“What about you?” one of my students asked me in the Freshman Seminar class I was teaching at Ivy Tech Community College, “What’s one of your top five values?”
We had just completed a class activity in which I had asked them to look over a list of one hundred values. They were to mark the ones that resonated with them – it could be as few as five or as many as fifty. Then, I wanted to them to pick just one to share with the class.
“Pick one,” I explained, “that would be in your top five.”
Dutifully, each of them shared their value and their reason for choosing that value. I loved this activity because it gave me a peek into what’s important to them. So many of them often had great explanations about why they picked that value.
But never before had a student asked me to share mine. . .
“Hmmm,” I responded to my student’s request, “I wasn’t prepared to answer this.” I quickly looked at the list of one hundred and the thirty or so that I had circled when I originally looked over the list myself.
“Now you know how we feel,” she smiled.
I smiled back. “That’s completely fair. I love it that you asked.” And I did. But my mind was racing. What value would I share? I could only pick one.
On the one hand, I wanted to say faith/spirituality. I wanted them to know that my faith in God was huge to me. At the same time, I didn’t want to give a Christian “Sunday school” answer. Sometimes it’s a little too easy to throw “faith in God” out there as an important value.
Was there something else that was important to me? The first word on the list of values was honesty. That triggered something. I knew what it was that I wanted to share.
“Honesty,” I said. “Actually, more than that. Authenticity. Being Real.”
I continued on, knowing that I was required to explain my answer, just as I had required them.
“It’s tempting to act like we have it all-together. But I’ve learned over the years the value of being real and authentic. It allows others to relate to us. It hopefully breaks down walls. I want to be real with others. To be vulnerable and willing to share my weaknesses. And when I sense that someone is being authentic, vulnerable, or transparent with me, I’m drawn to them. I admire that in someone else.”
Of course, that may not have been the exact wording I used. Remember, I didn’t have this answer scripted! But I think that was the essence of what I said.
“But,” I continued, “since I’m the instructor, I’m going to give myself permission to share another value that’s of equal importance to me.” Pause.
“Faith. God is important to me. My relationship with Him affects every decision I make. And, for me, authenticity and faith go hand in hand.”
I’m not always good at sharing things on the spot. I’m a thinker. A planner. I like to make sure it’s “just right” before verbalizing. Many times, when forced to share in the moment, I kick myself later, wishing I had said this. Or that.
But the smiles on their faces and the nodding of heads was a wonderful initial reassurance that the words that had come out of my mouth made sense, at the very least. Maybe even resonated with them, or encouraged them, at the most.
And throughout the rest of the day, I found myself pondering over my responses. What if I had had more time? Would my answers have been different?
Amazingly, the more I thought about it, the more confident I became about my answers.
I’ve been on a journey of being real. I’m a people pleaser by nature. I’m an optimist; the cup is always half full (if not completely full!). Even in moments of discouragement, I’ve tended to always look on the bright side and act like all is well. Never thinking that anything was wrong with this, I was surprisingly challenged one day by my “Pollyanna” attitude.
It was seventeen or eighteen years ago. I was teaching at a small Christian school in Orlando. It was my first year there (my fourth year as a teacher). And it was hard. I was teaching six different classes (regular English 12, honors English 12, AP English 12, yearbook, newspaper, and regular 9th grade English). And I was coaching the boys and girls tennis teams. I was stressed. I was spread thin. I was overwhelmed. But I felt like I needed to remain positive. It was supposedly a blessing to be teaching there. I was trying to convince myself that everything was great. And apparently, I was trying to convince others. Honestly, it never even crossed my mind to admit how overwhelmed I was. Maybe I thought others would think something was wrong with me. Or that I was weak.
During lunch one day, while sitting in the teachers’ lounge, one of my fellow teachers asked me how my year was going. Without giving it much thought, I replied “great!” With a smile on my face, I’m sure.
“Everything is always great for you,” he replied. He almost sounded like he didn’t believe me.
