I saw Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last night for the first time (much thanks to Lauren for the suggestion and the DVD). The basic summary is that a wholesome country man becomes a U.S. Senator and finds himself tangling with political corruption and deceit.
Lauren pointed out that she appreciates the film because of the integrity displayed by the main character, Jeff Smith. He is a man of strong ideals and integrity, whose inherent goodness personifies the best in all of us.
What’s also remarkable is how Jeff Smith’s integrity inspires transformation in others. You can see this most clearly in how his idealism moves his secretary, Clarissa Saunders, from cynicism to hope.
Yet the film also demonstrates that heroes sometimes need to be reminded of who they are. SPOILER ALERT: In a pivotal scene, Jeff Smith is ready to call it quits, but Saunders comes in and lifts his spirits, reminding him of his vision for his people.
All heroes need this kind of reminder. All heroes have moments in which they doubt their ability to make a difference. It is in those moments that heroes need community that can look them in the eyes and say, “You can change things. I’m proof of that.”
I’m at the age now when many of my friends are having kids. I get to see babies grow and walk and talk, marveling at how quickly they change. My friends tell me that parenthood is hard, even painful, but also full of joy. I’m happy for my friends, and excited to see their kids grow up. My friends are also excited to see their kids get older, to see them go to school, make friends, and explore the world.
It’s exciting, but also bittersweet. Because as kids get older, parenting changes. When children are young, they rely on their parents as their primary emotional anchors. In fact, it’s natural for parents to serve as their babies’ primary emotional caretakers, just as they serve as their primary physical caretakers. Yet as children get older, their emotional needs become more complex. They enter into worlds that are completely foreign to their parents. They have experiences, emotions, and ideas that they can’t share with their parents, or at least not share fully. It’s not because children don’t love their parents; rather, as kids get older, having their parents involved sometimes makes things more complicated. For parents who are used to having their kids come to them for everything, that’s hard. For parents who taught their kids how to say “Momma, Dadda” to now hear their kids say, “Mom, Dad, I want to tell you what’s going on, but I can’t”…that must be hard.
What’s especially hard is when your kids are going through pain, but you can’t fix it. When your kids are young and they get a cut or feel sad or lonely, they come to you, and you help them feel better. But as they get older, they get cuts and wounds and pain that aren’t yours to heal. In fact, if you get involved, it would only make things harder. So you need to step back and let your kids’ friends and community and partners get involved. In that moment, you can’t help but remember when your kids were first born, when you held them close. Your friend said, “Can I hold them?”, but you hesitated, wondering if your friend will be careful. Now someone else is holding them and drying their tears, and it’s hard for you.
I’ve had to learn this for myself with my parents. I love my parents dearly. And it’s because I love them that I had to learn that they can’t be my sole emotional anchor anymore. I can’t rely on them to give me everything I need, just as I can’t rely on any one relationship to give me everything I need. I still go to my parents, but they are now part of a rich web of other relationships. If I still relied on my parents as my sole source of emotional fulfillment, then that would be a dysfunctional and disastrous relationship.
As kids get older, they need to grow up, but parents need to grow up too. Parents need to learn to let go of their kids. Because one day, sooner than you would like, you won’t be there for them anymore. There will come a day in which they will say, “Mom, Dad, I wish you were here”, and you won’t be able to hear them. You want to make sure that they are ready for that day, that they have friends and community and partners to help them. For one day, you won’t be there as their anchor anymore. On that day, you want them not to sink, but to sail on without you, carried by the love of others.
Have you ever had an acquaintance come up to you with some big news, and you didn’t know how to respond? You could tell that they were excited, but you didn’t know what to say.
Like if your coworker, who constantly fights with her boyfriend, says that they are moving in together. She’s thrilled, but you don’t think it’s a good idea. Yet how can you tell her that?
Or a classmate with shaky finances says that he is going to Las Vegas for his birthday. He’s super pumped about the trip, and you don’t want to get him down by telling him not to go.
In these situations, you may not feel inclined to rejoice, but you don’t feel comfortable voicing your concerns. What do you say?
I find that when people share exciting news, they’re not looking for the other person to also get excited. They are looking for someone to validate their feelings. “Here’s what happened to me, and here’s how it is affecting my feelings.” Instead of faking excitement, you can say, “Wow! That sounds like big news. Tell me more.” You shift the conversation from shared emotion to interest in the other person.
This approach is especially useful for thorny situations in which folks hold deeply rooted beliefs (hoo boy). For example, if you believe that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman, and your coworker says that she is marrying her partner, you may not feel ready to celebrate. But you can ask questions and express a genuine interest in your colleague. Or if you are an atheist and your classmate shares that he is baptizing his infant son, you may inwardly think that your classmate is telling lies to his kid, but you feel uncomfortable saying so. You can ask questions and engage.
Now, some may bristle at these examples. Some may say “You garbage person! You should feel happy for other people, regardless of what you believe!” But I maintain that you can’t tell people what to feel. Some people will respond to news with joy. Others will respond with sadness, or anger, or mixed emotion. Feelings are our knee jerk responses to events, based on our beliefs. Now, you can challenge the beliefs that undergird the feelings, but it doesn’t do much good to tell people what to feel. They’ll just get defensive about it.
Some may say, “I’m just going to speak my mind. If I think it’s wrong, then I’m going to tell them!” And if it’s your friend, maybe they’ll listen. But if you’re talking to acquaintances, how can you expect your words to change their minds? You don’t have that level of relationship yet. People will only open their hearts to you if they trust you. If you speak your mind without winning their hearts, you risk losing the relationship.
Some may say, “I don’t want to be friends with people who won’t be honest with me about how they really feel.” That’s fine, you can choose your friends. But that’s why in my examples, I referred to coworkers and classmates. You don’t need to be super buddies with everyone. But you need to get along with your team. After all, you’ll need everyone’s help to write that TPS report.
TL;DR – When coworkers, classmates, and casual acquaintances share news that excites them, but has you feeling uneasy, ask them to tell you more. You don’t need to fake excitement or walk away awkwardly. Engage, and show that you are interested in what they have to say. The goal isn’t for the other person to say “You were just as excited as I was about what happened.” The goal is to have them say “Thank you for listening.”