Earlier this week, as I walked towards the boarding gate for my Atlanta-bound flight, a man faced the oncoming crowd. His bold posture and position drew my attention. As I read the silk-screened phrase across the front of his shirt, my surroundings began to fade as my gaze fixated on the words, "Hate Keeps Me Warm."
My internal dialogue fired rapidly. Thoughts bounced from imagined reasons and possible alternative rational for why he would wear the shirt. I noticed his tattooed arms inscribed with "We the people."
My thinking and judgment were in a full throttle race. His clothing, his tattoos were emblazed markers of his internal experiences. They felt like invitations - for or against his point of view. Flowing through my mind were the catastrophic results of hate - school shootings, domestic assaults, workplace massacres, and genocides. What would I say if the man in the t-shirt sat next to me on the plane?
As the line moved forward, and I approached him, I tried unsuccessfully to make eye contact. I wondered what would happen if our eyes met? But his gaze was fixated beyond me. He seemed to be looking above the heads of the line of passengers. My body worried that he did not see us; the people; any people.
I found my assigned middle seat between two men who worked together and were chatting about their project. My internal inquiry continued in silence, cutting through the murmur on the plane. What would my t-shirt say? With little effort, the responses emerged.
Love keeps me warm. Kindness keeps me warm. Gratitude keeps me warm.
The polarity of our responses reminded me of a recent podcast on social media analytics driving us towards extreme dichotomies and bias rather than common ground. Analytics manipulate us away from our commonalities and can isolate our points of view or what we view. If we want to act in ways that create connections and accept differences, what can we do? How do we find common ground?
As teachers, health providers, leaders, home visitors, and as parents, we often encounter ideas that differ from our personal experience and professional training; such as
a grandmother who chides her teenage daughter for picking up her crying newborn because she will spoil the baby, or a father who plays violent video games with his school-age daughter who experiences difficulties making friends, and even a co-worker who complains continuously about a well-liked supervisor.
We usually have well-rehearsed patterns of responses include lecturing, ignoring, discounting, or using humor or sarcasm. While these interactions may seem helpful to us, do they lead to the desired change in another person? No.
Encountering differing opinions, opposing perspectives, and cultural differences are relatively typical for those of us working in the health and education fields.
While perhaps not as blatant as a t-shirt slogan, differences can quickly lead to judgment, bias, and unintended consequences.
What if a client wore the t-shirt?
Being aware of my experience allows me to open towards his narrative. Mindfulness practice helps me to respond with sensitivity- action rather than reaction; openness with curiosity. I can be present and choose how I want to act, not react. My mantra reminds me to be present in love for myself and him. My heart's curiosity reminds me to ask about his people. Being aware of my feeling state allows me to invite him to explore how he experiences comfort and discomfort.
Mindfulness allows me to open to his experiences of love and hate with awareness of my thoughts, body’s experiences, and heart’s reactions.
Breathing, movement, and present-moment awareness give us options to notice discomfort. Mindful walking, meditation, yoga, and other practices help reduce stress. Expanding our perception of the experiences of our body and heart encourages healthier emotional regulation. Growing awareness of moment-to-moment experiences allows us to become aware of ourselves and to let go of habits that no longer serve us.
After nearly three decades of work in the child and family field, I believe that our well-being as practitioners is at the heart of creating a world in which every child flourishes and becomes a productive citizen of the world. Mindfulness practices can reduce stress, heal primary and secondary trauma, improve health, and encourage compassion and kindness for ourselves and others.
What does your t-shirt say?