And for the first time ever, I was struck by the disconnect between what I said and how I felt. For the first time, I actually felt like maybe people didn’t necessarily want to always hear that everything was great. His response jolted me.
And I actually thought of my husband. The counselor. Randy knew how to be vulnerable. Randy was always encouraging me to share how I really felt about something. I had always been afraid to be vulnerable. In that moment, I finally got a glimpse of what Randy had been trying to tell me all along. People want you to be real. That’s how we connect. That’s how we relate.
That was a turning point for me. Slowly, I began to be aware of opportunities to be real. Really, I started by trying to catch myself in those moments that I “covered” myself. Because it was a habit. It was a habit to share only the good. A habit to say everything was great. A habit to say, “No, I don’t need your help.” When really, I did.
My other moment that changed the way I viewed authenticity came about five or six years later. At this time, I was no longer teaching. I was a mom. Kiersten, my oldest, was only two years old and I was pregnant with Micah. I was a leader in MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers – a group for moms) and one of my responsibilities was to emcee our bi-monthly meetings. I would welcome the moms, share some announcements, and often introduce the speaker. To add a personal touch to the announcements and introductions, I would often share a story from my own mothering experience.
Intimidated by the fact that I felt young and inexperienced (who was I to be leading this group of moms…filled with moms who had more children than me, had been doing this mothering thing longer than me?), I think I subconsciously shared only the cute stories that also made me appear to be a good mom who knew what she was doing (ha!). I don’t think I was trying to elevate myself, I think I just avoided sharing any mistakes I made or struggles I had because of my own feelings of insecurity about them. It was too vulnerable. What would they think? Plus, shouldn’t I be encouraging them?
But then part way through that year, I attended a MOPS conference. At one of the sessions I attended, the speaker encouraged us to be vulnerable. To be real and to share our mistakes. Our weaknesses. Our insecurities. She told us that that was what other moms wanted to hear. They needed to know they were not alone. Like me, they were probably sitting there thinking that they were the only one who messed up or the only one who wasn’t doing this mothering thing right.
I remember the first MOPS meeting where I was real. It was scary. I had had an incident with Kiersten earlier that week that I was not proud of. She had pushed my buttons. And I did not respond patiently or graciously. In fact, I was mean. I shared this story…and I was nervous. What would they think of me? Would someone come up and tell me what I should have done or how I could have handled the situation better? Would they all secretly think I was a bad mom?
What happened was shocking to me. For the first time ever, I actually had moms come up to me afterwards and thank me. Thank me! Moms came up and told me stories of how they had lost it that week. I remember someone telling me she so appreciated my vulnerability – for the first time she felt like she was not the only one who responded to her children in ways in which she was not proud.
I was floored. I couldn’t believe that it was my mistake story that connected me most with my fellow moms. They didn’t want to hear how cute and perfect my daughter was (or that I pretended she was). They didn’t want to hear how well I handled situations. They didn’t want to feel inferior. They wanted me to be real. This was life changing for me.
And I know it was these two incidents – and the years of soul-searching, struggling, failing in my attempts to be real – that impacted my on-the-spot response to my students that day at Ivy Tech.
Being real has enabled me to connect better with others. It has caused me to search my soul and be more in tune with myself. It has required risk (what are others going to think about me?), but has resulted in deeper relationships. It has deepened my relationship with God as I slowly learn that He doesn’t intend for us to look good to others and do all the right things (or act like we’re doing all the right things!).
I think authenticity is at the core of who God created us to be: relational beings. Relational beings who want to be loved. And we want to be loved for who we are – not who we pretend to be.
As I think back to that day in the classroom at Ivy Tech, I almost went with the unauthentic textbook answer of Faith. That’s a respected value for those of us who have a faith in God. But the authentic answer for me was a little more off the beaten track. It required me to share my soul a bit more with my students. Who knows how it impacted them, but it definitely impacted me. It was one more step in my journey of authenticity.