Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reflections on SAS and Community

THIS IS GON' BE A NOVEL, Y'ALL. But I don't want to leave anything out. Scan for keywords if you're pressed for time.

It's been a couple of months now since SAS ended, and several people have been curious to know what I learned from the summer experience. So glad you asked.
First of all, I learned a few things about myself. I know now what limits I can be pushed to with clutter, mess, and dirty dishes before I have to step in. I know how Atlantans and rush hour affect my driving. I know where my personality is flexible and where it will not budge. I know that I am, self-classified, a "friendly introvert." So I guess you could call it a summer of self-discovery.
I also learned a lot through my internship. I feel like this blog was a place where I was able to process a lot of what I was experiencing through my work with the kids, the babies, and the adults. In many ways, I see it as a sort of verbal scrapbook that I can flip through, both now and later. And I know that if a time comes when my feelings- the urgency with regard to early behavioral intervention, the peace housed in altruism through infant care, and the indignation at mistreatment and undervaluing of the mentally ill and physically disabled- if those things begin to fade, I will have these snapshots to guide me back.
But I have yet to touch on some of the greatest, most practical eye-openers that connected with me this summer. My experiences at work were life-changing for me, but I recognize that the translation is limited since it fixates around the tangible encounters I had. What I learned about community and interpersonal interaction, though, can apply to anyone who is/was/wants to be engaged in a successful community. That should cover most of us. So here is the main thought, broken into a couple of subcategories:
The more I study people (and the more I am a person, which is always), the more I feel convinced that majority of our problems as humans are caused by a breakdown in communication. If you can eliminate misunderstanding, you can provide an avenue for positive change by actually working through rather than around an issue. I think Socrates would probably agree on this one, but I'm even talking about more than just discourse via the Socratic method. Confrontational discourse is often a necessary tool in conflict resolution, but I see it as more treatment of symptoms rather than disease prevention. Why waste so much effort working through life twice- once in rash decision and the other in retrospection? The most helpful part of understanding other people, then, is being proactive to observe them and learn their perspective. If you can affirm and support people in a custom-tailored way, you can build healthy relationships.
I made a couple of observations this summer that I think are particularly helpful to keep in mind when getting to know people.
First: THE WAY YOU EXPRESS AFFECTION TO PEOPLE MATTERS. (Would that I could've arrived at this conclusion through a door rather than banging my head against a wall until I made a hole large enough to crawl through.) In Gary Chapman's book The Five Love Languages, he outlines several (5, if we're getting technical) ways that people show and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and gifts (I would actually add a sixth: acknowledgement of presence/absence). The idea is that everyone receives and shows love in different ways and, for most people, the way you show love corresponds to the way you receive love. This summer it really connected in my mind that misguided efforts at showing love and care can be one of the most damaging mistakes in any kind of relationship, because if one or both sides fail to recognize the root of the problem, everyone inevitably burns out. Effective, intentional, personal efforts not only convey love but also indicate an understanding of the other person.
The second idea is this: EVERYONE WANTS TO BE KNOWN FOR SOMETHING. In my experience, even most less-than-favorable qualities people seem to want to be known for can be traced back to a deeper need for positive affirmation, as the Strain theory of delinquent behavior seems to imply. If you can affirm people where it seems most important to them to be affirmed, you can stave off most of the stress that comes from people feeling the need to prove themselves. Conversely, don't expect people to sell a product they're not advertising. You will only frustrate yourself and others if you rely on people to help you in areas that they don't even claim to be strong in. It's okay to go to different people for what you know they specialize in, whether it is making you laugh, going deep, or just telling/appreciating a good story. Not to say you should never push your friendships beyond their comfortable borders. But those uncharacteristic experiences should be pleasant surprises rather than expectations, in my book.
I think I will close with an idea that started forming surreptitiously in my mind this summer but developed much later, in fact just this past week, in my comparative literature class: Probably everyone would agree that some part of community must be based on love. Until last Wednesday, I had taken the concept for granted, never really stopping to analyze what "love" meant. When prompted in class to give a definition, though, this is what I came up with:
Love is allowing yourself to acknowledge the good in someone and then, knowing that the person will inevitably let you down, hurt you, and anger you at some point in time, Love is choosing to invest yourself in them anyways, in order to help make sure they feel supported in every way.
After this summer, I can say I wholeheartedly believe that a community grounded in understanding and Love will have the strength to overcome any adversity.

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