My grandmother is not well. Last week, her doctor told her she had only a few days to live. My mom immediately hopped on a plane to be with her. She’s still here, and for that I am thankful, but the thought of losing her led me to reflect on the ways she has touched my life. Grandparents, I’m sure we can all agree, are pretty amazing. I have three sets so I consider myself pretty lucky in that department. The way I see it, the world would be a much better place if we saw each other the way our grandparents see us. This post is dedicated to my grandmother.
If we saw people for who they really are
My Oma and Opa are very Catholic. I remember going on camping trips with them and finding a nearby church on Sundays so we would not miss Mass. When I was ten, my Opa taught me prayers, in English and in German. You would think that very Catholic grandparents would have a hard time with a granddaughter who is gay. I certainly thought so. That is why I made my step-dad break the news without me. But my Oma and Opa surprised me. As my step-dad tells it, they didn’t even bat an eye. They said something like, “well that’s her business isn’t it” and then moved on. I don’t doubt that that is the truth because they have completely embraced by wife and tell everyone what nice young women we are after we visit.
Unlike so many of us, my Oma and Opa didn’t see me as a collection of labels. They saw me as the girl they have known and loved for 21 years. And to them, being gay did not change who that girl was.
The world would be a better place if we too could see people for who they really are, and not a collection of stereotypes.
We all know that prejudice has a negative impact on those who experience it, so I won’t get into that. What I do want to share with you is a study that found that even “benevolent stereotypes” can cause harm. By benevolent stereotypes I mean the stereotypes that ascribe positive characteristics to certain people, like “poor but happy” or “women are nurturing and kind.” Researchers found that these positive stereotypes actually sustain the perception that inequality in society is fair and justified. For instance, after hearing positive gender stereotypes, women subjects were more likely to unconsciously justify gender inequality on the basis that each gender is “well-suited to specific roles.” In this way, benevolent stereotypes actually stifle social change and help maintain existing systems of inequality. Who knew?1
If we truly listened
When I was 16, my parents got jobs in a new city. They planned to move the summer before my grade 12 year. For a 16 year old, this was the worst thing that could possibly happen. I had excelled at school and was highly involved in extra-curricular activities. I had a great group of friends and I was in love (high school is where I met my wife). I was also pretty shy back then so the thought of moving to a new school in a different city where no one knew who I was was terrifying. I was devastated to think that I would be eating alone in the cafeteria the year I should have been celebrating my graduation.
That spring my grandmother came to visit. In the few days she was with us, I spent hours confiding in her about the move. I told her about my dreams of university and scholarships and how I didn’t know if they would come true in a new school. I told her about my sadness to leave my friends and community. I told her about my fear of eating alone in the cafeteria. And she listened. And then she went to my mother and made the case for me to stay behind. Ultimately, my mother agreed and I had a wonderful graduation year.
My grandmother could have easily dismissed my concerns as silly or childish, but she didn’t. I will forever be grateful to my grandmother for listening to me without judgment. Not only do I have wonderful memories to thank her for, but I also have my wife who may not have stayed in my life had we not had that extra year together.
The world would be a better place if we too could truly listen to each other without judgment.
When we listen with an open mind we build trust and respect, reduce tension and create a safe environment that is conducive to collaboration and problem-solving. We increase the speaker’s self-esteem and confidence and we elicit openess.2 I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that listening is essential for community building and positive social change.
If we were generous
My other grandma, the one on my father’s side, is one of the most generous people I know. When my sister and I were kids, she would bake dozens of cookies before every visit in each of our favourite varieties. She would keep them in tins on the lowest shelf so that even as kids, we could always reach them. She and my grandpa would also stock their kitchen with all our favourite treats, even the gross ones that they would be stuck with after we went home. We never left their house without twice as much luggage as we came with, whether it be treats, canned goods, knitted clothes or crafts.
My grandma is also generous with her time. She is the one who taught me how to knit three times and crochet twice because I kept forgetting the technique between visits. When my grandpa got dementia, she took care of him from home until the end, despite the toll it was taking on her own physical and mental health.
The world would be a better place if we too could be so generous.
The research is clear that generosity makes people happy. Giving has been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others. It is also linked to the feeling of empathy toward others. And generosity is surprisingly contagious. Studies show that when one person behaves generously, it inspires observers to behave generously later, toward different people. This can spur a ripple effect of generosity through the community. Because of this effect, each person in a network can influence dozens or even hundreds of people, some of whom he or she does not know and has never met.3
A teacher in Coquitlam decided to test these theories in her classroom. The result was beyond her wildest dreams. The experiment is summed up in this short video. If you have a few minutes to spare, I highly recommend watching it. I cry every time.
I still have five of my six grandparents and I know that makes me luckier than most. But lately I’ve been so involved in my own life that I’ve forgotten to be grateful. The news about my grandmother was an abrupt reminder that my grandparents won’t be around forever, so I need to appreciate them and learn as much as I can about the special way they see the world.
I’m sure everyone has stories about how their grandparents have touched their lives, so please share, I’d love to hear them.
- Stereotypes Do Reinforce the Status Quo: Stanford GSB Staff: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/stereotypes-do-reinforce-status-quo
- Empathic Listening: Richard Salem http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening
- 5 Ways Giving is Good for You: Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_w?ays_giving_is_good_for_you