You know those things you sign up for thinking you are going to “help” in some way? You may do it out of a true desire to “serve” or a desire to be less selfish, to give back, to show gratitude for what you have. You may do it out of guilt, or because “everyone else is” and it’s the “cool” thing to do or the “uncool” thing to NOT do….or you may have gotten roped into doing something you have no desire to be a part of for whatever thousands of reasons we do and don’t do things.
But! Then you show up. And you do “it” whatever “it” is. And it’s weird and scary and confusing and awkward, and you wonder how in the heck you can justify being there for “free” when there are a million other things you could be doing. Your mind wanders, which makes you more confused and uncomfortable. But you push through, for whatever the reason you keep showing up. And then it happens, and it’s almost always around the words.
She asks you a question. He looks at you with questioning eyes, asking for help. He smiles a shy “thanks” as you pass him a plate; she swipes away a tear as you move on to the next person. He asks you what your kids’ names are; she presses a handmade card into your hand; he runs over for a “high 5”. And you are hooked on this feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself. You get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in a world where you are valued and noticed for what you bring to others when you show up, a world where everything is so…well..not all about you. And for a few minutes/hours each day/week/month, you get to live outside yourself and melt into a world where you are just a planet-dweller, helping another planet-dweller, who might need a little of what you have to share that day.
Overly sappy? Maybe. True? Absolutely.
This has happened so many times that it no longer surprises me. It happened when I was a part of Vacation Bible Schools and mission trips as a teenager. It happened when I coached Girls on the Run (GOTR) in 2012, when I went to Guatemala last year and when serving as a medical volunteer at the Special Olympics. It happens when babysitting or “woMANning” a booth. It happens anytime I volunteer to work even a few hours in a serving capacity, whatever it may be. There is always a moment when someone “gives” me something, a smile, a hug, a gift, a word, something that usually takes my breath away in the moment as time stands still…….and then it all picks up and the second hands start sweeping again. Granted, I know that by being present and doing the actual work of whatever is required that day, we are helping people. I don’t mean to discount that. But I do mean to make the point that what I learn and take away from these types of experiences is ALWAYS more than anything I feel like I give.
As we are gearing up for another Girls on the Run season, I was reminded of the most recent time this happened to me. The final lesson of this last season included the “Word Chair” activity. I remembered this activity from previous coaching, and because I am a WORD person, I was alert to what this activity might do for the girls. See, I know the power of words, the ones we say to ourselves and the ones we say to others and most definitely the ones others say to us. We’d been with these girls all season and had grown to look forward to seeing them, what they would say, how they would identify with the lesson. We’d grown to like these girls, and I intentionally say like, because it’s more personal than love to me in situations like this.
For the activity, each girl takes a turn sitting in “the chair” with her back to the rest of the group waiting across the yard. When it’s your turn, all of the other girls and coaches quietly run up to you, whisper a word or phrase in your ear they think describes you, and quietly runs back to the line. It’s a way for the girls to express some of the core values of the organization, things like joy and confidence. Like being proud of who you are, being intentional in your choices, and feeling empowered to change your life and the world in the ways that you can uniquely do. (Seriously if you don’t know about Girls on the Run, you should take the time to check it out, if every girl in America (and the world) could learn these lessons at THIS age, our world would be a very different place.) The lesson made it clear that coaches had to take a turn in the chair, and so Brenda and I did just that. Despite knowing the power of these activities and believing and basing my whole life on the power of words, I had so much going on in my head that day (last class, don’t forget announcements, get handouts to parents, is everyone ready etc to infinity) that I sat down for my turn without really preparing. Which was not so much a mistake as it was a jarring emotional bodyslam.
“Your smile makes me happy”. “Encouraging”. “Inspiring”. “Show us you care”. “Believe in Me”. “Beautiful”. “Fun”. “The best coach ever”. “My friend”. “Great coach”. “My favorite”. “Love to see you”. “Make me believe I can do anything”. “Make me see I am a good person”. “Make me believe I can run”. “Confidence giver”. “Best coach ever”.
WHAT THE WHAT? These are 3rd-5th grade girls, that I spent time with for less than 4 hours a week for 12 weeks. Barely enough time to even get the lessons done most days. Long enough to have a couple of days where I showed up in “not the best” mood and worried that would show through. Short enough to wonder if they had gotten what they needed to complete the course. But this? This is what they learned from and saw in ME? (And it wasn’t just me, the other coaches got these sweet words too!). It made me cry so hard I couldn’t turn around for a bit. I was trying really hard not to go into the back-wrenching sobs that would have set Brenda off again (we’d already had one emotional “circle-moment” earlier. Not that GOTR is all about crying, don’t be scared!)
What I realized AGAIN, this time through whispered voices of girls who weren’t all yet in double digits, is that our WORDS MATTER. They matter SOOOOO much you guys. Like maybe more than anything. I know I’ve written about this before, but I am coming to realize more and more that this is actually my “message”. The thing I am most passionate about. I’ve seen what GOOD words can do and I’ve seen what BAD words can do. I’ve seen words give life and hope to people and I’ve seen words take away those very things. Often it doesn’t take many words at all to do either of these, which is perhaps the saddest and greatest part of the power of words. They don’t take tons of time to share, but they can always be used to build.
Think of all the places you go everyday (even if that’s mostly within your house) you can use your words to build, encourage, inspire, educate, shed light, share information, motivate and validate. I was talking to my friend Lori just yesterday about this and she shared a recent time where she had the chance to CHOOSE to connect with someone at work. A person she initially resisted engaging with. She intentionally pushed through that and made him laugh, which in turn led to an interaction that changed HER day. What if we all considered that a little more carefully? What if we thought a little more about the words we say, and just as much (if not more) about the words we don’t say. What if we resisted saying those words that we KNOW are going to push, irritate, discourage, deny or kill, whether in the words themselves or in the ways we say them to those we know best how to hurt. What if we just did that? Who needs your words? Is it hard for you? You aren’t alone. But I know some 5th graders who have some skills you might learn from.