there are certain experiences in life that reveal habits i’ve lost complete awareness of. visiting new places is one of these. people who know me in my day to day life don’t bat an eyelash when i call them “honey,” blow them kisses, or arrive to their late evening meetings with a gigantic cup of caffeinated coffee. new friends and associates who i meet en mass when i travel, however, are stumped by many things i do. i prefer “doreen” to “dr. dodgen-magee,” i don’t require fancy (or even good) coffee, and, apparently, i bow. most days i’m not even aware of this but two wonderful trips to the midwest have recently reminded me that this is not “normal.” this has led me to a ridiculous awareness of my palm to palm, hands to forehead, eyes lowered habit and has prompted me to remember my gratitude to the people and experiences who brought me this gift. particularly fitting for the week of gratitude we are in, here is at least a part of the story of why i bow. of why i wai.
several years back i was honored to visit thailand with a group of high schoolers. we lived in a “dormitory” alongside thai middle and high school students who are working to overcome the effects of poverty and familial debt by being given heaping doses of love alongside a formal education. in preparation for our trip we learned that the thai people greet and goodbye with a “bow” of sorts that is called a “wai” (rhymes with “hi”). hands joined palm to palm, in a sort of prayer pose, the head is bowed and the hands lifted toward the forehead.
when we arrived in the rural village in which we served, the wai was the primary way that others welcomed us; a seeming offering of theirs which implied, “i see you,” “i honor you,” “with my full attention.” in some settings thai nationals would wai in such a way that they would lower themselves extremely, to make their own heads closer to the ground than my own. the honor that this implied was uncomfortable for me. i do not want to be “higher” than those i meet. i learned, however, that rather than fighting this act of welcoming reverence, i could receive it and then gift it back. i could catch their eyes when they looked up from the wai and then hold them for a moment as i bowed deeply in response. it became a way of saying “this meeting is sacred. i feel seen and i see you. we are joined in our humanity. thank you.” as i spent the better part of a month cooking, cleaning, learning, and living with these beautiful people, i came to highly value the act of honoring others with my posture. given our lack of understanding of each others’ languages, the wai became a way of demonstrating an awareness of the sacredness of each other. quite unconsciously, i brought it home with me.
years ago my graduate training gave birth to an understanding of, and respect for, the need of humans to feel tended to. both life in general and the meaningful work of doing therapy have grown this knowledge into an appreciation and respect for each person’s desire to be seen deeply and honestly and to be held safely in the attention of another. i am a huge believer in the power of the “parental gaze” to mold and influence the developing sense of self in infants and young children. before any of us know how to care for ourselves, we look to the important others in our visual spheres to see us and “loan” us the things we need. before we can change our own diapers or manage our own bathrooming behaviors, our care takers help us know that, when we are wet and uncomfortable it is possible to return to a dry and comfortable state. when we are distressed we can be comforted. when we are hungry we are fed. and so on. when those entrusted with our care gaze lovingly and attentively at us and work to help us get our needs met, we eventually learn to apply a similarly loving gaze toward our selves and take on the caregiving of ourselves that has been modeled by these others. when this does not happen, however, when our care givers are inconsistent, incapable of interpreting what they see, or neglectful of gazing at us altogether, we grow up physically but remain stuck emotionally, looking to others to determine how to care for ourselves and get our needs met. for those who face this reality, it is hoped that wise, mature, and safe others will serve as pseudo “stand ins” of sorts throughout the years, seeing and gazing in ways that help the neglected get what they have lacked.
last week i participated in a church service where the reverend told a story of a man she had met years before. this congregant was an attorney and shared with the reverend that some days the only physical contact he received was a handshake in the courtroom. how many times is this true for us physically? emotionally? relationally? how often are we seen-truly noticed-in a day? how frequently are we held in someone’s attention (or touch), or respect, or love? equally importantly, how common is it for us to offer someone else the opportunity to be seen and/or held? in stark contrast to the attorney who lacks physical touch, consider the manicurist or massage therapist who touches and pampers people all day but is rarely, if ever, truly seen for who he or she is. rarely touched by the kindness of someone’s words or eye contact or caring questions.
it is for these reasons that i wai. in placing my hands together and bowing slightly i hope to convey to you that i find you an image bearer of the Divine, a person of importance and unique beauty. even if i have shared only a moment with you, i see you as a vital part of the space that we inhabit. together. i’m not more important than you and i have much to be humble about and gracious in my interaction with you. these are the messages i hope you receive, even when you laugh at me or look at me sideways, wondering why in the world i engage in this “weird behavior.”
the next six weeks will be heavy with desires to be seen and known and opportunities to give these gifts to others. while the decorations and sparkling lights scream “cheer,” many of us are just trying to get through the holiday crush. some rush through to-do lists, others put in long grueling hours at jobs where they’re treated terribly, many feel alone and marginalized, scores long for lost loved ones, and we all hope we are just remembered. given the mix of emotions you are likely to face in those you encounter today, how might you be open to genuinely see or welcome those you meet? might you mean it when you ask “how are you?” could you leave a trail small candies or notes that say “you matter” as you make it through your day? might you remember to simply look people in the eye and thank them specifically for the services they provide you? what if you were to compliment each person you met on some small trait or gesture? what would it be like if you were to take a deep, cleansing breath before you encountered the grocery checker, the employee working the mail counter, your partner, your children/parents, your teacher/boss/co-worker in order to prepare yourself to actually notice to whom you speak/with whom you interact.
the only touch that someone gets should not be a handshake in the courtroom. you have it within your power to provide touch that may never translate to physicality but that can reach the very soul of another. you can honor...you can wai...you can say, with words or deeds, “you matter” “you’re important” “we are travelers together on this journey.” people may look at you funny. they may even laugh. down deep, however, you will know that it matters and you will know why...