“Putting Gladness out Front” *
I am currently engrossed in two very powerful nonfiction books, “The Myth of Normal,” by Dr. Gabor Maté and Michelle Obama’s “The Light We Carry.” The books, holiday gifts from dear friends, are on the surface, very different. One is academic; the other, personal. One mostly focuses on the problem for the first two-thirds before getting to solutions; the other integrates solutions throughout.
And yet I have found a common theme that informs my Mussar journey and has become my one and only New Year’s resolution. It’s what Michelle Obama calls “starting kind.” In Mussar terms, it’s kavod (honor) and chesed (lovingkindness).
“The Myth of Normal” is subtitled “Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture.” Maté describes how in our modern world, we too often neglect the roles of trauma and the stresses of everyday life on our physical health. He emphasizes the often-ignored mind/body connection. And he talks about the need to honor children from their first days to build a strong foundation for loving and learning.
“The parent’s primary task, beyond providing for the child’s survival requirements, is to emanate a simple message to the child in word, deed and (most of all) energetic presence, that he or she is precisely the person they love, welcome and want,” Maté writes.
Obama also describes children’s need for acceptance. She tells the story of author Toni Morrison, who asked the audience during a televised interview on Oprah’s Book Club: “When a kid walks in the room, your child or anybody else’s child, does your face light up? That is what they are looking for.”
Obama writes, “What Morrison was doing for her kids is what my own parents did for me: She was giving them a simple message of enoughness. She was validating their light, that unique bit of brightness inside of each of them….”
Both Maté and Obama point out that we are quick to offer (and experience) criticism before acceptance; that we require others (and are also asked by others) to prove worthiness to win approval.
“It’s worth saying, of course, that messages of gladness and enoughness can be generally hard to come by in life, and seldom are they delivered up front,” Obama says.
Their words made me reflect about how I greet the people I love – my spouse, kids, grandkids. My husband, Irv, sleeps later than I do. If I am home, I’ll call “Good morning” from my office or the kitchen when I hear him get out of bed. “Good morning!” comes his unfailingly upbeat and warm reply. And when the grandkids arrive at my carpool, my eyes light up as I greet them.
However, too often there are times when a loved one walks into the room, and I address them with judgment rather than joy. “Did you brush your hair?” “Are you wearing THAT shirt to school?” “Those pants are stained. Please change them.”
So this week, I have begun my practice of “putting gladness out front.” To feel and express kavod and chesed rather than judgment and conditional acceptance.
I got to practice at 0-dark-30 this morning, when my granddaughter, Selam, unexpectedly appeared at our house while I was still in bed, awakened by barking dogs.
My first reaction when she quietly climbed up the stairs: “What are you doing here?”
“I forgot my book,” she replied, rushing into her room while her mom waited in the car to take her to school.
“Oh. OK. I love you. Have a good day at school,” I said, recovering and remembering to greet her with joy in tone and words rather than express the annoyance rising from the unwelcomed and unexpected wake-up call.
Though it was no longer possible for me to get back to sleep, it was an opportunity to apply my resolution. And as I thought about it, I appreciated that by “putting gladness out front,” I was actually living my truth. Because no matter what the hour or the circumstance, getting even a quick glimpse of my granddaughter brings me a feeling of joy. So why not express it? Why not have my face light up?
2023: The year of kavod and chesed – "starting kind" by celebrating the light of those I love from the moment I see them.
*Michelle Obama, “The Light We Carry,” Chapter 3, p. 81