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To love another into being
A human-to-human search of awe and wonder
I ended my last post with a dear quote from Fred Rogers, acknowledging his immense gratitude for those “who have loved us into being”. It’s interesting, I’ve mentioned in a few spaces my earnest admiration for the deep humility and care with which Mister Rogers approached his work, and my own personal intention to be like him in the ways I carry myself. At times, this comment has seemed to perplex the listener and I recognize it may perplex you, dear friend, as you question the parallels.
As a child of the 80s, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a staple on the family television. Simple phrases like “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you” offered expressions of care, compassion, and acceptance1. Even through the static of old CRT TV displays, the connection Mister Rogers could make with his young (and old!) audiences was unwavering. Not only did he share uplifting messages, it often seemed as though he was speaking directly to you, the viewer, across time and space. As if, with great wonder, he could see the goodness, the gifts, and the heart of each viewer.
Lately I’ve been struck with the significance of seeing the wonder and unique qualities of others. I noticed a compelling illustration of this in the book ‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts2. A vivid text with expansive themes on meaning and morality, the volume depicts Roberts’ experiences in Bombay following his escape from an Australian prison in the 1980s. With numerous thought-provoking narratives, one part that has sat with me is when the main character, Lin Ford, was given a new name by members of a small village he visited. Despite living his life as a self-proclaimed fighter, the village’s farmers gifted Lin the name ‘Shantaram’ which meant “man of peace”, or “man of God’s peace”:
“I was given a chance to reinvent myself, to follow that river within, and become the man I’d always wanted to be…I don’t know if they found that name in the heart of the man they believed me to be, or if they planted it there, like a wishing tree, to bloom and grow.
Whatever the case, whether they discovered that peace or created it, the truth is that the man I am was born in those moments.”
Such wisdom and power radiates from this text. To me, it speaks to the possibilities that emerge when we access a certain lens to see the world. Instead of criticism and judgement, we can become fascinated by the inherit virtues within a person. Seeing beyond faults and foibles, with a lens of appreciation and wonder (much like Fred Rogers), we see the truth of someone’s essence, even if dormant at times.
“Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence.
In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring.
In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.”
― Mary Oliver
How might we access language to describe what is seen?
This is where I draw upon the beautiful literature on strengths to help expand my vocabulary. While there are several ways to identify and categorize strengths, I notice the deepest resonance with Character Strengths3 when considering how to find language for the qualities within. Positive psychology researchers have classified a list of six virtues and twenty-four strengths, which extend across cultures and time. The six virtues include:
While each person is deemed to hold a capacity for all twenty-four strengths, there is likely a set of ‘Signature Strengths’ which represent the core of who someone is. One can take a survey, including free versions, at the VIA Institute on Character to distinguish their strengths. I also find there is incredible potential in simply observing and listening to others. Alex Linley, author of ‘Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others’, offers several ways to pinpoint the possible display of a strength4. For example, when the other person’s tone of voice changes, when there's a sense of energy and/or ease, and when words such as "I love to..." are spoken, the listener, with fascination and curiosity, can note the possible disclosure of a strength.
A brief caution
I sometimes wrestle with language around “maximizing potential”, which is quite prevalent in coaching5 and the literature on self-actualization6. While likely disparate from intentions, I think at times messages of "not being good enough right now" or "not yet" can be conveyed. As I continue to explore this internal tension (see 'The Art of Surrendering' for earlier thoughts), I'd like to offer a couple of distinctions:
In seeking and naming one’s qualities, it is less about what they do and more of who they are. In essence, it builds up one’s sense of self-worth which can then weather turbulence, such as setbacks and self-doubt, with greater ease. This is juxtaposed with enhancing one’s self-esteem through acknowledgement of external accomplishments, which may be fragile and contribute to the persistent pressures to “perform”. To explore this further, I would encourage listening to John Perry and Kim Morgan’s exemplary podcast episode on the topic:
I believe in the idea of “becoming”. That while I hold these qualities within me, I am forever on a journey of being. Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist, offers that at the core of transcendence and self-actualization is ongoing growth7. Notice now the general sense of ease, or unease, that may be present for you in considering the eternal pursuit of becoming.
