Wednesday / May 22

Personify the Handshake in the Age of Social Distancing

The coronavirus has us feeling uncertain, on-edge, and experiencing unprecedented restrictions. Across the nation, as I write this piece, various states are shutting down schools, restaurants, and bars statewide. Some are initiating curfews. All are insisting on social distancing, with absolutely no handshaking. We are living in the midst of a pandemic; a virus that is spread by touch. It lives for days on surfaces…including our hands! And the irony? Today more than ever we would benefit from a handshake! And not just a handshake as a greeting, but a handshake as an expression of connection, intentionality, and hope! Now, before you experience anxiety in response to my last sentence, let me show my cards a bit and share that I am writing with the purpose of suggesting a way to personify the handshake, so that no touching is required.

Over the last few months, I have had this memory that is tapping on my heart. Have you ever feel that, a tapping on your heart? Usually, I feel this tap when I am concerned about something or when I am seeking a solution to a concern. When the tapping is persistent, I know I need to listen.

Well, this one is persistent! It is the memory of my grandfather (Bapa Bob, we called him) teaching my son, Corey, when he was only four years old, how to give a proper handshake. If I close my eyes, I can see it like it was yesterday. I see Corey standing in front of my grandfather, so little and with such a serious expression on his face, and I see patience and love in my grandfather’s eyes. I also hear Bapa’s voice emphasizing the importance of looking a person in the eye and making sure the grasp is firm.  Corey recalls this moment vividly as well. He remembers locking eyes with his great-grandfather’s waiting gaze and the feeling of his small hand being firmly embraced in Bapa’s. This was a monumental moment, a lesson that has accompanied my son into his adulthood. Bapa impressed upon Corey that a handshake was a sign of respect toward another human being. It was a physical commitment to honor one’s word. The very action of a handshake was a belief in humankind because it said, “I see you,” “I am here,” and “You can count on me.”

I think that this memory is tapping on heart because the expression of hope found in Bapa’s handshake is even more important today, when the guidelines to stem the spread of the coronavirus require no touching whatsoever. We have to remember that emotional connection, through encouragement and support of humankind, is still so vital. In fact, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, I felt that humanity was hurting. Most of us would say that our typical life is so busy that we often feel overwhelmed, physically and emotionally exhausted. Many human beings feel alone in the world, some without homes, some without hope; and there is an atmosphere of divisiveness in our country which is creating angst between families, neighbors and friends. We could all benefit from a proper handshake, one filled with hope for humanity. Yet today an actual handshake has become a symbol of fear rather than hope. This fear is reasonable. We must act responsibly, to protect ourselves and others, by limiting our physical contact. But we need the handshake—the handshake of my grandfather’s time, the one that was a belief in humankind, the expression of connection and intentionality—we need this handshake alive and well in our world today.

So, what do we do? I propose to you that it is time to personify the handshake! To personify is to bring a human element to an object, or in this case, an action. To personify a handshake means to turn it into a living, breathing WAY of BEING, one that extends beyond a greeting and one that does not require touching. Rather than grasping hands, it begins by opening our hands. Consider this, when we reach out to another human being to shake hands, our hand must be open. Sadly, so often in the world today, we live our lives with metaphorical closed fists. When we rush through life, checking off our lists, walking right by those in need without even a glance, our hands and hearts are closed. When we feel frustration, even anger at a family member or neighbor because their political views do not align with ours, our minds are closed, and our fists are clenched.  When we fail to see through the eyes of another, because our ethnicities, religions, gender identities or experiences are different, our entire beings are closed. Personifying a handshake calls for us to open our hands, and thus, our eyes, minds and hearts to one another. Let me suggest three specific ways to do this, to reach towards each other, without touching (lol), but with a belief in humankind, with hope.

First, we personify a handshake by slowing down. My grandfather would shake his head in wonder at the pace at which most of us live our lives today, myself included. In the not so distant past, even the suggestion to slow down would have caused anxiety for some of us. I can hear many of you thinking, “I don’t have time for that!” A mixed blessing in our current state of the world is that many of our activities have come to a sudden halt. This may force us to begin to let go, just a bit, of all that we have to do, and begin to focus on the way in which WE BE. I realize my grammar is off, but it is intentional! I emphasize our state of being because being connected is perhaps the most tangible way in which we can go out into the world to personify our handshakes—to live with our hands open. Yet to be connected, we must be present and to be present, sometimes we must stop, and be still…and I know how essential this is because I’m horrible at it! Just ask my husband, my best friend and accountability partner. Recently he said to me, “Babe, you need to close your tabs!” Without understanding at all what he was saying, I got immediately defensive. But he went on to explain: “Sometimes, you are like a computer with 20 tabs open at the same time. Your mind and body are going so fast that it’s like you are bopping from one tab to the next. Sometimes you just need to slow down, be in the moment…Close your tabs!” It was like an epiphany for me: He was right!

