On Thanksgiving Day my wife and I traveled to visit our daughter and her husband, but most important of all, our grandson Ian. Ian is about two and a half years old, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say he’s the cutest and most wonderful two and a half year old boy on the planet. He is witty and wise, adventurous, always curious, and most of the time very gentle. Spotting a band aid on my finger that day he looked mournfully at me, pulled my finger to his lips and kissing it said “I a little sad. Pop pop has a boo boo.”
So on that Thanksgiving Day, while waiting for the massive turkey our son in law was roasting, my wife (mom mom) and I took Ian into his yard to run off some energy and have some fun. We ran and played and enjoyed a delightful autumn day. But then Ian got serious, pointing out all of the acorns on the ground under an oak tree and telling us that “the ‘quirrels like to eat the acorns.” It should be noted that Ian hasn’t yet figured out how to say the letter “s” when it begins a word. So you may think he is looking for his “tool,” but he actually wants his “stool.”
In any case, Ian went on to say that “the ‘quirrels are hungry” and that if we picked up the acorns and put them in a pile then “the ‘quirrels will be very happy.” Ian then directed his mom mom to go “over there” to pick up the acorns. When I volunteered to do the same Ian put up his right hand, very dramatically, in the universally recognized sign to “STOP,” and said with great firmness, “NO, pop pop, you stay here and watch.” This led my wife to retort “once again the women work while the men watch,” a charge I accept as likely to be true. So I stayed in my place, and waited to see what would happen next.
After making sure that I was in exactly the right spot, Ian proceeded to say with great exuberance “watch me pop pop, watch me!” and then ran toward the acorn gathering spot. Halfway there he stopped and turned, and I smiled, clapped, and waved, to which he grinned broadly and continued to run, turning to look back to make sure I was still watching. It was then that I realized something so simple that I overlook it again and again: how much we all yearn to simply be seen. Ian wanted to be seen, that’s all. He took such delight each time he looked up and saw me watching him, and saw the delight in my gaze as he gazed in delight back at me.
We all have some basic needs. Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, noted that physiological and safety needs were foundational, but that our need to be loved was paramount to both. And, in a way, the foundation of loving is simply being willing to see the other person, and the fulfillment of being loved is in knowing that we are seen in return by those who mean the most to us. Ian’s world of beloved people include his mama and dada, his grandma and grandpa, and his mom mom and pop pop. For Ian, being seen means everything, and I think simply being seen means everything to each of us.
Safety and being seen. To those of us who are therapists we know how important these two qualities are. No therapy client can do the hard work of psychotherapy without feeling safe, without feeling seen. Safety and seen-ness are felt experiences; the person whose presence transmits these qualities is a very special person indeed. And it may be that once a person truly feels safe and seen one’s psychic and emotional wounds begin to heal spontaneously.
I am writing this post in mid-December, a time of year called Advent to the billions of Christians around the world. Many people mistake Advent as “pre-Christmas,” a time to shop and buy and visit Santa Claus at the Mall and go to parties and drink egg nog. I’m not against these sorts of things; I enjoy them myself. But from the spiritual perspective Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time of anticipating the emergence of the Divine in a material world consumed with the mundane. Who is it that we wait and watch for? We can answer in religious ways, saying “the baby Jesus” or the angels announcing his birth and sing versions of Handel’s Messiah and feel quite content. As for me, I’m waiting and watching for the Divine in the form of my neighbor. And who is my neighbor? Ask that of Jesus, and you’ll get a story about the outcast, the despised person, a lowly Samaritan. In this Advent, your Advent, whether you are Christian or not, you may want to ask yourself this question: who is it that you truly watch for? Who is it that you truly see and make safe? Your answer to those questions will tell you what it means to you to be spiritual in this world. Answer carefully, as we live in a day and age when it is dangerous to be the outcast and the despised, and dangerous to be a person seeking to see and make safe the outcast and the despised.
Mindfulness: the intention to “see,” both literally and metaphorically, the entire bandwidth of phenomenal experience. Not judging what we see, accepting everything that comes within the range of our gaze. All Ian wants is to be safe and to be seen. Will you do that for the people you meet today?
PS Here’s a photo of Ian with his Pop Pop getting on “the BIG train!”