The Power of Being Seen

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Chalice lighting

Come into this place

A place of honesty

A place of caring

A place of safety

A place of support

A place of acceptance

Here, let us hold a space where we can be ourselves

Where we can dare to be seen as our true selves

And a place where we work to create a world so loving

Reading: The Journey, by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice –

though the whole house began to tremble

and you felt the old tug at your ankles.

“Mend my life!” each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations,

though their melancholy was terrible.

It was already late enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly recognized as your own,

that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,

determined to do the only thing you could do –

determined to save the only life you could save.

Reading: If I can stop one heart from breaking, by Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

Message: by Emmeline Kelly

I’m going to start this with a love story. A friend of mine – Steph – knew a woman through a mutual friend. They met at various parties over the years, exchanging small talk, often about the weather and sometimes, public transport. (This is a very British love story.) They probably thought each other were cute, but they didn’t connect on any deep level.

The mutual friend chose Steph as his best woman, which meant that she was asked to give a speech. And knowing Steph as I do, this would not have been an easy thing for her, pushing her well and truly out of her comfort zone. I wasn’t at the wedding, but from what I can gather, the speech reflected everything that is beautiful in my friend, her sense of humour, her storytelling, and the deep love and commitment she shows to her friends. And people responded well to this, telling her it was the ‘best wedding speech they’d ever heard.’ And this was also the night, that Steph and the woman – Laura – finally connected, and they’ve been together ever since, and now have a cat.

And this bond that they formed may have been in part expedited by the amount of alcohol that’s consumed at a wedding, and the confidence and adrenaline Steph experienced after giving the speech.  But I can’t help thinking that my friend having the courage, and vulnerability to be seen as her best, most loving self in front of all those people, had at least something to do with it.

So I guess the message is this, show up, be yourself, tell some good jokes and you’ll connect with loads of people, and maybe find the love of your life.

If only it were that simple...

What does it mean, to be seen in the world, to be visible? To me, a huge part of this is expressing yourself in a way that is authentic to you, whether that’s through your behaviour and values, your work, your creative expression, how you dress, your identity or identities, how you treat other people and how you stand up for what you believe in.

But why can this be so difficult? Why is it so hard for us to ‘put ourselves out there’ and express ourselves, and to be open and honest and vulnerable?

When we are seen we reveal ourselves. There’s no shying away. If we show up in a way that’s not true to us, if we dim or dilute ourselves, then if we’re rejected, it doesn’t matter. Because they haven’t rejected the ‘real’ us. But stand up and be yourself and you risk real, authentic rejection.

And if you try to be this muted version of yourself, then you may well be generally liked and approved of by most people. Be authentically, unapologetically yourself, and there may be people who love you - but there will also likely be those who find you to be too much, or not enough.

Another, very unwelcome reaction that you may encounter is that some people will try to tear you down. I have friends who’ve launched creative projects, written stories, had exhibitions, produced shows. And the amount of hate they’ve received, particularly online, is overwhelming. I’ve experienced this myself too. It made me feel scared, and it made me feel like I wanted to hide. It’s like all of these voices yelling ‘Who do you think you are for thinking you can do this?’ ‘Stop expressing yourself!’ ‘Stop creating!’ And these voices are, quite frankly, so much louder if you have the audacity to put yourself out there whilst not being a straight, white cisgender man.

But aside from these elements, where is this coming from? In trying to understand this, I’m reminded of a time in childhood when my friend Tom wrote a story and was VERY proud of it. I didn’t have a nice word to say about it. Whilst expressing this, in quite some scathing detail to my Dad, he interrupted me and said ‘Well, at least Tom’s written a story, which is more than you have.’ Ouch. But I do think, that this is the route of where a lot of non-constructive criticism can spring from. When you stand up and be authentic, when you express yourself creatively in the way that only you can, you remind other people that they’re NOT expressing themselves, or showing up as they really are, or necessarily being true to their values. It is far easier to rubbish someone else’s piece of creative work, the stand they take, their stream of Instagram selfies, than it is to do the work of creating ourselves. And so maybe it is good to consider what may be motivating unkind words, to accept constructive criticism that helps us grow, and discard the rest. And I feel like for a lot of us, those external critical voices don’t have anything on our own internal critic anyway.

But the power of being seen doesn’t just lie in our own personal development and expression. Being seen can also be crucial in sharing values, advancing justice and helping to create a fairer world. Recently, I was part of a discussion group exploring how to best deal with family members who express views that are racist, homophobic, transphobic etc. Should we just give up, accept that these views will never be changed, cut these people off, unfriend them? In the group, we concluded that sometimes this is the best choice, particularly if we are a member of one of the groups being attacked and the emotional labour of dealing with this person is too much to bear. But one person said something that made me think. They said that even if they feels that their family member will not change their views, they still challenge them online, as “you never know who else is reading, and if what you say will plant a seed for them”.

Standing up for what you believe in, and being seen to take action, can inspire others to do the same. A few years ago, whilst on holiday, I decided to get involved with a local charity that desperately needed short-term volunteers. I hesitated to post about my experiences on social media - I didn’t want to turn something I had done because it felt deeply like the right thing to do, into ‘look at me, I’m so amazing, I swapped cocktails on the beach for this, please give me likes.’ I hesitated even to include this story today for this reason. But I decided to tell you about it, as one of my friends saw my post, and decided to organise a group of friends to volunteer on a similar project closer to home, and another friend organised a fundraising event for a similar cause. And I am constantly inspired by the actions of those around me, including so many of you, both through social media and through seeing what you do first hand.

Another part of being seen concerns what we do here, every week. We stand up, and we share the joys and sorrows of our individual lives. We are seen, as we are, as people who experience both happiness and sorrow. Together, we weave an intricate tapestry of human emotion. And this can be uncomfortable, and can feel intensely vulnerable. But, to me at least, every time someone shares a joy or a sorrow, it feels like a gift, a privilege. It makes me feel less alone, it is a reminder that we are all struggling, all just trying to do our best. It is the antidote to the curated, filtered versions of ourselves that we often post online, or present in day-to-day conversation. And in sharing with each other, we are seen in a way that feels like we are not any less because we feel sad or weak, and also reminded that it’s ok to celebrate our joys, large and small!

So if there’s something that you want to do or express, I encourage you to do this. Write that novel, paint that picture, volunteer for that cause, find work that you love, tell someone how you really feel. Start the Journey that Mary Oliver describes in her poem and “find the voice that you slowly recognise as your own”.

It can be easy to feel that there’s somebody out there who’s doing something already or who could do it better, but in reality, there’s no-one else who has your unique mix of perspectives and experiences. You deserve to be seen, you deserve to be heard, and you deserve to take up space. And this won’t necessarily be easy. And it could mean putting not so desirable parts of yourself on view. It will most certainly involve being vulnerable, it could mean admitting to mistakes, failing and experiencing authentic rejection. But, it could also lead to authentic acceptance. It may not, as it did for Steph, lead to meeting your life partner, but it could enable you to connect with others on a much richer level than before. And you could inspire other people to fight for justice, or simply, but so importantly, help them to feel less alone and seen, too.

May it be so.

Closing words

Within every one of us, there are many things that yearn to be expressed,

And there is a need for acceptance, both for our strengths, and for the aspects of ourselves that make us feel weak, or shameful.

Let our community be a place where we can all be seen,

And truly see, and authentically accept each other.

Because our true colours ARE beautiful, like a rainbow.

And we should share them with each other, and with the world.

May it be so