Did anybody SEE that?!?
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Marisa Guerin, PhD – October 20, 2019
The other day I found myself walking in the underground Broad Street concourse in Center City Philadelphia, avoiding a rainy day up on the street level. It’s a rather huge, empty space that runs north-south for many blocks, with a zillion metal columns holding up the street above me and a concrete floor over the subways that were rumbling and roaring beneath me.
It’s mostly empty, but not completely. There are always a few homeless people tucked into corners
with their possessions, staying dry and trying not to attract much attention. There is also a smattering of regular pedestrians, like me, who know how to avoid weather and traffic by walking the concourses.
As I headed south, I could see ahead of me a small knot of young people – twenty-somethings, I would say. Four or five young men and women were vaping, throwing back cokes, and engaged in lively banter. Several of them had skateboards and others had backpacks; it seemed like all of them were sporting miscellaneous tattoos and hair buns.
Meanwhile, one of their buddies, a young man with his skateboard, was going up and back, pushing his board past them in the flat, echoing concourse, practicing his stunts. As I neared, he was moving towards me, passing his friends, and he executed an especially complicated maneuver, consisting of a high jump, a flip and turn of the board, and a smooth landing on the still-rolling board. Exultantly, he leaped off, turned towards his friends and shouted,
“Did anybody SEE that?!?”
Well, no. Unfortunately, not only had they not seen it, it appears that they didn't even hear his question. Their chatter continued uninterrupted.
He turned with some disgust back to his skateboard; I was just passing him at that point, so I gave him a thumbs up and without breaking my stride, I said, “I saw it! You were great!” He smiled with pride.
I’m thinking he may have been quite amused to get a review of his skills from a passing senior-citizen lady, but I could tell it was a bit of a balm on his briefly-injured ego. I was glad. And then the moment was gone. The little group receded behind me as I continued, threading my way between the posts to my appointment.
It has stayed with me, though, this brief exchange. Here was a young man who wanted to validate his accomplishment through appreciative eyes. His friends missed that moment; a passing stranger didn’t. I found myself thinking about all the young people in my life circle, and how very important it is for them to be affirmed as they master new skills. I realized how often that charged moment must happen when they are on their own in the world, their friends elsewhere. Will there be a perceptive supervisor, colleague, or neighbor to notice?
As I reflected on this, I was reminded of a book I found very stimulating during my graduate studies, “The Space Between Us” by Ruthellen Josselson. I've mentioned it before. It is based on her research about the different types of relationships people develop over their lifetimes, each type of relationship meeting a different psychological purpose: Holding, Attachment, Eye-to-Eye Validation, Identification, Mutuality, Embeddedness, Tending. When I first encountered this book, it made immediate sense. It gave me a vocabulary and a set of concepts for my experience, which was that I had many very important friends that were nevertheless very different from one another in their meaning in my life.
In particular, Josselson helped me understand the special importance of people who were VALIDATORS of my individual, unique, growing self. I understood the importance of a compliment from my Dad, whose perceptive mind and clear judgment I admired; the affirmation of my mentors when I managed something well; the support of a teacher or coach when I mastered a challenge. Josselson wrote:
“By becoming real to another we become real to ourselves. Eye to eye contact with a responsive other gives us confidence in our own experience, allows us to feel validated in who we are, and shapes what we come to believe about ourselves.”
Eventually, I came to the phase of my life and career when other people looked to me for validation and support. They included people I have supervised, younger professionals on their career paths, nieces or nephews in first jobs, mentees of all sorts. I’m glad to offer validation when I can.
And that rainy afternoon in the subway concourse reminded me that, perhaps, we are always just a smile and a thumbs-up away from delivering a boost of encouragement to anyone we may meet along the way.