Driving to school last week, I asked my teenage daughter, “What do you think is the biggest difference between life in Egypt and life here in Minnesota?”
We’ve been back and forth between the States and the Middle East multiple times in the last years, and I was curious about her emerging perceptions.
Without hesitation, she replied, “People in Egypt actually love their kids, not like here.”
I wasn’t expecting that.
My mind first went to: Did she think I didn’t love her? Should I take this personally? Is she trying to tell me something?
I took a deep breath as my stomach tightened slightly, and probed for more, “What do you mean? Tell me more about that…”
(I can take things quite personally at first; she reassured me later. But I digress)
“Well, I mean like my friend, xxx,” she continued, “Her parents are always doing their own thing, and even when I am over there and they are around, they never ask me or her any questions, we never talk about anything. It’s like they seem like they don’t even like their children and aren’t interested in their children. When friends come to our house, you always sit down and talk to them and include them and make them feel welcome and like you care about them. I never feel that way when I visit other people in Minnesota, but I always feel welcome when I am in Egypt. It’s like my family in Egypt actually wants to get to know their kids and their friends, but here, not so much, you know?”
“Yes … I think I get what you mean …”
“Here, it’s like people just have children because it’s what you are supposed to do. Like go to college, get a job, get married, have children. But I just don’t feel like people care about who the children are, just if they get good grades and stuff. It’s different.”
We pulled up to her school and she got out with a quick, “love you” as she rushed off to her first class.
This conversation stuck with me.
It got me reflecting upon how we let people know that they matter, that they are important to us, that they are valued.
It got me wondering whether I was valuing achievement, tasks, performance just a little bit too much or whether I was creating enough room in my life for my loved ones to experience the love, instead of just holding it as an intellectual idea.
What cultural practices support relationships and community?
Which ones don’t?
I’m not telling you this story to make generalizations about individualistic or collective cultures or Egyptians and Minnesotans because there is way too much variety and variation in all of our various cultures and sub-cultures for that to be practical or fruitful for our purposes here today together.
Instead, I’m sharing this from deeply personal and very subjective place. (It’s all we ever really “know” anyway.)
Here’s another micro-example.
In the culture of my own upbringing, greetings and goodbyes were cultivated in social situations, more than in my experiences in the places I’ve lived in the States.
When my daughter’s friends come over, their default by and large has been to ignore me unless I directly cross paths with them in the house, and they would often leave without letting me know they were on the way out. I don’t see anything wrong with this at all – I see how this meets a lot of needs for ease and simplicity.
That said, I long for a connection – however brief – with whoever is coming and going in my own home.
So, I’ve made a point of letting all my daughter’s friends know to please come and find me and say hello when they arrive (I often have to model this for them multiple times to encourage them before they believe me) and also to come and say goodbye to me when they leave. I make a point of being warm, friendly, relational, curious.
These days, it’s the norm when her friends come over, for them to seek me out too instead of silently skulking in and lurking in distant rooms in the house, out of sight. This meets my needs for inclusion, belonging, community and safety – and, everyone knows that they matter, and that they are seen and welcomed – myself included.
As this last school year came to an end, my daughter told me that all the seniors gathered on the third-floor landing overlooking the school cafetaria and (with much glee) threw all their papers and books and school-work over the railings, into the common area, leaving a huge mess for the school staff to clean up.
My daughter told me about this with a mixture of horror and delight.
Horror, because I mean seriously? And delight, because it was a huge F-You to the establishment – a perfectly developmentally appropriate sentiment.
When school “celebrations” are reduced to aggressively trashing the school, I have to wonder. These aren’t the actions of people who have felt nurtured, seen, known or valued by their school community – a school community, by the way, that has been on lock-down for violence and school fights on multiple occasions during the last year. Ugh.
Perhaps it’s not even so much this single and particular incident that bothers me (I mean, I have relished in my own share of paper shredding and decluttering when I have been in transitions too), but rather the context within which this event happened.
Not a single one of my daughter’s friends told me about a thank-you card that they wrote to a teacher who had a meaningful influence on them this year. No-one told me a story about how they went to express appreciation to anyone at their school. A variety of seniors this year told me they weren’t even going to bother going to graduation, because “no-one would notice anyway” and “it’s not like anyone really knows me or would miss me there.”
When I am only witnessing one kind of “celebration” with a distinct absence of other forms of “celebration,” it gives me pause.
I feel sad about that. I feel sad about how directly I need to coach my own daughter to do what often feels like counter-cultural things in her social milieu – and, I imagine many of us are feeling this, no matter what cultures we are in.
The presence of somethings, and the absence of other things make up the contexts in which we live: a wide range of human needs are either attended to, or not.
Connected relationships simply take intention, effort and attention, no matter where you live or what culture you are from.
And it only takes one small step … for example:
inviting people to say hello or goodbye
talking to your children and their friends about who they are
paying attention to people when they are speaking
showing an interest in what interests others around you
putting down your phone and making eye contact with your loved one
And so in the spirit of being more relational in the world, more connected to one another, and in the spirit of really having our actions line up with our deeper values, let’s pause and take stock this week:
Do the people who are important to you in your life, actually feel valued, seen and heard?
Are you as present and engaged as you want to be with people who matter?
Do you spend your time and attention in alignment with your deepest values?
Do the structures of your life nurture presence and slowing down with others?
Is there a deeper conversation that you’d like to have with someone this week?
What is one step you can take this week to be more relational and responsive with people who matter to you?
What is one conversation you can have with more presence, more gentleness and more connection?
I hope you find a way this week to Take One Small Step to nurture bonds with those you love.
Remember: The way we show up with others actually shapes and creates the culture that we all live in.
Let me know how it goes and leave a comment below!