Many of us live our lives in speed mode every day. We walk by someone at work or in the grocery store and we say, “Hi, how are you?” and we keep walking. We don’t show that we truly care how they are, because if we did, we’d stop and listen for the answer. We’ve turned the question “how are you” into a form of greeting in our society, which fosters disconnection. The beauty of my grandfather’s handshake is that it forces us to stop. If we are physically, firmly, connected, hand to hand with another human, we can’t keep walking. A personified handshake connects us too. It connects us emotionally, heart to heart.  In fact, it encourages us to bring value back to the question. Imagine what would happen if we physically stopped (at least six feet apart of course, until this pandemic passes), opened our hands and took a deep breath? This person might be so shocked, he or she stops, too. In that moment we set up the perfect opportunity to open our hearts, ask “how are you?” and mean it. When we look the person in the eye with intentionality and sincerity, he or she will know that we are genuinely interested in the answer. We also must think about our neighbors, especially those who are elderly, during this pandemic. In slowing down, we can take time to check on our neighbors, family members, and friends with whom we don’t typically take time to connect. I offer this challenge: Call one person a day who you typically wouldn’t connect with to ask how are you, listen to the answer and offer support as you are able. People will once again begin to feel seen and heard because when we open our hands and hearts in a personified handshake, we bring hope to humanity.

Secondly, we live out our handshake when we seek to understand. My grandfather’s mother left the family when he was 4 years old and he was raised by his father and grandmother. He joined the navy when he was young, motivated to stand on his own two feet and find his place in the world. Perhaps this is why my grandfather understood that there is always a story behind the ways, behaviors, or views of another. We can learn from this. Personifying our handshake means opening our eyes and hearts to not only to other cultures, religions, traditions and lifestyles, but also to others’ points of view. It might look like this: “I don’t get it, I don’t really understand where you’re coming from, but I want to. Can you tell me more?” Tell me more, I believe, are three of the most valuable words in the English language, because they allow us to be vulnerable, which takes courage. These three words take away our need to prove our point or to be rightTell me more is not accusatory; it does not create defensiveness because tell me more lives on common ground. Tell me more says, “We are both human beings and I care about you, even if I don’t get it. I am here, I am with you, I accept you for who you are and I seek understanding.” One of the greatest gifts of our involuntary social restriction is that it gives us time to reflect on what is really important in our lives. It also gives us more time to pick up the phone, say “I’ve been thinking about you,” and have this empathetic conversation. By truly listening, by leaning in to conflict, frustration or lack of awareness, our fists unclench, our hands and thus our hearts open and our handshake is personified. In this gesture, trust is built and relationships develop or deepen.

Finally, we personify a handshake when we serve others. In the past, when we stopped by Starbucks to grab our latte before a meeting, many of us neglected to open our eyes to the human who is sitting outside with all of his or her earthly possessions. It would take only an extra minute to order a muffin, stop to greet that person on our way out, and look into the eyes of this stranger with an offering of love. My mother always traveled with little care packages in her car filled with water, granola bars, and hygiene items. The humility in her heart requires me to tell you she borrowed this idea from another kind soul. But when she is out and about, she is intentionally looking for opportunities to serve. With this act of compassion, my mom opens her eyes, her hands, and her heart and lives her handshake out loud.  These ideas, regarding a well-known coffee shop and my own mom, are just two suggestions to encourage you to think other ways to recognize the needs in your community or neighborhood. When you come up with an idea, be sure to find a socially responsible and physically-protected way to fill that need. Our personified handshake is that of an open heart seeing another human being in need and acting upon what we see.

As I wrap this up, I leave you with this image of my grandfather and me.  I hope the smile on his face demonstrates the hope in his heart….and in mine.  I also am hopeful that this picture, and this idea of a handshake lived out as a way of being, will begin to tap on your heart. When you reflect on your way of being, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, remember what it felt like to be racing through life, to find yourself in conflict with a family member, friend or neighbor, or to see someone in need. Let the tap remind you that humanity needs a handshake. And we can be that handshake by slowing down and seeking to understand and serve others. Let your heart tap with mine, knowing that this idea of a personified handshake can be spread, without actually touching, as an expression of connection, intentionality, and hope!

Written by

Michelle Trujillo is passionate about igniting hope in schools! Through her writing, speaking and professional development workshops, she inspires readers, educators, students and their parents to recognize the power of love, connection, and social and emotional learning in the pursuit of academic achievement and productive citizenship. Michelle’s message of “starting with the heart” is founded on brain-based research, “in the trenches” experience and practical strategies. Her sincerity, enthusiasm and expertise are contagious and substantial. Named Nevada’s 2016 Innovative Educator of the Year, Michelle has appeared on television (including Oprah) and radio across the nation as a guest expert. Although Michelle has dedicated her vocation to education, she vows that family always comes first! Her husband of thirty years and their two adult children fill her heart with joy and inspire her daily! Michelle’s new book, Start With the Heart: Igniting Hope in Schools through Social and Emotional Learning was released by Corwin in April 2019.

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  • Thank you Michelle! Your words are timely, thoughtful, and certainly from the heart. Not only does this message resonate with me as a high school English teacher, but also for all of us as members of our unique communities. What an honor to carry on the memory of your Bapa Bob.

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