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Using a smile to see

I read something a few years ago in The Art of Belonging by Hugh Mackay that has continued to influence my perception of human interactions. It’s this concept of acknowledgement and its importance in connection. When we wave at a neighbour or smile at a stranger, we aren’t exhibiting a conditioned social norm, but instead, we’re acknowledging the other’s existence. That wave, that smile, it says: I see you. I acknowledge you. And I belong to you. And this sense of belongingness is one of the greatest sources of human fulfilment.

Having been home and heavily engrossed in training for two months, this concept of belongingness has been readily apparent in the culture at both my club team and even at Adelaide United trials. What I’ve noticed, and had painfully missed during my collegiate years, is this genuine excitement to see one’s teammates. One of the first things I noticed about my teammates in America is that they didn’t hug. Nor did they really acknowledge your arrival or departure from training. It’s as though players were numb to emotion. To excitement. To human connection. Here in Australia, everyone hugs everyone. And if they’re not hugging you, they’re probably hi-fiving you, or shaking your hand, or at the very least, saying hello and asking how your day was. And not because they have to, but because they want to.

This acknowledgement was absent during my playing years in America. As such, I recall feeling a deep sense of rejection for who I was – I loved soccer. I loved my team. And I was always excited to see others. But that excitement wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm, instead it was dulled with coldness. I felt my rough edges smoothing over the years as I learned to numb emotion, to conceal excitement. A social creature by nature, I became a hermit. I felt rejected by my teammates, by my coach, by athletic staff. I felt like who I was was annoying, because that’s how I was perceived by those around me. It’s as though my excitement to see others was childish and there wasn’t a place for it. I yearned for connections that reciprocated this excitement, but silence was all that I received.

A significant part of me regrets not having moved home sooner, given the fulfilment and sense of belongingness I have seemingly eased back into. But I acknowledge and accept that I needed to stay in America – I needed to understand my teammates and my collegiate experience. And I also needed to experience that sense of belongingness in an alternative setting. And I did. I found that in my work. Not necessarily with my co-workers, but with my regulars. My childish enthusiasm upon seeing a familiar face was unconcealed. Better still, it was reciprocated. Fortunately too, I found this sense of belongingness with my tennis ladies. My tennis ladies didn’t tolerate me, they embraced me. They made me feel wanted. And they gave me the most precious gift; their authentic, unfiltered selves.

Within the past week, my perception has altered significantly. And I owe it to a specific individual who, unknowingly by being herself, reignited my internal zest and appreciation for soccer. Frustrated by circumstances beyond mine or others’ control, I was going through the motions with soccer. Negativity seeped into my language, apathy and indifference dominated my emotions. Until I saw this kid – she was so damn excited to be out there even though she was injured and has been for months. She was loving every minute of her rehab. She didn’t see it as a means to an end, but as an opportunity; an opportunity to be in a professional environment around quality players. Her raw, unfiltered excitement not just for others, but for herself, cultivated excitement within me and further altered my reality. Regardless of what happens with the selection process, I am doing something I love and I’m becoming better every day because of it. So often our fixation with a result distorts the beautiful process of the journey. But this kid reminded me of that. And she did so with her genuine, pure excitement for life.

On that, here are a few things I’ve learned from these contrasting soccer environments:

1) Life is too short to surround yourself around people who aren’t excited by your presence. Feeling connected is essential to not only a successful life, but a fulfilling one too. Surround yourself around the best of people; the people who build you up more than life breaks you down. Remember: relationships are to be enjoyed, not tolerated.

2) Someone’s rejection of you is a reflection of them and their values, not you.

3) A meaningless connection to you, could be a meaningful connection to another. Never underestimate the power of a connection nor overlook an opportunity to connect.

On this last point, I want to emphasise the importance of telling people how you feel. Someone made an impact on you? Tell them! You appreciate what someone did? Show them! I frequently hear friends describing others they have met as being a “top chick” or a “great human” and I often wonder; do they know this is how they are perceived? One of my primary goals in life is to live in such a way that friends, family, even strangers, always know exactly what they mean to me and how they impacted me. I try to show my gratitude with my authentic presence and my appreciation through intentional effort. I do this at the risk of seeming “too much”, but saying too much is often better than not saying enough.

So I encourage you; live as though those you love will die tomorrow, and you’ll have lived a loving life. Surround yourself around those who have a genuine love for life, for people, and just as importantly, for you. And never lose your childhood enthusiasm, for your unfiltered emotion might just alter someone’s reality.

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