Beyond Room 119

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Self-fulfilling prophecies

Sometimes we doubt that we have any control over how our interactions with others go. Sure, we can change the way that we behave, but everyone outside of our individual bubble of one is untouchable. Though there was a time when I once believed this, I don’t think this is true anymore. We absolutely have the power to affect the behavior of those around us.

Take my colleague Jonathan, for example. Jonathan is working on his doctorate and is almost done. He had a class or two this past spring, and now he’s working on finishing his dissertation. Early this winter, we were talking, and I happened to ask him how his program was going. He expressed some frustration about getting started with his dissertation, and I responded with some words of encouragement. Mind you, it was a far cry from a “Remember the Titans” or “Rudy” style of motivational speech; instead, it was just a few sentences off the cuff as I responded to the person before me.

After that, Jonathan sent me a quick email to thank me for the encouragement. He kept me posted on his progress when we connected every month or so, and continued to thank me for my encouragement. Naturally, I responded by continuing to encourage him regarding whatever new hurdle was coming his way. The way that he responded to me impacted the way that I continued to respond to him, and thus a positive cycle was born. Had he not been so grateful or appreciative of what those few words meant to him, I doubt I would have been as expressive with future encouragement.

Or take the student that came into my office a few weeks ago. Ms. Schools is a lovely lady in her early sixties with a big billowing dress, perfectly coiffed hair, and a strong desire to finish her associate’s degree. As we walked to my office, I asked her how she was doing.

“Wonderful!” she responded. Mind you, it was about 9:30 in the morning, a time when most students’ responses are barely legible. Even from the beginning, she was showing herself to be outside of the norm.

“Are you always wonderful or has there been something special about today?” I asked her, genuinely curious.

“Oh honey, every day is wonderful!” she exclaimed.

As I we began talking and I started to answer some of her questions, she was so effusive in her praise. “Oh, thank you for showing me this!” she would say with such authenticity. “This is exactly what I needed!” Or a few moments later, “Oh my, this is just so helpful! Thank you!” As she continued to shower me with warmth and enthusiasm, I found myself responding in kind. I try my best to treat all my students with respect and to go beyond what they might expect, but with Ms. Schools, that was taken to a whole new level.

My encounters with Jonathan and Ms. Schools got me thinking about this again recently. If we do have the ability to impact the moods and actions of others, this turns every interaction we have into a powerful tool. No longer is the person before us just the cashier, just the waiter, or just a coworker. Instead, they become someone whose day we have the power to improve. They become an individual who is just as complex as us, and someone who, more likely than not, would be appreciative of some encouragement or inspiration. In short, each moment we spend with someone else can become a challenge: what can you do to make this person’s day better?

The gauntlet has been thrown. It’s up to each of us to decide if we’d like to accept the challenge.


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Venn diagrams

As I was falling asleep the other night, the thought hit me that relationships are like Venn diagrams. I had no idea where this thought came from, but I decided to roll with it and see where my mind went.

Most relationships, both platonic and romantic, begin something like this:

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Each person very much has their own specific identity and interests, and there is very little invested in that shared space of the relationship. This makes perfect sense, as it takes time to develop shared experiences, build trust, and grow together.

Over time, as relationships deepen, they start to look more like this:

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Each person still has his or her own identity, but the relationship – that shared area – has grown much larger. Shared laughter, exploring different experiences together, having more meaningful conversations, opening up, bringing the other person into more areas of one’s life – all these contribute to a deeper relationship.

Naturally, this made me think about different relationships in my life, both present and past, to see how they fit this model. I think about a close friend from college with whom I’ve shared so many experiences, so many moments, and let into my heart. One of the most beautiful aspects of that relationship is that our Venn diagram has an immense shared space, but our circles are far from overlapping entirely – even as roommates for three years and international travel buddies, we each maintained our own identities and kept what made us our individual selves alive and vibrant.

I think about friendships that I’ve developed since moving to North Carolina. With some of them, a single shared love (running) was the foundation upon which a much deeper relationship was built – one that now means as much as a familial bond.

I think about my relationships with my family, and how I wish that the shared space was bigger with many of them.

I think about people that I’ve dated. With some of those relationships, that shared space just sort of stopped expanding – which was usually a signal that it was time to have a conversation.

I think about all my relationships, and how they exist almost on a continuum. There are friendships that are sustained by a single shared interest, and it goes all the way up to friendships that have been strengthened by exchanges involving vulnerability, extreme trust, and letting someone deep into my heart.

A true relationship is one in which we open ourselves to the other person. One where we trust them enough to be our entire self with them – the goofy, quirky, singing in the car to Disney songs at the top of our lungs self with them. As C.S. Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’ ” It happens when we trust that the other person knows both our strengths and our flaws, and loves us anyways – and that gives us the freedom and safety to develop even more shared space.

Relationships can’t be perfectly mapped on a two-dimensional measure like a Venn diagram; they are much too complex and far too beautiful for two circles to entirely capture. With that said, I think it can be a useful tool to consider when we are trying to figure out why a particular relationship isn’t working or, on the flip side, why one does work so well. At the end of the day, however, it’s equally important to not rely on “tools” too much – sometimes, we just have to listen to what the heart has to say and to recognize that at times, it can be much more advanced than anything our brain may have to offer.