No-one’s adolescence is perfect. During that most formative time of our lives, the words and actions of those around us shape how we see ourselves, whether for good or for ill. Many of us can trace our deepest wounds and/or insecurities to this formative time when we were so pliable and unformed. Some of these events were massive and dramatic, others were more insidious and seemingly innocuous. But they all played their part in making us who we are.
As many of you who have read Closer Still or heard me speak will know, I was bullied when I was a teenager. It was physical, it was verbal and it was frequent. It took me years to unravel those events in my mind and to allow God to heal those wounds.
Recently though, I’ve been thinking back to another voice in my life at that time. There was this (almost) daily event that meant to the world to me. I remember it so clearly because it meant so much … and yet I’m almost embarrassed to write about it because it seems to stupid and childish.
Every morning after I left the locker rooms (the place where I felt most insecure and unsafe), I would walk through a sandy playground and then over a concrete path onto the grass that led to the red-brick building where my next class was. More often than not, I would pass other students from other year groups who were making their way to PE and there was one in particular that I would look out for.
His name was Gavin and he was in the year above me.
Every time we passed each other, we would do that guy handshake/high-five-kind-of-thing. Our palms would slap together and then pull apart until our fingertips caught against each other and made a little “snap” sound.
And, every time we did, I felt better about myself in a way that is hard to describe.
I have no idea what Gavin thought about it. I wonder if he saw me as a friend or if he dreaded awkwardly meeting this desperate little kid every day on the grass. I doubt he even remembers it.
But I remember it.
I felt acknowledged. Known. Noticed.
I felt like more than a little kid. I felt like more than a victim.
This is the power that each one of us has. The cheapest gift we can ever give.
Acknowledging their presence.
Letting them feel known … or at least not feel anonymous.
So I’m trying to build this practice into my life … to learn people’s names in the random encounters that I have.
Keith is the barista at the games café I love and he has a fascinating and unusual knowledge of world history.
Tim is the barman at the Irish pub I go to on Saturdays when I want a good breakfast and to watch premiership matches. He has an oddly Irish accent for someone who has never been to Ireland which, apparently, comes from growing up in the Maritimes.
Imim is the barista at the 24 hour café I’m writing this in and he moved to Montreal from Tunisia.
Dimitri runs the little shop under my office and, despite what his name might lead you to believe, he’s from Egypt. I was astounded to discover that he prefers the snow of a Montreal winter to the heat of a Montreal summer … which explains why he left his homeland!
When you call someone by their name, something beautiful happens. Your interaction with them moves beyond being transactional and opens the door for friendship, community and relationship.
It’s the smallest thing in the world … but also one of the kindest and most powerful.
You can do for the strangers in your life what Gavin was able to do for me.
It’s an ability we forget we have to give someone the thing we forget that everyone needs.
So do it. Ask someone their name. Remember it and call them by it.
I promise you, it will change your life. And it might just change theirs.