“I know what we should do! Let’s all go around the table and say one thing we love about each other!
My 10-year-old niece June practically screamed. And it shook me.
We were having dinner at my sister’s house. I don’t even recall what we were arguing about that evening—probably politics, or religion, or about the year I suggested we make everyone watch “Food, Inc.“—right after the Thanksgiving meal. You know, the usual stuff.
I do understand how she got the idea, as it’s a great exercise my sister practices with her kids around the dinner table. And telling people things you like about them often brings about a kinder, more thoughtful quality to any gathering.
But our discussion around the table on this particular evening was heated. It was a night filled with adults displaying intense emotions. And my niece, in her roundabout way, was trying to get us to chill, to stop bickering, to go back to being nice to each other.
But the moment bruised my heart. I felt sadness hearing an emotional quality hovering beneath her words. It was one of a deep anxiousness.
The tone of her voice seemed to cry out, “Please stop fighting. You’re scaring me.” But her words didn’t match her message. Her words tried to make it nice.
I recognized it instantly because I’ve been trying to “make-nice” for most of my life. Every time I commit to going to a party that I don’t really want to attend. When a friend hurts my feelings and I don’t talk about it. Or when I take on commitments out of a false sense of duty or a desire to appear valiant.
The big problem with the quick fix, the make-nice approach, is that it never addresses any real issues or gets the results I’m seeking. It’s a fake voice, a cover-up.
And I’ve discovered the hard way, over and over again, that covering up eclipses authenticity. It’s like I steal my own experience from myself.
I know my niece is only 10, but I want to cuddle her up and tell her about this difficult lesson that I’m only now learning as I barrel my way toward 40.
I want her to understand that it’s okay to tell the fighting adults at the table that they are making her uncomfortable. Or her teacher. Or a friend.
I want her to learn to welcome the quaver in her voice. I hope she learns to exalt in that quaver—to use it as a barometer for when it is time to lend authentic voice to a moment, which is the hardest part. Because while many of us wax poetic about the word vulnerability, it actually means “to feel susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.”
I should note in the spirit of authenticity that I had to go look it up. This definition helps me understand my own process on a deeper level. I verbally disassociate when I feel vulnerable by trying to say the thing I think will make the discomfort go away. “Sure, I’ll be there Friday night.”
But I’m noticing the signs. I can tell I’m standing on the precipice of vulnerability if I feel nervous and agitated. And if I pull back, even for three seconds, I can usually find that quavering, authentic voice. It may sound like a still, small voice, but it’s not—it’s a roar. It’s the soul’s voice.
So when we were sitting around arguing at the dinner table that night, while we weren’t intentionally trying to cause emotional discomfort to my niece, we did.
And it’s our job as the adults to try our best to help our little ones understand that they have every right to speak up to that discomfort. One of the best ways I can see doing this is by modeling it.
Still, small, voice. Big soul-roar.