— Squids ? along his back (@bakedcalamari) January 29, 2022
My children are wild about “Encanto.”
We’ve watched it together twice and it brought me to tears both times. I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s opened my heart and had such an effect on me. The answer I’ve reached is Grace.
Spoiler Alert: if you’re planning to see “Encanto,” you may want to wait until you’ve watched it before reading this article.
After the devastating loss of her husband, a young mother receives a miracle. The story takes place in her later years; as the matriarch of a large, thriving family, she learns an important lesson to keep her family whole. Her lesson is the gift of Grace.
Google tells me Christians define Grace as, “a spontaneous gift from God to people—generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved—that takes the form of divine favor, love, clemency, and a share in the divine life of God.” That said, I’m not trying to spark a debate with Christians, atheists, fence-sitters, or the quietly non-informative. Let’s take theism out of the conversation.
So, how does one understand the meaning of Grace without religion? If you’ve seen “Encanto,” you noticed the matriarch is not exactly living with Grace during most of the movie. She closes down with a fear that feeds her need to control her family. Pain and trauma ensue. A son is shunned. A daughter is afraid to admit weakness. A granddaughter is obsessed with perfection. The family loves one another but the grandmother’s rigidity strains everyone—a strain that manifests as actual cracks in the house. Such a powerful metaphor for what happens to a lot of families.
I was a part of a family with rigid ideas about acceptable behaviour. Our successful, happy exterior cloaked an inner world ravaged with pain. It was a home with beautiful exterior walls, but the interior was cracked from the foundations to its leaky roof. Unable to maintain the charade, I was eventually sent packing. It was excruciating.
Striving for perfection denies our humanity. Love cannot bloom within the confines of judgement where nothing is good enough. First, we weigh too much or don’t wear the right clothes. Then we don’t earn enough money, don’t keep our house clean enough, don’t cook the right meals, or don’t parent properly. The judgement is endless and debilitating.
If we do break free, we’re often so broken we believe we are to blame for our failure to stay. We slink away, tail between our legs, apologizing instinctively to everyone, feeling unloved and unlovable.
Here I am, years later, coming back to myself, becoming whole again. I’ve been lucky enough to work within a community that spills over with Grace. These dear people took me in, that wildly scared stray. I was skin and bones, terrified, and had no love for myself. I kept expecting to be kicked when I made a mistake. Instead, they gently and quietly loved me. They allowed me to stumble awkwardly, to crawl until I could walk again. They held me gently—not too close but softly and safely. That is Grace.
Grace allows. When a child is learning to draw and makes a scribbly mess, we smile with delight when they show us their work of art. Grace means we extend that same acceptance toward everyone. We shouldn’t just smile at babies. We’re all human, all imperfect and all need the allowance of each other’s generosity and acceptance.
Most importantly, Grace means we extend acceptance toward ourselves. This was my most difficult lesson—to offer myself the same Grace that others offer to me. Indeed, if I laugh too loudly or say something awkward, I can kick myself emotionally. I’m now learning to give myself the same compassion, the same Grace, that I give my children, students, friends, and family.
Grace does not mean allowing someone to cross our boundaries, bully, or harm us. In learning about Grace, we learn about our boundaries, what bullying looks like, what’s unsafe for us, and what’s acceptable. We do not accept harsh judgement.
If our speech is hurtful, even if we didn’t mean it that way, we should have the Grace to hear them and make amends. Grace means communication—not yelling, not criticism, not cold nonacceptance. Grace means choosing words that allow room for forgiveness, understanding of humanity, and the relationship’s growth.
A line in one of my favorite songs in “Encanto” is “Don’t you hold on too tight.” An important aspect of Grace is the openness within. Grace flows. It breathes. It allows. When we live our lives with Grace for ourselves and others, we find natural joy. When we allow others to live with Grace, we create space their natural goodness to surface.
Wouldn’t you rather live in a state of Grace?