Natural and Kind
“I’m one of my sensations.”
― Alberto Caeiro (pen name), The Collected Poems of Alberto Caeiro
I started thinking of my new year’s resolution, and a vivid mental image of an old photograph appeared in my mind. “This is my favorite photo, and I keep it on my desktop (screen),” said my dear friend Gabriel, when he first showed it to me. It had been taken at one of my work meetings. In that photo, I was absorbed in a newly finished diagram of project ideas I had been working on with my team members. I looked so silly and indelicate, my mouth and eyes so widely open, as if exclaiming, “WOW!”. I remembered how embarrassed I felt to see my staring face and wondering why this unflattering (by my judgement) image was his favorite among hundreds of me he had. He explained that this particular photo captured my true emotion at that moment, and he thought it was the essence of my being. While this exemplified how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it was deeper than that. That photo captured me fully engaged in meaningful work and oblivious of the camera. We like to see people fully engaged.
The conversation must have taken place at least four or five years ago, yet it often surfaces when I think of living myself to the fullest. Gabriel’s genuine remark revealed some incongruities in my self-image and made me wonder to what extent I am comfortable in my own skin.
This year, my 16 yr-old daughter gave me some expensive skin “brightening serum” as an Xmas present. I was elated at her care and thoughtfulness, and then gave a little chuckle. Am I vain? Even after 50 plus years of living, it is easy to slip into a certain kind of social conditioning that monopolizes our attention, carrying its vain cargo of hierarchy, materialism, ageism. An anti-aging facial cream is yet another “shiny object” to chase after we attain education, wealth, and social status. Where does it end?
One of our life goals is to achieve “congruence” between how we see ourselves (self-image) and who we wish we were (our ideal self). Although self-image and ideal self never completely overlap, the more they overlap the higher our self-esteem and self-actualization, according to the psychologist Carl Rogers (1902–1987). He explains that for a person to live to the fullest extent (self-actualization) they must be in a state of congruence, surrounded by significant others and close friends who can provide approval and support. After all, human interconnectedness is at the heart of our identity formation. And that interconnection is about giving and receiving a full spectrum of attention, care, and support. With so much of life based on electronic representation of reality, which is currently accelerated by the pandemic, we may risk losing touch with not only nature but ourselves.
One antidote to a culture of isolation and disconnection is to restore our “congruence” by being kind to ourselves and others. The memory of my deceased maternal grandmother has been my lighthouse and compass whenever I am treading water in the wild sea. She was solid in every way, beautifully present and selfless. She worked diligently and always spoke kindly. Her wrinkled face, never altered by cosmetics or hair dye, radiated with her beautiful expressions, and her dry, cracked hands made so many wholesome, delicious family meals and kept the house spotless. Her straight posture displayed inner composure. I grew up with her always beside me, taking good care of my sister and me. Every time my mom scolded me for whatever I did or did not do, my grandma always privately said to me, with her gentle voice and beautiful smile, “You’ve never done anything really bad, I know. You are a good kid.” And she always gave me warm hugs and patted my back gently. She was always on my side no matter what. Under her wing, I grew up carefree.
As the development of congruence is said to be dependent on unconditional approval and support, this suggests how we should relate to others and create a supportive environment for them, especially youth. While this is easier said than done, it is categorically possible and accessible to all of us, if we are mindful. “Arigato gozaimasu (Thank you so much)” was my grandmother’s habitual refrain to family members, even though sometimes it was over the top and made us all laugh. On 2022’s New Year’s Eve, I am embracing my sweet memories, hoping that I will be able to give others attention, care, and support, so we can be natural and carefree. And I will carefully use the brightening serum my caring daughter gave me.