Ask those who know me, and they will tell you that I’m a hugger. Ask those who didn’t know me once upon a time, and they’ll tell you that they weren’t strangers for long: I hugged them, too. I can’t help myself. I was born hugging, and I was born smiling. Seventy-five years later, I’m still smiling and still hugging. Go figure.
It’s fair to say, I suppose, that this hugging-and-smiling-thing that I’ve got going is part of my nature. I was born with that genetic disposition. But it’s equally fair to say, I suppose, that it’s part of my nurture. I grew up in an environment that encouraged everyone to embrace everyone, figuratively and literally.
For me, the nurturing environment was the coalfields of Southern West Virginia, sprinkled with veins of coal that ran out too soon and with rays of hope that would not fade. Hardship has a magical way of bringing people together. Of getting folks to wrap their arms around one another to show acceptance. Of getting folks to wrap their arms around one another to affirm goodness. Of getting folks to wrap their arms around one another to claim better.
Coal-camp kids know the love language of hugs, probably far better than adults, because they hug daily at the flour-sack-apron level and at the tarnished-belt-buckle level.
They hug weekly at the worn-hymnal level. I remember one song in particular that still reverberates in my ears:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world;
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
As I sang, I was convinced that the “little children” in the song were me and my friends, mingling together the many colors of our ethnicities. Blacks. Greeks. Hispanics. Hungarians. Italians. Puerto Ricans. Whites. And I was equally convinced that “the world” in the song had to be my coal-camp world where I stood in church singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”
It would be easy for me to say that from that point forward in my life I would hug everyone. Accept everyone. Embrace everyone. Automatically. Without even thinking.
But it’s not that easy. Celebrating diversity and inclusivity is not an autonomic function like breathing. It requires conscious choices. It requires conscious vigilance. It requires conscious mindfulness.
I didn’t realize that it involved choices until I was seven, and my family moved away from our one-road-in, one-road-out coal camp.
My new world was still in Southern West Virginia. It was still in an area where coal mining was an occupation. But it was a middle-class world, one not faced with the same economic challenges that had brought ethnicities together in the coal camp where I lived before. My new friends’ dads weren’t miners like mine. They were grocers and teachers and electricians and car dealers and tire distributors and band directors. More significant, perhaps, the “little children” in this new town were mainly one ethnicity. White. Like me. We had no Black families. We had no Greek families. We had no Hungarian families. We had one Hispanic family. We had one Italian family.
My new circle of friends included White kids, and I wrapped my arms of friendship around them. But I consciously chose to wrap my arms of friendship around the Hispanic and the Italian, both my age, not only because I liked them but also because I was mindful that we faced similar challenges: mine, economic; theirs, ethnicity.
My world changed again when I went to college. There, my classmates’ parents were from all walks of life. There, I had a few classmates from various parts of the world. But, truth be told, it was largely a White-like-me world. I consciously chose to wrap my arms of friendship around other ethnicities whenever I could. My roommate one year was Black. Another year, Hindu. When I joined a fraternity, my Big Brother was Hispanic. One of my Black friends was crowned Homecoming Queen. On chilly evenings, I often draped my fraternity jacket over her shoulders, walking back to her dorm after an evening together in the Student Union.
After college, my world changed again when I moved to the Nation’s Capital and discovered the full depth and breadth of diversity: race and ethnicity, economic status, religion, age, disability, gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation.
At the same time, I continued to be aware that celebrating diversity and inclusivity requires choices and mindfulness. When I started going to church on Capitol Hill, for example, I walked into the nave and was stunned to see one Black man sitting all alone in the middle of an otherwise entirely White congregation. I could have sat anywhere, but I made a conscious and mindful choice to sit next to him. A few months later, I went to Joe’s regular church. I found myself sitting in the middle of an otherwise entirely Black congregation. When Joe came in, he could have sat anywhere, but he made a conscious and mindful choice to sit next to me.
Those examples are just that. Examples. They’re not profound. They’re not extraordinary. They’re simply intended to show that if we are to celebrate and embrace diversity and inclusivity, we must do so through conscious and mindful choices.
I would add as well that we must be vigilant. Let me share something that took me off guard a few weeks ago. My behavior surprised me. Actually, it shocked me.
I was scrolling through options for my morning meditation. Each option had a visual. I was drawn to the image of a tall thin man standing by the ocean’s edge, facing a glorious sun spreading its rays over the waters. It looked inviting.
“Perfect,” I thought.
I hit PLAY AUDIO. The soft background music began. Then, the meditation coach began talking. In an instant, the voice grated on my ears and irritated me. I hit QUIT and selected another meditation.
I did the exact same thing for the next several days.
Then, one morning I realized how judgmental I was being. I was hitting QUIT based on nothing more than voice. I didn’t give the meditation coach a chance. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to listen to the message. I didn’t give the message the opportunity to speak to my heart and uplift my soul.
When I had that realization, I made a conscious choice to listen to the meditation. I made a conscious choice to accept the voice.
It didn’t take long for me to be carried forward as the meditation coach emphasized some key points that can never be emphasized enough:
● Let go of yesterday and the past.
● Be present with yourself and those around you.
● Forgive yourself and others.
● Be aware of the sun rising, spreading its light everywhere and across everyone without any judgment.
Without any judgment.
Those three words stirred in me a profound sense of self-condemnation, for I had judged the meditation initially based on nothing more than the voice.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to course correct. Fortunately, I made a choice to listen.
I’m awfully glad that I did, for the meditation ended with a powerful message:
Wrap your arms around your body and feel the warmth of your hug and say to yourself, “Have a very good morning, me.”
The meditation made me aware that I need to be ever vigilant so that I don’t let unintentional biases slip in, skew my perspective, and deprive me of the awesome riches that await me when I wrap my arms around all.