Many years ago, when I was a graduate student in psychology, I read about the work of the Italian researcher, Alessandra Piontelli, who had done ultrasound scans on mothers of fraternal twins. A number of times, she watched as one particular set repeatedly pushed against the thin membrane that separated them, reaching toward one another.
Piontelli visited the various mothers and twins a year after they were born, including that specific brother-sister pair. She observed the now toddlers playing a game where they stood on opposite sides of a curtain, pushing against it with their hands, trying to locate one another.
Though many years have passed, this is an image that still suddenly pops into my mind. Each time, I am surprised by the emotion that wells up in me. It feels like yearning, perhaps a simple recognition that the image has everything to do with the human impulse to be connected to another person -- an impulse so basic that it can appear even when we are in the womb.
The image also makes me think about vulnerability, which is essentially a reaching out toward another. This is not always an easy task and can stir up many emotions, including anxiety. It can feel dangerous, an act of exposure. Yet, making yourself vulnerable and being willing to reach toward someone else without knowing what will come back to you is also the best way to ensure a deep connection to another human being.
I did just that a few nights ago, reached out, when at a post-New Year's get together with my writing group, I shared a personal essay. I was nervous because it was about some traumatic things that had happened to me as a very young child, not things either easily shared or taken in. Over time, though, it has seemed increasingly important to write about and share these experiences with people in my life.
As I began to read aloud, I knew that I was among sensitive souls with whom I felt safe. So I continued on, until I reached the bottom of the second page. My words and everything they embodied were accepted with empathy and kindness.
I was grateful. The experience made me consider how vulnerability goes together with authenticity, being willing to reveal to others the truth of who you are. It felt good, a relief, to do this with my fellow writers. Afterward, I felt more solid in myself. Less a pile of wobbly little pebbles, more a mound of stones that mostly fit together without rolling away at the slightest touch.
By making yourself vulnerable, you give others the chance to feel what it is to stand inside your experience. It can feel a little strange and contradictory -- to feel more real, more anchored inside yourself, the more you are exposed.
But this, I believe, is what we need more than ever -- to be willing to allow others to know what it is we know and feel, in order to create a world of greater compassion and understanding.
This new year, let's not make generalizations about others or act in the belief that we already understand all there is to know about the world. Let's listen to what the people around us far and near have to say. Let's dare to open ourselves up. It's not impossible. Perhaps a first step can be taken by sharing a meal, a cup of hot cocoa or even a simple sip of tea.
Lapsang Hot Cocoa
I know it might sound weird to some of you, but the smokey taste of lapsang souchong is so delicious with the richness of chocolate. If you aren't familiar with it, lapsang souchong is a Chinese tea that has all sorts of myths and lore attached to it. It is essentially a black tea that is smoked over pine needles, absorbing all the aromatic flavors. If you want the smokiness to be stronger in your beverage, let it steep longer. I like mine to have a good balance between the tea and the cocoa flavors, so five minutes works just right for me.
Makes enough for two.
1 teaspoon Lapsang Souchong tea (loose leaves)
2 cups whole milk or milky beverage of your choice
4 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons high-quality cocoa
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of ground cinnamon
pinch of salt
Heat milk in a saucepan until hot. Place tea leaves in a tea ball/strainer and steep in the milk for five minutes (more if you like a smokier taste). Remove tea then whisk in sugar, cocoa, vanilla and salt until everything dissolves and is slightly frothy. Divide between two cups and serve with a long conversation.