What It’s Like to Be Seen

I was listening to an interview with brilliant children’s author, Kate DiCamillo, on the On Being Podcast. She told a story of a little boy who was leaning heavily on her while she signed his book. His mother said, “Don’t lean on her, honey.” And the boy answered, “It’s okay, Mom, she knows me.”

This is what art does. It makes us feel seen. It makes us feel known. It’s why we cry when we hear a sad song on the radio, and why we keep circling back to that one painting in the gallery, and why when we read a good book, we become the characters. And for kids, especially, there is no separation between imagination and reality.

As I’m wrapping up another year of author visits to schools, I’m reflecting on all the times I’ve connected one-on-one with a child, but also the times we’ve connected as a group. For example, the other day I was talking to some fourth-grade students about World War II (the subject of my children’s novels). One boy asked, “So, who won the war?”

“Well, we did,” I said, and all the kids cheered.

“Now, wait a minute,” I continued. “Even though we won, it didn’t mean we were very happy. Most people had lost loved ones. Their husbands or sons or even fathers. We’d lost beautiful architecture and art. So many animals had been killed and so much nature destroyed.”

The boy spoke up again, in a quieter voice this time. “So, you’re saying in war, even if we win, we lose?”

“Exactly,” I said. An audible sigh shifted across the room of wise nine-year olds.

Books and art bring children into the world from which we so often try to protect them. They provide a safe place for kids to wonder at the sadness and also the beauty of this world. There’s not a child alive who doesn’t have problems, doubts, insecurities, fears. There’s not a child alive, no matter how loved or cared for, who doesn’t sometimes feel out of place or alone or misunderstood. There’s not a child alive who doesn’t long for something they don’t have.

Books and art make us feel like we belong. Whether the character is an animal, a tree, an alien, or a person from way back in the past, we see ourselves in that character but we also feel seen by the characters, by the author, by the teacher or parent who is reading the book to us.

Kids often come up to me after a school visit to tell me about the books they are working on. Sometimes they show me some of their writing (or their illustrations). Sometimes they look at me with such longing and say, “I want to be a writer, too, when I grow up.”

All I can do is look deeply into their eyes and respond, “You already are a writer. Look at what you’ve done here. You’ve started a story. You shared it with me. That’s all it takes. You saw the story first, now I’ve seen it too. Now, it’s real.”

During the writing exercises we do together, I often encourage the kids by saying, “There’s no right or wrong answer. This is your story. It belongs to you. You decide.”  That permission opens them right up.

Right now, in this churning, challenging world we’re living in, it’s easy to get lost in the chaos. It feels necessary to tell ourselves that other things matter more than we do. It’s nearly impossible some days to believe in magic.

Until someone sees you. And in that moment, your lungs fill with a quick, exuberant breath, and your eyes relax into a smile, and your shoulders release the weight of the world. It’s like when an actor on stage breaks the fourth wall and looks directly at the audience, and we’re jolted back into life again. Not the life we are observing as we “get through” our busy days. The life we are experiencing with our hearts and minds and senses. The reason we came.

This week, find a moment to feel seen, even if it’s only in your imagination. Imagine yourself hiking to the top of a hill and throwing your arms out wide. Let the sun and clouds and wind “see” you there. Let the whole world see you. Tell yourself a story about what you want in which you are the hero, because you are. Paint or draw or sing or dance even if you’re not very good. Free your spirit. Allow it to be seen, even if it’s only by your paintbrush or the shower walls.

Then take a deep breath. Can you feel them now? All the other Spirits out there needing to be seen? Step into that space and you’ll hear it, that audible sigh of wisdom and recognition as it shifts across space and we all come together in that one wonderous moment.

By Teresa R. Funke

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