William Blackford, 128 YinD
One of the most important things I have learned in Thailand is that if you want people to come talk to you, sit by the food.
Hands down my favorite thing to do at site is to share a meal with the people that have become my friends. So many of my best memories of feeling connected with people here are during meals. Crowded around the table, elbows perched on the wooden slats, reaching across to scoop from one the several dishes, talking, laughing, and teasing — this is the safe space.
Over these meals and at these tables I have choked back tears. I have shared frustrations. I have told tales of snow and mountains and a life long since passed. I have talked to people about relationships, marriage, polyamory, mothers, fathers, sexuality, gender norms, politics, authoritarianism, immigration, drugs, drinking, sex, and a hundred other things. I have ranted about the cultural differences that piss me off. I have told tales and heard many more. I have sat and shared a meal quietly with friends, a tacit understanding that we are all connected even when we say nothing to one another being shared within that silence.
To me, the simplest things are often the most impactful. A simple gesture, action, or word that communicates a shared understanding, familiarity, or intimacy. An action that says, you matter to me and I matter to you. Something that makes us feel seen.
Sometimes that’s really easy to do and sometimes it isn’t. I often find myself wishing people would do things that, to me, feel very easy to do. I think this is something we run into a lot in our work. It makes me feel such an immense amount of disappointment and loss. Every time I see a kid being left behind, ignored, or unseen, it hurts my heart.
A friend recently reminded me that maybe it’s not easy for them. The things that are easy for me, for us, may be insurmountable obstacles for others. My journey lately has been about trying to accept this, but some days it is rather difficult.
Every time you make a child feel seen in a world where everyone expects them to be invisible, obedient, and quiet, you are making an impact. That impact cannot be measured quantitatively. There is no indicator for “number of people who felt seen by you,” but rest assured that number exists somewhere within you and within those people. Every time you talk to someone who you now consider a friend about something outside of their experience you are making an impact. Every meal you share. Every smile. Every time you don’t hit someone. Every time you challenge a preconceived notion about your gender, race, or nationality.
If I could measure the impact of my service only in terms of meals shared, ideas challenged, and those moments of shared intimacy I would. Those things are so incredibly important. I want to cherish those things instead of focusing on all the things I think I’m not doing or should be doing differently.
That part within us that just wants to be seen defies age. Our kids are not the only ones who yearn to be seen. We do. The teachers we struggle with do. The government officials whose position of power seems mystifying do. The people who fight us at every turn do.
I want so badly to be seen — to be seen fully as I am, without all of the things that I use to cover myself, the things that mask pain, vulnerability, insecurity, fear, boredom, and all of those inconvenient emotions.
I see others using these same things that I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into and it makes me resent them. Phones, games, drugs, drink, Facebook — the list is endless. Really I am just afraid that I’ll keep putting more and more things in front of me to obscure my view of the world, that I will lock myself up in a cocoon of my own design.
The worst part is that the recognition that I’m sinking doesn’t stop it from happening. The slope is slippery and yet I still find myself drawn to it.
These desires to mask are powered by the same old fear, the one that was planted within me like a seed decades ago and still takes up a little bit of space — just enough to matter. The fear that whispers in the darkest parts of my heart, “there is nothing about you worth seeing.”
This is the same sentence I hear in my head every time I see a teacher punish a child for not conforming. It is the same thing I think when I see people who have done nothing get all of the recognition. It is the same thing I hear being screamed out loud whenever another kid in the back gets ignored and labeled a problem child.
We have the power to stop this cycle. For a day. For an hour. For a moment in time. We have the power, each and every one of us, to lift the burden of invisibility off the shoulders of someone for as long as we are able to hold it for them.
We have the power to say “I see you, and you matter to me.”
To read more from William Blackford check out his blog Stone Into Water