric. Returning home, I began working with Eric several days a week, hoping to join him in his world as a way of communicating that I respected him for whom he was.
Working with Eric, I came to know myself better than I ever had. The principles of love, trust, and acceptance had a natural effect in other areas of my life. I began living in the present. Instead of doing things for some future reward, I ended each day knowing I had done exactly what I wanted to do. Another thing became clear to me – I settled on wanting to be a teacher.
I graduated from Evergreen in 1988 and in 1989 entered a graduate program in Human Development, the first year of which was a teacher certification program, through Pacific Oaks College. I completed both programs, earning both a teaching certificate and a Master’s degree. Because of my work with Eric and other children with unique needs, and my independent studies done at Evergreen, I carry Special Education endorsements on my teaching certificate.
I began teaching in 1990 and have always tried to bring what I learned from my study of the Kaufman’s philosophy to my interactions with students. The creation of Puget Sound Community School in 1994 was a clear attempt to create a school that allows students to take charge of their lives. I’ve now spent decades helping young people learn that while I may be a trained teacher, I’m not an expert on who they are. I want to help them to learn to identify their goals, however trivial they may seem to others, and plot courses to achieving them. I want them to trust themselves fully, to be happy with who they are.
I believe that happy people have a burning desire to grow and develop, reach out for new opportunities and challenges, and are an asset to the world. A.S. Neill, the founder of Summerhill, wrote, “All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness.” Imagine a world that puts as its priority the happiness of its citizenry.
So back in 1985 I read a book that dramatically changed the course of my life. It deals with such topics as love, trust and acceptance, topics that typically aren’t discussed in books on education, in most teacher training programs, or in most faculty rooms.
I challenge you to ponder why that is, and to think of the possibilities for schools and students if they were.
(Back in 2020, the mom of one of my former students reached out to me and asked, as she was asking others, to write a little note to her son on the occasion of his 25th birthday. If I recall correctly, she was asking influential adults in his life to offer him some advice. I was pleased to get her request and spent more than a little time considering and then composing my note. Searching for another piece of writing on my computer, I found my note last week and decided to archive it here. I hope some of you find it entertaining, if not full of decent advice. –Andy)
As your 25th birthday was approaching, your mother reached out to me and with great dignity and honor suggested I may have something of value to pass along to you. I understand I’m not the only person to whom she put in this request, which in some ways lets me off the hook. I mean, somewhere in the vast compendium of letters you are undoubtedly receiving on the occasion of doing nothing more extraordinary than having a pulse for a quarter century, you’re bound to get something more useful than anything I can cobble together.
Honestly, that is pretty decent advice, given that climate issue we’re having, but I’m betting you received it as a little kid or, failing that, figured it out by yourself by now. The really juicy stuff at this point in your life needs to be advice that gets you to stop what you’re doing, cock your head to the side, scrunch your eyebrows, and say something profound like, “Damn.”
Just for effect, you’re a director after all so take some direction from me, go ahead and imagine I just gave you some good advice:
Stop what you’re doing (reading, I imagine), cock your head to the side (600 mg of ibuprofen might aid with this – I know it helps my 25 + 32 year-old knees before I go for a run), scrunch your eyebrows (that’s the fun part), and say, “Damn.”
Don’t you feel better?
Yeah, it was probably just for saying, “Damn.”
To digress from the digression and on the subject of strong language, I’ve been working to promote a new swear word. It probably won’t catch on because it’s not four letters and our collective 21st century attention span can’t stand things that take too long (see: Twitter). Anyway, I invite you to take it for a test spin, see how it comes off your tongue. To really try it out, hold the first syllable for an extra split second, put emphasis on the second syllable, and then let the third syllable slide out, a denouement of sorts. Here it is, my new swear word for 2020:
Hmmm… It seems now that twice since I began this letter, I have offered you direction. And thinking about that, isn’t direction just a form of advice? This is what you do for a living, as I understand it. You direct actors to do stuff. That’s a form of advice, directing actors to do stuff, at least in my mind. You don’t know whether or not those actors are going to do the stuff you direct them to do. The actors get to make up their minds whether they’re going to take your direction, your advice. There is still free will, right?
Back to your mom. It occurred to me that she might be worried about you, given she is seeking out people like me to knock some sense into you on the occasion of you taking 25 tours around the sun on our collective blue-green spaceship.
So, Jimmy, here goes, my third direction to you: Humor your mom.
How? PRETEND you’ve gotten good advice from those to whom she reached out, including me. I’m sure it will make her feel good. See, when you PRETEND you’ve gotten good advice, you actually have to look inside yourself to find what to do. This makes the advice you’re pretending to have gotten be GOOD advice.
Funny thing about looking inside yourself… When you do it with a dose of trust, you find you’re not pretending at all.
Your old pal,