When it hurts to hug
Originally appeared on spirituality.com
“Be sure to hug the children goodnight!” the headmistress told me on my first day of work. Sounded like a wonderful idea. But within a day or two I learned how hard it would be to put into practice.
I’d just finished graduate study and started work in a residential school for children. Most of the kids, who ranged in age from 5 to 13, were there because they had difficulties living with their own families.
The challenges quickly became obvious. William arrived with a bald spot on his head because his dad had grabbed him by his hair in anger and pulled out a fistful. Then there was Joan, an only child who alternated between feeling deep rage toward her mother and crying over her for days.
As time went on, I knew I wasn’t responding to the children’s real needs. There wasn't much time between the daily tasks of getting kids up in the morning, overseeing chores, cooking for a crowd, teaching school, playing games, planning field trips.
One day I counted 19 major crises, including stealing, lying and swearing. I began to feel like a failure. I was still giving goodnight hugs, but exhaustion and frustration made them tentative, tinged with irritation rather than genuine affection.
Over the December holidays, I poured out my difficulties to a friend who was also one of my former teachers. I was facing the prospect of six more months at the school and I wanted to do more than just survive each day. The conversation got onto a spiritual track and I soon realized I needed a new point of view.
When I returned to work, I took time to pray with ideas I found in two of my favorite books on spirituality: the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. I kept track of my insights, questions and ideas in a daily journal.
Science and Health describes God this way: “Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation.”
I was inspired by the idea that God is a tender, loving Mother as well as a strong, supportive Father who cherishes His/Her children. Could I see these kids as being cared for by this Father-Mother? And could I try harder to express that same kind of love and care? The answer came in the form of an inner nudge—to write down something I appreciated about each child.
I thought back over the past weeks and months. There were things I hadn’t appreciated enough. Shauna helped the younger kids practice their musical instruments. Jake’s snow sled jumps were breathtaking and his courage contagious. Joan, who’d never held a broom in her life, was doing a better job sweeping the floor.
As I noticed and appreciated these things, I actually began to witness the inherent strength, beauty and goodness in each child. Joy welled up in me as I felt the presence of God’s love melting the coldness in my heart.
After several days of filling my journal with these positive affirmations, I tacked a large sheet of butcher paper across the dining room wall and wrote one thing I appreciated about each child. The next morning when the kids came to breakfast, I read the list out loud. The children blushed and giggled.
Then it was my turn to blush—they wrote and illustrated their own stories of appreciation for me and for each other—little acts of kindness, small accomplishments. Our wall became a mural of gratitude.
From then on, I found it easier to be patient with the kids. I thanked them when they did something helpful and positive—and they smiled back. Mundane jobs became opportunities for creativity and growth. Together we worked out a new routine for doing chores to music—the faster the music, the faster the chores got done.
As the year drew to a close, I realized our “appreciations” were building blocks for the children’s future, helping them value and build on their inherent goodness and strength as they matured.
Fast forward to many years later, when I was living in another state. I ran into one of the children, now grown, at a movie theatre. It looked as though she’d held her own in the intervening time. She mentioned how much she had loved being in our “family.” It had been a tough time in her life, but she'd worked through it because she felt someone cared for her.
I don't claim to have mastered the art of appreciation. But my spiritual practice is helping me see and appreciate the divinity in each of us. The discipline it takes is worth the effort, because it’s this kind of love that transforms my own thinking and helps me work to heal the hurts of others. And with this deeper understanding of divine Love my hugs have become more meaningful, too.