As we head into Valentine's week of 2018, I am struck at the differences as to how children and adults typically celebrate this holiday symbolizing love. If in a significant other relationship, adults stress about setting the perfect tone for their special Valentine's date or worry about finding the right gift. When single, we bemoan how we have such disdain for the holiday, and curse the fates for us remaining single and alone. Of course, I cannot forget those of us who celebrate our "single" status by transforming the holiday to Single's Appreciation Day using this as time to seek more self-love. Regardless of what we do as adults, for the majority of elementary school students these are less complex times. For children, everyone they know, in every social circle, receives some sort of token to mark their connections. This is time when giving indiscriminately to every student in the class allows them to give love more freely. There is a much to gain from those simpler times.
If I am being completely honest, I don’t love the word love. It is a word that I find too limiting. It never comes close to describing the full experience of what it means to feel deep affection for yourself, or affection for another. That is why when I heard the word love being conceptualized as: “a lived 'YES!' to belonging in all its forms,” I paused. Somehow this definition feels more fully formed and offers up the idea that we can all choose to say, “yes” to opportunities of belonging - to ourselves and each other - regardless of what day is on the calendar.
The ritual of students dropping candied hearts on each other's desk may not have the weight that adult relationships have, but it recognizes that we are somehow connected and belong to everyone we come in contact with. This simple gesture sends a powerful message: you belong here, and we are connected. What lessons can adults take away from this practice? In what ways can we demonstrate belongingness?
We have so forgotten how connected we are that in the developed world, people are reporting high levels of social isolation. This epidemic has even lead the British government to appoint a Minister of Loneliness, who is tasked with working across the government and British culture in finding solutions to combat this disconnectedness. Some recent studies even indicate that this is a bigger public health crisis than obesity or smoking. Our own former Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy has not only been warning the population of the associated risks of loneliness (a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety) but touts how solutions to this epidemic are also a net positive for workplaces. Increased social connections means improved task performance, increased creativity, and heightened executive functioning which is related to clear decision making, and sound reasoning thus creating a healthier, enhanced work environment.
Aside from business, in this modern age of cell phone screens to teleworking, we are not as practiced in saying, “yes” to belonging as we once were--and it is literally killing us. The difference is that as adults we can pick and choose when we say “yes” and when we say “no”; we are not mandated to say “yes” to everyone in the same way as children. As a clinical social worker and therapist, I can assure you nearly all of us long for a deeper sense of belonging and connection to both ourselves, family, and communities. The distinction in much of the quality of our networks lies in how we negotiate tapping into the courage it takes to live that “yes” when an opportunity presents itself.
Moving forward, I urge us to use this Valentine’s Day, and every day following, as an opening to undo this aloneness and social isolation. Some simple gesture, like a card with a candy attached to it, may make all of the difference. Ultimately, our own health and wellbeing depends on it.
I leave you with a few questions for us all to ponder:
What spaces can we create in our workspaces, homes, and faith spaces to create social cohesion and a lived "yes" to belonging?
What gets in the way of us saying “yes” to belonging in this digitized, polarized, modern society?
What can we learn about the open acknowledgement and acceptance of others? What might we learn about ourselves? What past hurts of ours might be healed?
How can we better say "yes” to belonging to ourselves opening up room for self-acceptance?
Hayden Dawes, LCSW, LCAS-A is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has provided clinical care in a variety of inpatient, outpatient and community settings. Drawing from a person-centered and an attachment perspective, Hayden offers a variety of modalities including: mindfulness based therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy. He enjoys working with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. He is passionate about assisting adolescents, adults, couples and families in navigating relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, anxiety, and addiction. His clinical interests include family systems theory, sexual orientation (GLBTQ+) and gender identity issues. Hayden maintains a private practice at AHB Center for Behavioral Health and Wellness in Durham, NC.