ALANDA GREENE learns something precious from an interaction between two complete strangers in a grocery store. All it takes is a little care to change the world.
For 24 years, I taught in a public school system. Most of those years were with 12- and 13-year-olds, usually an intense period for young humans. Navigating the changes from childhood to adolescence, entering the unknown territory of emotional upheaval, feeling at the mercy of wild mood swings, erratic reactions, strange longings, attractions, and revulsions – it’s a challenging time emotionally without the added stress of difficult or dysfunctional home environments.
I taught in a small Kindergarten-to-grade-12 school in an isolated rural area, where the families of students in the school were members of the community and the context of their lives known. A wide range of contexts was there. Through the years, observing some of the children who came from particularly difficult and dysfunctional environments, I wondered more and more what gave some of them the ability to maintain a core balance and ability to keep basically healthy emotionally, while others floundered and displayed considerable inability to function in a healthy way.
Some of the conditions these students experienced included physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, exposure to serious drug addiction, family violence, parental break-ups, sequential partner relationships, and a considerable absence of security. In the midst of such challenges were students who managed to find their way, hurting of course, yet over the years showing a resilience that remained remarkable as they found healthy means to manage their own emotional lives. How was this quality strengthened and nurtured? What was the key ingredient that made the difference?
Some years ago, I attended an international four-day conference titled Resilient Children, Resilient Communities, which brought together people from around the world to share research and experience. The strongest message for me from the conference was several decades of research on the topic of resiliency in children living in traumatic situations. The presenter began this research because he also questioned what gave some children the resilience to thrive while others seemed unable to move beyond their difficulties. He concluded that the positive influence of just one caring person in the life of a child in a difficult situation could make all the difference. It could be a grandparent, a teacher, a neighbour. It only took one.
With a cadre of caring teachers in our small school, who knew the context of some of these difficult cases, some of us were able to be that one person to offer emotional support through non-judgmental listening, being present, giving sincere attention, and having conversations. The difficult situation didn’t need to be addressed, but heartfelt interest in the person seemed to provide the missing nourishment.
The research showed me that anyone, at any time, can be the person who gives interest, caring, and presence in their interaction. Children who don’t receive this grow up to have adult bodies but are still missing that key piece of nurturance. It can be received at any time. Children in adult bodies can respond to sincere caring, and their emotional well-being can still be nourished.
A few months before the pandemic began, I waited in line at a grocery
store where the cashier was incredibly slow, seeming to stall on almost
every item she entered. I figured she must be new and wondered why there
was no one assisting her. My trips to town are infrequent and include a
ferry ride and a 40-minute drive. It’s a long wait if the ferry is
missed. I noted my irritation building at her slowness and errors. I
kept looking at my watch. Finally, the line moved to the person in front
of me. This man too had been waiting a long time.
He looked at the young woman and in a caring voice asked, “So how’s your day going?”
She looked at him, tears welled in her eyes, and answered, “Not too well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he replied. “Just take your time.”
I was amazed to see how this small interaction had such an effect on the young woman. Her slouched posture changed to an upright one, she looked at the items he was buying with focus and seemed to give her work re-newed effort. Someone had noticed her, looked at her, and spoken with kindness. I felt ashamed of my self-centered impatience, stepped forward for my purchases, and emulated the example he had shown: a smile, a comment about the weather, sincere thanks when done. She smiled back and held the posture and interest that would help her move this work along. Whatever was causing her bad day, and we rarely know what is going on in a person’s life, a shift happened. Neither the man ahead nor I could fix her problems, or the many problems people face in this world, in the same way that as a teacher I couldn’t fix the problems of my students, but I could infuse an energy of genuine care.
Each of us can choose to be a caring influence, offering connection and presence. These small moments, gestures, speech have huge potential to positively influence the emotional well-being of others. And from that small change, a new direction can be set, new possibility.
Anyone looking at the challenges of our world can see that so many people are facing difficulties. Thinking of fixing the difficulties feels overwhelming and hopeless. Yet remembering the students who overcame their situation, remembering the impact that kind man had on the young cashier, I am inspired that this is something I can do. Small choices of heartfelt care make a difference.