I adore one particular quote from Virginia Satir, the noted author, therapist, and pioneer of family therapy. You know how it is…when you run across the sentiments of a great thinker – a poet, a musician, an artist of any sort – and you wonder how in the devil they managed to peer into your soul. That note of familiarity, kinship that’s summoned when you realize you’re not the first, last or only person to nod deeply in recognition…
“I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.
The greatest gift I can give is to see, hear, understand and to touch another person.
When this is done I feel contact has been made.”-Virginia Satir
I’m not ashamed or embarrassed by a quote that moves me. More often than I could ever count, my reactions are more jubilant than simple nods of acknowledgement. When moments of “knowingness” arrive, they eclipse everything else in view. Tears come easily and waves of peace follow…an odd trail of tranquility – maybe fleeting – but insight, nonetheless.
In my roles as a professor and therapist, I valued the importance of attending to each student, client, person as an individual. Even in a large lecture class, taking the time to get to know my students mattered immensely, and the starting block? Always the same. Know their names. From their names, everything else that matters flows: Learning about their talents, skills, aspirations, fears, needs.
For me to feel effective in my teaching and helping roles, I needed to get up to speed with the basics, so the enriching and magnificent nuances of ‘knowing’ could flow freely into the composites I held in my head and heart. I’m a compulsive note-taker, but I found early in my career that “being with” another required dedication of all the senses, especially listening and observing…less about note-taking.
Satir knew this when she said, ‘the greatest gift…is to be seen…heard…understood’. Yes! When one of my former students, E.F. reached out recently to thank me for a letter of recommendation, she made a point of expressing her appreciation – not just for my endorsement of her for a graduate school fellowship – but to acknowledge the role I played in motivating her to be her best. Satir’s wisdom in action. Let me share…
E.F. was new to the U.S. when I met her seven years ago and she was the first in her family to attend college. In her very first semester, she became pregnant and nearly dropped out, feeling defeated before she’d even begun. Her family – mom, dad and two younger siblings – suffered from the rapid cultural transitions, language barriers and all things financial when the moved – especially housing and transportation challenges.
Despite those hardships, her parents prioritized education and wanted E.F. to set an example for her brother and sister, which translated into a pressure-packed existence for sweet E.F. She hid her pregnancy from her family for months and showed up to my class late, looking fragile and green-around-the-gills.
I suspected but didn’t intrude… I always had crackers and granola bars in my teaching bag of tricks, and I’d lay them out by the lectern, for any student who was hungry or just needed to nosh. No questions…and I noticed E.F. routinely taking a snack, especially the protein granola bars.
Eventually she told me her news, but it was in a paper she wrote about ‘her greatest struggle’ as it related to a psychological theory we were studying. I loved how she disclosed her situation to me in the safest way possible – in a paper where I couldn’t openly shun her or give a disapproving scowl (not that I would have – but she didn’t know that). Following her lead, I returned comments to her in writing, thanking her for trusting me with her news and bit by bit, we built a connection, across the semester while her sweet son, J.P. was in utero, along for the ride.
I encouraged E.F. to use health services on campus and the job placement office, reminded her of tutoring and academic supports, all while celebrating – honestly and sincerely – her writing talents and gift of expression. Not as a ‘non-native speaker’ but as a talented writer – period.
When E.F. reached out a few months ago to ask if I remembered her and if I might write a letter of recommendation, she shared that J.P is now six years old and she’s been married to his father, happily for five years. The last I’d heard from her was an email with a baby announcement when her sweet son was born. This was magnificent news!
Did I remember her? Of course. And I shared I’d be thrilled to write a letter of support. I love doing that and try very hard to make each recommendation as heartfelt and specific as possible. Same when I’m privileged to be an employment reference. In E.F’s case, she was a finalist for a prestigious fellowship – one that would provide a sizeable stipend as well. She provided the details that helped me write a compelling letter and I sent it off…thinking good thoughts.
When I heard from E.F. right before Christmas, she shared her great news – she was awarded the fellowship. I was ecstatic! But as I read past the first paragraph, I began to cry, because she also wrote this:
“I think you should know that you made a difference in my life the first day I met you. I was scared but you took the time to get to know everyone’s names. Even mine that was hard to pronounce. You didn’t make a joke or stumble, you just asked me to repeat my name a couple of times until you got it right. In every other class that semester, the teachers didn’t bother to learn my name or how to say it. But you did and even though I was still scared, you made me feel like I belonged. And you always did that. Made me feel like I could. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Humbled doesn’t begin to describe how E.F. made me feel. Overwhelmed AND humbled? Grateful? Yes, certainly, but more than that, her full circle sharing of how ‘being seen’ mattered to her when she was vulnerable…so very vulnerable…is a reminder to me that we cannot know how our acts of kindness, just as Virginia Satir suggests, through seeing, hearing, understanding, are impactful. They just are.
Thank you for reading! Please visit my personal blog at www.victoriaponders.com or follow me on Instagram at @victoria.atkinsongroup