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Acknowledgment as Spiritual Practice

My life is lived amid many strangers or near strangers whose unheralded and unassuming work makes the rhythms and routines of my daily life possible. The desk clerks at my apartment building. The drivers of the busses that take me around town. The University security guards who watch by the street corners where I walk to and from the seminary. The school crossing guards at Brett Hart School down the block. The grocery bagger at Treasure Island. A few of these people I know by name; most are complete strangers. But I make it a practice to acknowledge them when I pass: a wave, a smile, a greeting, a thank you. On a nasty winter day in Chicago I might wish the bus driver a safe day behind the wheel.

I know this is hardly a high point in their days. A few respond with obvious pleasure. Most just smile politely. Miles is one of the maintenance guys in our apartment building. I often see him in the mornings as I leave, vacuuming the lobby. Miles is shy, almost painfully so. It’s taken a few years to coax more than a fleeting smile from him. I always greet him by name. Recently he actually spoke a few words to me. It felt like a small but important victory.

I like to think this adds a bit of grace to days that must often be dreary with routine. Many of these people labor in jobs that others render invisible, unless things don’t go quite right. But adding a bit of grace to another’s day is not really the point. I’ve come to think of these acts of acknowledgment as one of my spiritual disciplines, a practice I undertake because it’s good for me quite apart from anything it does for another. It is a reminder.

To acknowledge is to be reminded of our dependence on others. Arrogant notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance are hard to sustain when we begin to acknowledge all the people in our lives who make it possible to live comfortably, get to work safely, buy our groceries, etc. And to acknowledge another is to be reminded that even our large, impersonal city is really a collection of villages. Faces and personalities acknowledged become familiar, recognizable members of a community that we share and that none of us possess. When the school crossing guard at Brett Hart who waved enthusiastically in the morning as we rode by on our bikes failed to return after the summer recess, we missed her. Our village was smaller.

Acknowledgment is also a kind of personal witness, a testimony to the fact that our common humanity bestows dignity that is not dependent on all those things that tend to confer status. Education, dress, title, occupation can lure us to dismiss others as unimportant, undistinguished, the faceless occupants of service jobs. Undeserving of our attention except when needing to be scolded for work not done to our standards. Acknowledgment is resistance, forcing us to see others as human, not merely “the help.”

Acknowledgment, like any spiritual practice, can become distorted. I must take care not to become condescending, offering a generous nod as a sign of presumed superiority. And I must take care not to intrude, forcing myself through protective shells erected to protect people from the often mean spirited public. Acknowledgment as spiritual practice may mostly benefit me, but not if it loses the intention of benefiting the other.

A friend taught me a traditional South African greeting: “Sawa bono” means, “I see you.” The response is “Sikhona,” which means, “I am here.”  To acknowledge is to see. And seeing prompts a new awareness. “I am here. I have a place. Without me you would be diminished.” Another way to think of acknowledgement is to think of it as blessing. John Ames, Marilynne Robinson’s fictional pastor in Gilead speaks of blessing as “the acknowledgment of sacredness.” “It does not bestow sacredness, it acknowledges it. And that is a powerful thing.” To acknowledge sacredness in others is to experience it in ourselves. It becomes a calling in life as much as it is a fact of life. Blessing.

“Good morning.” “Thank you.” “Good night.” “Take care.” “I see you.” I know these phrases can become rote, routine, superficial. But when spoken as a form of acknowledgment they are kinds of prayer, spiritual practices that remind, bear witness that others are, in fact, here. And that they are sacred. Acknowledgment is a blessing. And that is a powerful thing.

John H. Thomas
June 11, 2015

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