One time, when I was a young teenager, as I walked in the front door of my house, I got into trouble. I didn’t know that my mother was right behind me and I let the screen door close instead of holding it open for her. She was irate and reprimanded me. This stuck with me for a long time and I thought of it occasionally over the years. At the time, I was indignant because I thought it was so unfair to be scolded for something that I didn’t realize was happening, because I really, truly had no idea that she was behind me. In my mind, I was yelled at for not predicting the future. I can remember saying to myself over and over inside my head, but I didn’t know she was behind me! How can she be mad at me for not knowing something? Even now, thirty years later, I can still remember the feeling of not understanding why she was so angry. At the time, I kept replaying it over and over in my mind to see if I was missing something. I wish I could say that I came to understand the part I was missing soon after, but I did not.
It took a long, long time before I understood why she got mad. Years. Many of them. I wonder if my mother had had the ability, then, to articulate this lesson, which I am going to attempt to do right now, would I have been able to get it? Teenagers are narcissistic and see things through one lens only: self. This isn’t a criticism, it is an observation, but one that is often made scathingly and therein lies the problem. We don’t offer teenagers the opportunity to learn how their ignorance affects others. This is not a criticism of my mom. She had three other younger children to deal with, dinner to cook, a house to maintain, etc. Who has the energy to explain this lesson to a defensive, snippy, angry teenager with so much else going on? And even if she could have, would I have been receptive? I think that collectively we need to make ourselves aware of the huge impact awareness can have on everyone’s lives.
This is a lesson I have struggled to teach my own daughter. She has never let a door close on me, but we repeatedly bump heads over her lack of respect for other people’s time. While she was growing up she had a nickname in our house: five-to-seven. We called her five-to-seven because it always took her five to seven minutes longer than anyone else to get ready. Or to come out to the car where we were waiting to leave. I won’t deny that there were many instances where I simply yelled at her and warned that I would leave her if she wasn’t in the car by the time I was. But also tried to teach her the lesson of awareness that eluded me so many years ago. I tried to help her to see how her behavior affects others. We had sit down conversations and I painted the big picture for her.
It did not result in her having a renewed sense of perfect time management or transform her into the one ready to go on time, every time. I think it is just in her to take forever getting ready, this may never change, or at least maybe not until she possibly has children of her own one day. Our conversations did, however, change her awareness. Now she understands how her behavior, any behavior, not just her time management skills, affects those around her. She is aware of others as opposed to just self. This awareness translates into all aspects of life. This awareness is what can change the world.
We are all so wrapped up in our own feelings and our own problems we don’t often take off the lens of self and view how our choices affect those around us. This includes things as simple and inconsequential as being a good conversationalist to heavy things like understanding what it’s like for a Black person living in America. I have spent the past several years intentionally becoming aware. Or woke, if you prefer. But my definition is broad and includes being aware in every situation, all the time, not only in regards to social injustices. I mentioned using awareness to be a good conversationalist. I think this is an excellent place to start. It is small but requires intentional discipline. If you are like me and love to talk, this can be hard to do! But the fact that I can do it despite being a “talker,” means that you can too. You can practice becoming a more “aware” conversationalist, and then use this model in all aspects of your life. Become a more aware friend, partner, fellow shopper in a store, son, spouse, sister, boss, American, human.
As you sit and converse with someone, or a group of people, pay attention. Who is doing most of the talking? What are their (or your) words accomplishing? Is everyone being included in the conversation? Is anyone cutting anyone off? And are they doing it especially to further their own agenda (which could be as simple as being the center of attention)? When you take your turn talking, how and what are you contributing? Are you doing it simply to avoid silences? Are you moving the conversation forward? Is it a conversation at all or just a bunch of people sitting around listening to you? Look at people’s faces. How are they reacting to what each person is saying? When someone says something that sparks an idea in your own head of what you’d like to say next, do you stop listening and only focus on what you want to say? Do you continue to really hear what the other person is saying? Could the other person be saying more than what their words are conveying? Is there an underlying cry for help? Complaint? Praise? Are you really hearing what the other person is saying? Are you even giving them a chance to say it?
This may seem overwhelming for someone new to becoming aware. It sure can be. But a great first step is to just listen. What better way to attune yourself to the people and world around you than to stop and listen? And it does work. You know how you can learn a skill in one specific area, but later, while doing something completely different you find that old skill comes in handy? This is like that. If you practice awareness with something small, like in a conversation, your listening, identifying, recognizing, and interpreting skills will show up later in all sorts of situations. You might be setting your alarm for the next day when you have to go to an event. You might think of how important the event is for the person you’re going with and know that you want to honor that and you might set your alarm five to seven minutes earlier to be sure you are ready in time. Or you might be walking in your front door, knowing there was someone behind you at some point, and you might stop with your hand on the door and look back, to see if they are coming right behind you.