In the past few weeks our Mindful Parenting group has explored Attention and Acceptance, just two of the five “A’s” of mindful loving spoken of by author David Richo. We’ve been taking a look at the love received in our (childhood) families of origin and how we augment that through intentional actions, so that the love we give can offer our children all 5 A’s most of the time. These intentional actions include adding healthy people and communities so that our chosen (adult) families nurture us with those same five aspects of love, and we them.
When love is examined through the prism of mindfulness, the third color of its 5-part rainbow is Appreciation. While Acceptance gives permission or tolerates aspects of ourselves and our feelings, Appreciation goes beyond permission and tolerance to celebration and gratitude. When we feel appreciated in our families, there is the poignant sense that something valuable and irreplaceable would be lost if we weren’t there. Sometimes Appreciation is elicited by particular traits or actions, such as humor or helpfulness; but Appreciation also touches that more ineffable sense of being.
One of the more lighthearted stories from my childhood came as a spin-off of a running joke. I loved to tease my grandmother about her not-always-accurate but frequently-stated formula that “the first of anything” was her favorite. This allowed her to name a favorite in a very non-offensive way that couldn’t be taken personally, nor even enjoyed personally, by “the first.” The running joke was about how that formula had to be twisted sometimes to fit reality (the first child, the first grandchild, the first 3rd-child of a 2nd son) as various people in the family grew into and out of her favorite ages.
Once, when we were away from the extended family and my mom was in a very occasional talkative mood at home, I asked on behalf of we 3 siblings in my immediate family whether she had any sort of similar formula or favorite. Mom took the question seriously and paused from what she was doing at the sewing machine. “It’s hard to explain. In one way you’re my favorite because you’re the first baby I ever had, but then Bobby is my favorite in a different way, because he’s the last child I’ll ever have. And Jill is my favorite, well, just because.”
In the telling of that story later, the joke was partly that Mom didn’t get that she had just acknowledged who her REAL favorite was. But the rest of that joke is that anyone throughout the family would have understood exactly what she meant. There had always been something about Jill’s essential nature that was very dear, something somber and sweet, and like everything essential in this life, it was hard to describe. It was so pure it didn’t even inspire envy – just appreciation.
Appreciation doesn’t really involve the issue of favoritism at all, of course. What these inter-related stories point to is that birth order is not personal, but that sense of a person’s essence that we wouldn’t want to be without feels very personal. We all need the sense that there is someone in this world who would not want to be without us and some essential quality we bring. The documentary about Fred Rogers called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” came out about a week before this article was written, and it’s well-timed for this point in our study of the 5 A’s. The beloved educator’s biggest gift seems to have been the gift of Appreciation – whether appreciating the helpers in a crisis or appreciating “just your being you.”
People who do not ever receive the Appreciative form of love are severely limited, but fortunately, people can learn to take action to access this heart quality through the practices of gratitude and appreciative joy. Whether that sense of Appreciation comes from our first families, a teacher or mentor who really sees us, a deep contemplative practice or Mr. Rogers, that feeling matters – the feeling that without us something valuable would be missing from the fabric of life. It matters not only because it helps protect that fabric from self-destructive tendencies, but also because it helps to install a sense of permission and even duty to nurture and develop whatever is unique to us, so that it can be offered for the good of the world. And it matters “just because.”