Words by Rev. Rachel Hollander
On my first day at Seminary, our magnificent instructor and dean facilitated what seemed, at first, to be a simple “ice breaker.” We would move around the room, greeting one another, speaking the words of a practice that comes from the Zulu African Tribe. It looked like this:
Two people – Clare and Vincent, for example – stand facing one another. Take a breath, and speak these – and no other words – to one another:
Clare to Vincent: Vincent, I am here to be seen.
Vincent to Clare: And I see you.
(take a breath)
Vincent to Clare: Clare, I too am here to be seen.
Clare to Vincent: And I see you.
Breathe. And hug, if you both feel comfortable with that.
We all listened to these instructions and, on cue, began the exercise. We were cautious, there was some nervous giggling, some averted eyes, some editorial comments. Our instructor reminded us of the “script” and asked us to remain focused. And we followed her guidance.
Within just a few moments, 87 adult seminary students – including this writer – were all in tears. We continued to move through the room, encountering one another, sharing a Sacred Moment with one another, SEEing one another, and being SEEN by one another.
We walk through this life, on this over-populated planet, in our over-crowded cities, our heads down, our eyes focused on our phones or other devices, our defenses up, our tenderness hidden away behind the daily armor we encase ourselves in to face the day. We have our jobs and errands to do. We have our opinions and our positions to hold onto. We keep a safe distance from one another and – on occasion – we keep that same distance from our own selves. To be given a safe space and supported opportunity to truly SEE another person, to allow ourselves to BE SEEN by that person, is quite a gift.
I will always be Grateful for this experience, for many reasons. One is that it was a gift to allow myself to be so open and vulnerable with a room full of people I had never met before. And to be trusted with their openness and vulnerability as well.
Another reason I am Grateful for this practice is that it inspired me and I was able to co-create (with Spirit, of course!) a beautiful musical chant that can be easily learned and shared together by any group of any age.
And still one more reason is that I was able to use this chant and practice while working with kids and teens at a residential psychiatric treatment center. Which brought up a very interesting perspective regarding being “Seen” (big “S”) versus “seen” (little “s”). When I shared the chant with the kids, I realized that I hadn’t clarified the difference when one of them asked, “What if I don’t want to be seen?”
Some of those kids I had worked with had been abused and being “seen” meant that they might be abused again. Being invisible was a survival skill that they desperately needed. Not being seen was a way to avoid being bullied or singled out, flying under the radar, safety. These same reasons could apply to many of us, not just those teens in treatment. Not being seen or noticed could be the way some of us survive our days out in the world.
However, “little-s-seen” isn’t what Sawubona is all about. Getting back to its origins, the Zulu Tribe uses this exchange as a way of greeting, an acknowledgement, a recognizing of who you truly are. Kind of like the African version of Namaste!
“I See You” equals “You are Worthy of being Seen, of being here, of being alive.” You very life holds worth. Just because you are here, living, breathing, BE-ing.
I recently saw the documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” I feel like Mr. Rogers truly embodied Sawubona every time he met a child. That his honouring of the children – and adults – that he encountered was a perfect example of Sawubona in real time, in real life. His way of being with others had, embedded into it, the very spirit of Sawubona, the True message of: “I See You.” That is the difference between “seeing” and “Seeing.”
Try it! Even silently! The next time you have an opportunity to hold a door open for someone or when you’re in line at the grocery store and you let the person with only one or two items go ahead of you, make it a smiling, silent, “I See You” moment.
These days, it is more important than ever that we See one another. And that we allow ourselves to be Seen. And that we take the time to honour that we are here, that we are worthy of being here.
I See You.