February 14, 2019

It Starts as Children

Renée Smith


I love poetry. I love it when a handful of words chosen and assembled “just so” say what it might take pages or hours to say otherwise, if ever. A few lines of poetry can make all things clear in an instant, or can join us as humans around universal understanding, or can challenge all that I thought was real, in moments. I love that.

At A Human Workplace Olympia we often include poetry. We’ve written a group poem about public service from the prompt, “My public service is…” Last time we were together learning about resilience, a participant wrote and shared a poem on the spot drawn out of the words of another poem we’d just read. It was beautiful. We’ve held a Poetry Table, an entire gathering focused on using poetry to better understand our human experience at work. I even wrote a poem on the bus that expressed the growth of this new movement.

So when I was getting ready for work a few weeks ago, I was delighted to hear NPR’s Morning Edition host Rachel Martin and her regular guest poet Kwame Alexander invite teachers to give their students the prompt, “Love is…” and then to share back what their students wrote. 2,000 did just that and the results were combined by Alexander into an inspiring, insightful crowd sourced poem, “A Day Full of Hugs” and shared on the air today, on Valentine’s Day. You can listen to the full radio segment from NPR.

In the segment they also interview a first grade teacher from Manassas, Virginia, Emory Stevens. She describes using this “Love is…” prompt with her first graders. She shares about the classroom exercise, how they responded, how she uses poetry in the classroom, and why that’s so important for children. Then three students share their poems; they are profound and moving.

Here’s what got me next, and what was so familiar to our efforts to Make Work More Human.

In the classroom, she first invited the students to write about sadness. They all did, easily with lots of details and without hesitation. They all had sad experiences to share and had lots to say about sadness.

Similarly in my research interviews, I first ask people to tell me a story about a time when they felt afraid at work. They do this easily and without hesitation. Everyone has a story, and those stories often take a long time to tell, have lots of detail and are often emotional.

In the classroom exercise, the teacher then invited students to write about love, using the prompt, “Love is…”

But students resisted this with, “Ooooo! Gross!!!”

You can imagine the squirms and giggling.

That balking, discomfort, and hesitation at the word love is totally familiar to me in my work with adults. It is not much different from what sometimes happens when I ask in my research interviews, “Now, please tell me a story about a time when you felt loved at work.”

People sometimes hesitate and squirm. Sometimes they say, “Well, I wouldn’t use the word love, but I’d use the word…respect or care or empathy or trust or inclusion…” They just aren’t comfortable thinking of love as anything other than romance so they pick a word that is a subsidiary of love. And then they go on to tell me amazing stories about how a leader cared about them as a person, about their team being like a family, or about being supported at work when they faced a personal crisis. These acts of humanity at work make us feel loved. And when we feel loved we do better work. Period.

But we are conditioned to flinch at the word love. And apparently in Western culture that squirming and hesitance starts at a very young age. Apparently we learn very early that the experiences and feelings of love, that we need to thrive, are taboo.

In that first grade classroom, the teacher had to explain to students that love isn’t just about “hugging and kissing and other gross stuff.” Love can be “loving an animal like a dog, or loving a country like Mexico, or loving a food like popcorn. And that there are no wrong answers.” With that explanation, the kids got over their initial “love is gross” response and wrote things like, “Love is when your dad comes home from war.”

I also see this when I speak to adults in workplaces and at conferences and tell them that we need to decrease fear in the workplace and replace it with love to make work more human.

Now no one has ever actually said, “Oooo! Gross!” But some people are initially stunned, some gasp, and many are obviously uncomfortable that I’ve said the word “Love” in a professional setting. In fairness, many people are overjoyed and excited to hear love discussed at work, too. But many people think love is a taboo topic, and they have a huge mental barrier to overcome to be able to really explore what’s possible when we create optimal conditions for human beings to thrive with love.

You see, love is not just a romantic experience. Love is a human experience that manifests in feelings, emotions, and actions in all parts of our lives. We love when we help a stranger on the street. We love when we bring in the garbage cans for our neighbor who is ill. We love when we support the ideas of a colleague who is part of a minority group, who’s voice is not usually heard. We love when we trust someone to take on a new assignment. We love when we cover a colleague’s work so they can grieve the death of a parent.

This is what it is to be human. This is what it is to love. And it’s not gross.

Today on Valentine’s Day, let’s resolve to stop whatever it is we are doing, saying, showing and teaching our children that would make them think think that love is only “yucky romantic stuff.”

Instead, let’s begin to teach children that they are loved, and that we love each other, and that love is a normal and essential human experience. Let’s help them to see that love is compassion, kindness, trust, respect, inclusion and so much more. Let’s make love normal for our children and for each other too.

Then perhaps in 20 years we won’t have the mammoth task of healing wounded adults who have a stunted idea of love. I work for a day when human beings are free to see and experience love as a necessary, integral and normal part of their daily lives, including their work lives.

Happy Valentine’s Day, with love,