Go From the Inside Out

I married into a large family. A situation that I was ill-equipped to handle in the early years of my marriage. I grew up with two siblings and one cousin. That was the whole of us. Suddenly, I was immersed in a small town’s population on any given holiday. A swirling mass of people of all ages. All of whom seemed to believe that their volume and constant movement was completely acceptable—normal in fact.

Now, nearing 20 years later, I embrace everything about my family—good and hard. And what I learned along the way has turned out to be invaluable when it comes to embracing something new and different.

When you first are presented with something new or different, it is easy to view it as so foreign in nature that you wonder how it will ever fit into your life. All you see are the barriers to giving it a try. People seem to be doing something that you are unaccustomed to or have no experience with. In the case of my family, I was completely unaccustomed to being with a group of people who had such diverse views and interests and dreams. It was pretty easy when I only needed to interact with a few people who rarely challenged my views on life. When first experiencing my extended family, the conversations around me were hard to decipher and even harder to find an entry point for participating. At least, that was my perception from my seat on the couch as I looked in from the outside at this mass of people.

The trick, which took me a little while to figure out, is to actually start embracing new things from the inside out. When you do this, you begin to see all the things people are doing from within to help others connect and feel as if they belong.

The easiest example I can give of this is the vacation jigsaw puzzle—an activity that occurs every time we gather for a little “rest and relaxation.” Here is what happens. My wife and her sisters (there are a lot of them) rapidly unload everything from the numerous SUVs that arrive at any given vacation spot. The contents may vary year-to-year but two things stay constant—a ton of food and one jigsaw puzzle. As the kitchen gets stocked and the volume of conversation reaches a ridiculously high level, my wife finds a small table and places four chairs around the table. She then opens the puzzle box, empties the contents, and walks away. That is it—no announcement and no instructions.

It took me a number of vacations to actually recognize what happens next. Initially, I would periodically walk past the table as a small group of family members chatted away and puzzled. More chatting than puzzling to be honest. I was never inclined to sit if an open chair was available as I always felt it would consume too much time. Instead I would go off and read the paper, or swim in the pool, or partake in some other activity that seemed closer to my interests.

On a morning when most were still in bed, I sat down alone at the table and began contributing to the work of previous puzzlers. Before long, a niece joined and then a sister-in-law and then a son. It was quiet for a while as we each worked on a section. And then we started putting our sections together and the chatter started. I have no idea what we talked about. When we finished our sections, we left and gave way to another small group which followed pretty much the same routine. A little focus. A little chatter. And a little contribution to task at hand.

While assembling the puzzle is a rich metaphor in and of itself that is not what I took from this ritual. What surprised me was the very conscious act of staging the puzzle in the first place. It was an easy way for people to convene and begin to feel as if they belonged. Where you might get lost and go unheard in a mass of people, you certainly are found and heard in a small group of four. That is where you first feel connected and gain the comfort to gradually expand into other small groups and activities. When faced with something new or different, you shouldn’t try and embrace it all at once. You should start somewhere small inside and work your way out to the larger experience. Along the way you will learn a new way of doing things through the guidance of those who have previously sat in your chair.

You go from the inside out.