It was an unpleasant, tricky morning some years ago. I remember I wasn’t rising to it. I’d had an early, irksome conversation at home, followed by fractious classes. I had a to-do list that wouldn’t negotiate with the list of people who needed to be seen urgently. However, at this moment I was charging down the stairs towards a small room, a little late for my first meeting with a child who wanted to join our school. Today, it was yet another irritation for me, because as Head of Year my attention begrudged any pull away from the needs of the 120 students already in my charge. They were on the inside, the child awaiting me… still on the outside. Frankly, I could have done without this meeting.
In the room was an elderly man. He had a white beard and the kind of upright, gathered dignity many migrants build in themselves to face down subtle or overt resistance to their presence. And a quiet, thin girl of some 13 years. I sat down, in truth, surrounded by a bubble of my own worries and concerns, holding the paperwork on my knee.
The man was her uncle and he told her story.
She was from another of those collapsed West African states now churned up by civil war. She had been living amid the particular horrors of that awful conflict. Her elder sister was lost, taken away by soldiers and not seen again. Her parents had been killed before her eyes. Terrible things had been done to this little girl. She had eventually been abandoned, then found by her remaining family and transported over the months to relatives in London. Now she was here, in this grey room, in the corner of my eye, as I watched her uncle speak. On the other side of my bubble.
He finished his account. I took a breath and turned towards the girl now, wondering what all those crimes might do to someone, braced for whatever damage might be evident in front of me. And she smiled. An entirely open, warm, bright smile. Her whole face, bright and clear. She just seemed so completely happy to be here.
As she smiled at me the air pressure shifted, popping my poor attention open. The bubble of worries and complaints I’d gathered around me shivered and burst. Suddenly I was so glad to be in the room, present with her and her uncle. Her smile called me forth, evoking my own capacity to be more fully present, and as we smiled at each other we connected very simply and firmly. Her smile was without any interference from doubt and spoke to me, saying “I am here now. Safe!” And as if commanded, smiling back, I spoke inside myself words that echoed her own; “Yes, you are here now. Safe!” Suddenly my own burdens were slight, and she seemed the most marvelous young woman, and my job the most marvelous job, and life a mysterious and amazing gift.
The uncle also smiled now, and his body relaxed. He recognised something had changed and he no longer had to prepare himself for opposition or difficulty. He knew the job was done. His niece had just smiled her way across one more subtle example of the many borders her small life had seen. She had crossed from the outside to the inside. She was now, immediately, in my charge, one of our students. There was paperwork to be done. But the real transition had already been achieved with a radiant smile.
The rest of my day went well.
The genuine smile of child can do this. An adult too, if they still smile from the heart, without interference. Suddenly the present moment blooms. I guess a perplexed frown can do it too. Or the compressed face of anger as much as the expansive face of understanding, when it has cause and strength and purity. A touch on the shoulder. A spoken phrase we never heard before, but somehow always knew. All these can call us back to our present life. We can, we often do, shut down this capacity to experience our world. We hold our selves so tightly, pointing our attention at a set of worries and important agendas. Yet keep the aperture of our heart open enough and such a smile breaths and circulates within us, so that each day we already have all we need to be inspired.
Extracted from the forthcoming “Inspiring Presence” by John Tuite.
John Tuite founded The Centre for Embodied Wisdom and Clearcircle. He now works as a leadership and life coach, and consultant. He is a qualified Leadership Embodiment teacher and a continuing student of Wendy Palmer, founder of Leadership Embodiment. He also teaches a range of embodiment skills from breath work to mindfulness and energy work/qi-kung.
Before this, John taught in London for 18 years, serving on the leadership teams in four challenging schools. He was an Advanced Skills Teacher for Westminster. Prior to this he has worked as a builder, an arborist and a councilor.
He is also a Senior Instructor of Grandmaster Han Kim Sen of Southern Shaolin Five Ancestor, a centuries old martial art born in the Buddhist temples of China, integrating all aspects of mind and body work. He has practiced within this tradition since 1974. He lives in London with his partner and three children.
John’s previous articles on Kindness Blog include;