Our communities’ norms, manners and behaviors help to define us. They are the psychological gestures on which we build our personal stories. The farmer from the heartland has the “stronger-than-any-contract” hand shake. The Southerner has the irony of the “bless your precious heart” hand flutter. The New Yorker has the armored and very direct street walk. The founders of theatrical realism boldly declared that observing the social manners and gestures of a society reveals an individual’s dreams, desires, insecurities, motivations, needs – in short, action reveals character. Konstantin Stanislavski, the father of the American acting tradition, stated that this process of moving observation into action is the fundamental work of the theatre artist – transforming the invisible…visible.
I am certain by now you are wondering why a holiday letter would begin with a dramaturgical analysis of human gesture. Our youth leadership community organically created its own social behaviors and norms. These actions and gestures have touched my heart and revealed to me new ways to be in this world. You have helped to redefine my personal story: profoundly changing how I want my actions to be perceived by others. You have helped me see the invisible.
When I interviewed each one of you for the council, you were all well-spoken, bright and engaging. However, at the council meetings, you were all very quiet. Youth groups should be loud. I immediately assumed that people were shy and just needed to be brought out of their shells.
However, as new members were added to the council, meetings continued to be for the most part uncharacteristically quiet. Over time I realized that my assumption about the group’s behavior was completely wrong. I am someone who feeds on energy; I often speak without considering the impact of my words. Years ago my mother gave me Carl Sandburg’s poem, Little Girl, Be Careful What You Say. The poem cautions the reader to use their words carefully because words are made of air and air is invisible, air is the breath of God, so thin, so fragile – “finer than water flowers in the morning.” At fourteen years old, I believed I understood exactly what my mother wanted me to learn – words have power. But to tell you the truth, I did not really understand this poem until my partnership with you.
Observing you interact in meetings, I realized that what I interpreted as a lack of self-confidence was really the group being gentle with their words, allowing a space for the exhalation of fragile ideas so that they are heard, respected and ultimately seen. This profound way of collaborating is not what we typically associate with creativity; the energized room of fast talkers and animated gestures. In our meetings, council members think before they speak, using self-reflection as a gentle strategy for advancing the group’s best ideas and inherently respecting each team member’s individual creativity and contribution. I am fifty four years old and your approach to teamwork has allowed me to examine my skills as a collaborator, rethink how I engage in group creation and revisit a lesson I failed to learn when I was younger.
When I transitioned out of high school and into a life where I had to be both financially and emotionally responsible, I believed this new world in which I was living valued aggression, competition and the loudest voices. I fully embraced the construct that to get ahead I had to compete and compete well. The need to contribute and connect is strong in all of us. These strong emotions can result in behaviors that block creative solutions rather than fostering them, leading us to act out of a place of self-preservation and defense. I saw my creativity as a way to prove my intelligence, achieve recognition and garner praise. Your joy for creation is born out of the community coming together for a common good. Your actions and behaviors have made me confront my work paradigm. In many of your letters of recommendation I have written what you have told me is the reason why you are engaged in this work. Your answers are always along the line of… “It is our responsibility to help others.” You have helped to transform the invisible values of compassion, hope, tolerance and faith into the visible behaviors reflected in our youth leadership skills of Listen to Learn, Speak to Connect, Act to Improve and Share to Inspire.
My hope for you this holiday season is that you will hold tight to your council norms of calm persuasion, thoughtful words and fostering a safe place where creative solutions are respected, valued and nurtured. I hope that no matter where life takes you, your personal story will include that you are a Kaiser Permanente youth leader that values creativity rooted in kindness, respect and the gentle exhalation of ideas. I hope that the genuine humanity in each of you will shine through in your actions and deeds, revealing your character by transforming the invisible into the visible.
Your grateful adult community partner,
Manager of AIR Youth Engagement Programs