“… it gives me a big advantage for getting to know people,” said my son. I had to admit that he has a point. The only way he can walk is with support, and if there is no handrail or frame available, he borrows a shoulder or two. I, being very much shorter than he, am a perfect height for the job and am so used to it that I have long since ceased to think about it. We just get on with it as the need arises. But, he has made use of shoulders on three continents and made many friends in the process too.
One memorable adventure I was able to capture on camera. It was after the Feathered Seer workshop, one April. My son had come along to see what happened at our workshops, and stayed behind afterwards to go exploring the Derbyshire countryside with us. Alethea Kehas had come over from the US for the workshop too, with her friend Deb, and they were going to spend a day or two with us, visiting some of the ancient sites in the area. Most of these are a fair walk from the road and over moorland paths… not exactly wheelchair accessible… but that was not going to stop us and, for the next couple of days, all shoulders were in use and my son was able to visit places he would otherwise have never seen.
Alethea, Nick and Deb at Arbor Low, the great stone circle of the north
I thought about the ‘advantage’ my son has, and it is very simple. In order to get around when there is neither handrail nor walking frame, he borrows a shoulder. This means opening his arms to let someone come close and when he does so, all the barriers that normally separate stranger from stranger go down.
People want to help, they realise that he is relying on them, that they are doing something important. They know that they matter… if only in a practical way… and, more importantly, that they are being trusted. He is trusting them, not only to keep him upright, but to come within that ‘exclusion zone’ that most of us have around us at all times where strangers are concerned. He is letting… inviting… them in.
Most modern cultures accept no more than a handshake from a stranger, which by its very nature, keeps people at arm’s length. It may have begun as a gesture of peace, showing that neither was holding a weapon, but it creates a natural barrier of distance. The French may greet each other with either a handshake or a kiss, and while this is impersonal, it does allow people to come a little closer to each other and the effect on budding friendships is noticeable.
We each have an area of personal space around us into which any uninvited incursion will feel like an intrusion. It makes us uncomfortable and we step away at the first opportunity. By opening your arms to a stranger and inviting them into your personal space, you are automatically placing them in a position of trust and acceptance. You are sharing your life with them for a moment.
I remember when I first moved to Paris… young, loving every second, but feeling very alone and quite desperate for the touch of another human being. A hug would have healed everything. I remember too, not so long ago, a dear friend whose healing began through just such human comfort. Unlike a handshake that proves you are unarmed, when you open your arms to another human being, you are exposing your heart and trusting them not to wound you. And the odd thing is that when you do show trust in someone in that way, they will seldom let you down.
The three of us who run the Silent Eye often hug people when we meet them. Not total strangers, as a rule, but those who come to our events are seldom entirely strangers, even if we have only ‘met’ via email. We will offer a hug, usually by hugging those we do know first, and we will not impose if the other person extends a hand or seems less than comfortable. So far, though, we have always hugged everyone on the last day of a workshop, even if we have not done so on the first. Sometimes trust needs a chance to grow.
I have heard my son speak of the shoulders he has leaned on in Europe, Asia and India. The people, their names and stories, have left good memories behind, and made an impression on him, even those who were only there for a brief moment. They cease to be ‘just another person’ in the street and become real in a way that is normally reserved for friends of long standing. In many cases, the impression they have left has shaped my son’s view of the world, and it is a kinder, more compassionate and more laughter-filled world because of these encounters.
I have to wonder how much we lose by keeping people at arm’s length as we are trained to do by the dictates of polite society? Maybe opening our arms and our selves more often, in trust and acceptance, could change the world as we see it and allow it to open its embrace to us too?