my niece has a head full of fantastic, curly, red hair. it’s the first thing that everyone notices about her. they exclaim, “your hair! it’s amazing!” they ask, “where did you get that beautiful hair?” they quip to her parents, “oh no...you’ve got a red head on your hands” then wink and nod. what they don’t notice is ella’s amazing vocabulary, her desire to talk about mary poppins, and her amazing coordination. they also don’t seem to notice her brother, who is standing right with her, hearing repeated comments about his sister’s amazing hair. one time, shortly after this phenomenon got underway, i asked him about his day. “it was o.k.,” he said, “but i only have brown hair.”
we’ve all done it and we’ve all had it done to us. we’ve commented on how great someone looks and we’ve had folks ask us if we’ve lost weight. we’ve told a little girl she’s adorable and a little boy he’s quite the tough guy. we’ve heard and said, upon greeting someone, that we/they look great. in fact, we’ve heard and said these things thousands of times. it’s not wrong, per se, to do so. it’s just that these statements are so automatic and expected. often they’re not honest. frequently they aren’t even thought about. they are, however, automatic phrases that come tumbling off our tongues in social situations. we’ve been reduced to how we look and we’ve reduced others as well. we comment on the externals and leave it at that.
many years ago i made a personal vow to avoid conversation starters centered on how people look or what they do for a living. it has been no small task to make this a reality. fellow party goers look at me strangely when i ask them, “how do you like to spend your time?” colleagues don’t always know how to respond when i ask, “what are some hobbies you’d love to pursue?” when i encounter people i haven’t seen in a long time and they lead out with the standard “you look great!” (even when i don’t), it is terribly awkward to respond with comments that have nothing to do with their appearance, even if they do, indeed, look great. even still, i refuse to let appearance or title be that which i passively deem as pressing.
the portland art museum holds a special class once a month for families. it is called, “learn to look” and is designed to help children and their grown ups build the skills necessary to truly see “into” art and to enjoy what they see. docents are trained to give children clues about how to wonder about what they see in order to help them become curious about the intentions, motivations, and meanings each piece of art holds. come to find out, people enjoy art more when they know how to look at it.
how amazing would it be if we were to give similar thought to how we look at and address the people we encounter every day? might we better enjoy others if we knew how to “look at” and be with them in a different way?
it is so easy to rely on things we see or job titles we understand as training wheels on the bike of learning how to encounter others. when we are willing, however, to let these automatic behaviors go and strive to genuinely encounter another, we can “ride” so much further together.
if we did not rely solely on observations of or comments about the obvious (i.e. the “i’ve worked hard to create this front to present to the world” self) we might discover the much more reliable qualities that lurk so close to the surface but are not visibly seen. these places, less easily categorized, lie underneath the externals and titles and are realities that don’t fit tidily into the “cute” or “ugly,” “successful” or “failure,” “in” or “out.”
“red hair” becomes less reliable as a category when the more substantive qualities of the internal world are wondered about or seen.
how might we spur one another on to encounters based upon a meeting of the minds, or hearts, or souls of eachother? how might these encounters enlarge our experience of community and relationship as opposed to reducing those we meet to that which we (consciously or unconsciously) label them as? i’d love your ideas...the ones that have to do with who you are or what you look like, what you care about or wish you didn’t...