by Erin Michelson
With nearly 100 countries under my belt, I’ve learned that one of the greatest gifts of global travel is an appreciation for the relationships in my life. While I’m abroad, I look forward to reuniting with my friends and family, and when I’m back home I revel in the simple pleasures of picking up the phone for a heart-felt conversation, sharing a cup of tea, or taking a walk on the beach with close friends.
This fresh appreciation has encouraged me treat those that I hold dear as precious. To give them the love and respect that they deserve as a center point in my life. Because they are so precious, I’ve decided to treat them gently, with care.
I’ve decided to embrace gentleness as a form of expression – beginning with myself, spreading to my friends, and extending to the wider world around me. Here’s a look at how I’m living more gently these days:
After a book signing last month, a young man named Joshua from the audience wrote to me to say how my presentation had inspired his family to incorporate more volunteering into their travels. Next to his name, he wrote “Be good to yourself.” It was such a simple sign-off, but one that resonated. I think this casual good tiding gave me pause because rarely am I good to myself.
In fact, I’m fairly harsh with myself. I’m always slightly distressed that I’m not doing more, giving more, working harder. Oddly, until Joshua suggested that I be good to myself, I never really comprehended how hard I was on little ‘ole me. So in the last several weeks I've made a conscious effort to ease up a bit and treat myself more gently. I’m trying to take care of myself – to give myself the time and space to nurture my core being. I channeled this desire to be gentle into practicing yoga and mindfulness, being present, and embracing daily moments of joy and wonder.
I've just started and yet these simple activities are now a priority in my day. I look forward to taking my yoga mat out onto the lanai as the sun lowers in the sky and I stretch and strengthen my muscles. I focus of balance and breathing. I don’t think of much except to be aware and grateful. I've already come to cherish this time I’m dedicating to protecting and preserving my mind and body.
As I nurture gentleness internally, I’m also striving to be more gentle towards my friends and family. My first step has been to soften the language that I use around them. To be more aware of how words can hurt and heal; how a simple phase can cause tremendous harm or give enormous pleasure.
In particular I've decided to stop cursing. Like many people, I've been known to rifle off a string of expletives that would make any sailor blush. And for the slightest infraction too—like a wayward turn signal, a longish line at the super market, or a telemarketer disturbing my concentration.
It’s not just the cursing itself that is so bad, but the brutishness of the words. I happened upon an article describing how foul language mirrors rape language, and then I was able to fully comprehend what I was saying. It was vulgar and violent. Until then, I wasn't aware that a few words could inflict so much pain. So in an effort to be more gentle toward those around me I am making a concerted effort to not use profane language.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I still feel annoyed, I’m just holding back from letting fly the most offensive words. And you know what? I feel better. I didn't realize how those violent words were coloring my overall outlook, creating an atmosphere of rage and anger. By changing my language, I've softened my interactions and thoughts towards those around me. I find my tolerance is increasing and I’m feeling less hostile. Increasingly, I’m also feeling more friendly and at peace with my surroundings. All good things!
My circle of gentleness is continually widening to enfold all living things, especially animal and plant life. My decision to become a vegetarian and stop buying leather last year was the start of this transformation.
The first year of being a vegetarian, I endured. Viewing my new eating habits as a hardship as I focused on all the things that I couldn't have. But now I’m beginning to see my love for animals as a privilege that I get to exercise every day. I believe that being a vegetarian is helping me to be both more humane and humble as I fully comprehend that one species is as valuable as another.
Last weekend I watched the award-wining film Winged Migration. My mother kept telling me it was one of her favorite films and as we watched it together she marveled aloud at the strength of the birds to endure the thousands of miles of migration each year. Honestly, I had never before thought of the fortitude of our feathered friends. To me, birds were birds, and while I no longer choose to eat them, I still hadn't move to the stage where I respected them.
Riding my bike a few days after watching the film, I stopped to watch a duck that had just landed on a pond. I took a few minutes to admire its colorful markings, the strength of its breast muscles and impressive wing span. I carved a few minutes out of my life to fully appreciate this marvelous (formerly considered mundane) creature that I had been taking for granted.
I’m now moving in to a space where I’m celebrating all animals, marveling at their unique qualities. I can’t tell you how much joy it has given me to view wildlife through these rose-colored glasses. The window is now wide open for me to appreciate and honor the humanity that abounds.
Even in such a short time, this newfound compassion toward myself, other people, and animals is having a profound effect on my outlook. I’m more positive and patient. I’m learning to embrace a peacefulness that I didn’t even know was missing in my life.
As I continue to develop this taste for kindness, I’m better understanding my spot in the wider world and savoring this fresh look at my surroundings. And as I live more gently, I find the universe is treating me more gently too. And I deserve it.
Erin Michelson is a social entrepreneur and the author of Adventure Philanthropist: Great Adventures Volunteering Abroad. The book chronicles her 2 years traveling to more than 60 countries and all 7 continents volunteering with nonprofit organizations along the way. Leaving the world of corporate finance to work in the nonprofit arena, Erin currently runs a consulting firm specializing in growth strategies for international nonprofit organizations. Living a nomadic life, Erin continues to write, speak, volunteer, and travel widely. You can follow her “living and giving” adventures on www.GoErinGo.com.