Tuesday, June 11, 2019

"Hey Buddy!"

Mom gave me plenty of good advice when our daughter was born. Among her pearls was this one:

"All young children want from adults is attention and they don't really care if it's positive or negative. So you might as well give them the kind of attention you want to give them because otherwise they'll take it, and you're not going to like how they take it."

These days, I would replace the word "attention" with "connection," but the core truth is one that I rely upon every day when working with young children. And, as late in the game as it is, I've in recent years come around to the understanding that this holds true for adult people as well.

Not long ago, I came across a scruffy looking man who was pestering a young woman as she apparently waited for her ride at the end of the day. I don't know what he was saying, but from her body language and expression it was clear she felt harassed. I approached the guy with my hand out, "Hey, buddy! Long time no see!" In an instant, his attention turned to me, his face lit up, he took my hand and robustly shook it, calling me "buddy" in return, the young woman forgotten in a flash of connection. The woman mouthed "thank you" to me as us buddies walked away together, chatting about this and that, trying to remember where we had met before.

Before parting ways, I said, buddy to buddy, that he ought not bug women on the street. "You scared her." He looked remorseful, saying that he knew it, "But I just wanted to talk to somebody and she looked nice."

"Well next time you should talk to me," and with that we parted ways, promising to talk again. We've not crossed paths since then, but whenever I'm in that part of town I keep an eye out for him.

Behavior is communication and very often that behavior, especially behavior that is "negative," is saying something along the lines of, "Notice me," "Pay attention to me," "Connect with me." People, children or adults, who are communicating like this are attempting, in mom's words, to "take" our attention from us. That means that the people in their lives have not been proactive enough in connecting with them. Or, even more sadly, that they have no people in their lives other than random buddies they run into on the street.

Behavior can, of course, communicate all sorts of things, but this seeking of connection is central to what makes us human. We are born needing connection in order to stay alive. Physicists and philosophers tell us that we only exist through our connections with others. Babies who are not touched, even if they are well-fed, roll over and die. Adults kept in solitary confinement more or less do the same.

The other day, I was sitting on a bench outside the Whole Foods waiting for my bus. Someone had tied their dog to a railing as they popped in for something. As I sat there, I saw person after person stop to acknowledge that dog, to coo at it, to pet it, to assure it, to play with it. Meanwhile, all but a few completely ignored the scruffy looking man sitting against a nearby wall, begging for spare change. We all know the truth about connection, but we don't always act on it, so we're left, time and again, having our attention taken from us in ways we don't like.

As I dropped some coins into the hand of the poor man outside the Whole Foods, I said, "Here you go buddy." He smiled up at me, "Thanks buddy." I could have done more, of course, but at least for a moment I gave him what he needed, and I'm not talking about the spare change.

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