To grow is to continually, day after day, move toward the best of what humanity is capable of. Growth is a direction, not a destination. ― Scott Barry Kaufman
Particularly as a coach who takes a strengths-based approach, I notice how much I benefit from witnessing the incredible qualities within my clients. It turns out there’s a phenomenon called ‘moral beauty’8 which forms the number one source of awe, and is described as:
"Other people’s courage, kindness, strength, or overcoming—actions of strangers, roommates, teachers, colleagues at work, people in the news, characters on podcasts, and our neighbors and family members.
Around the world, we are most likely to feel awe when moved by moral beauty: exceptional virtue, character, and ability, marked by a purity and goodness of intention and action.”
I’m reminded of a few visceral moments where I’ve been able to access this type of awe, like the time I proclaimed to a now dear friend - a general contractor by trade - that he was also a positive psychologist after hearing his story soon after we first met. I marvel at the ways he continues to live his purpose “to help others find their purpose”, particularly those experiencing phases of distress, many of whom are renewed and strengthened by my friend’s kindness and devotion.
I also consider a recent experience when participating in a signature leadership program at my organization, where I sat with awe when presented the opportunity to see glimpses of the character and essence of each fellow participant, with a depth beyond their extraordinary accomplishments in their professions. I felt uplifted simply through bearing witness to who these people were.
This begs a few questions:
What are the conditions that help me see these qualities in others?
Who am I when I can access moral beauty?
What is going well with me and my environment that liberates me to do so?
What further good can come of this?
In Search of Awe
As the month of love and kindness draws to a close, I notice a swell of gratitude for those whose paths I have the honour of crossing. I am honestly so lucky to have moral beauty intricately wound with my professional focus. It brings a sacred fullness to my ‘appreciation of beauty and excellence’ strength and a sense of purpose beyond measure.
Of course, searching for the goodness can become harder during the day-to-day experiences. Perhaps when I’m bewildered by behaviours. When I’m struggling with clouds over my head, or contending friction. These are the moments where quite possibly, in the words of Dacher Keltner, I must continue to be “in search of awe”9.
So here, I will offer us to step into an intention of awe. Of holding up a lens of seeing the qualities of goodness in ourselves and each other as we journey on these paths of becoming.
To learn more about the topic of awe, I cannot recommend enough the following ‘On Being’ podcast episode with Dacher Keltner and Krista Tippett. Trust that you will get a massive dose of awe, simply by indulging in this hour of beautiful dialogue:
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“I like you just the way you are”: Learning Compassion from Mr. Rogers by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Ed.D., accessed at https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/finding-meaning-in-life-s-struggles/202210/i-you-just-the-way-you-are-learning-compassion-mr
Roberts, G. D. (2003). Shantaram. St. Martin's Griffin. (Note: an adaptation is now streaming on Apple TV as well, but I highly encourage the book)
Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues a handbook and classification. American Psychological Association / Oxford University Press.
Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: Realising strengths in yourself and others. CAPP Press.
The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”. Retrieved from https://coachingfederation.org/about
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-96.
Kaufman, B. K. (2021). Transcend: The new science of self-actualization. TarcherPerigee.
“Sailboat metaphor” by Scott Barry Kaufman. Retrieved from https://scottbarrykaufman.com/sailboat-metaphor/
“What’s the most common source of awe?” by Dacher Keltner. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/whats_the_most_common_source_of_awe
Tippett, K. (Host). (2023, February 2). The thrilling new science of awe [Audio podcast episode]. In On Being. The On Being Project. https://onbeing.org/programs/dacher-keltner-the-thrilling-new-science-of-awe/