Be sure to hug the children goodnight!" the headmistress told me on my first day of work. Sounded like a wonderful idea. But within a day or two I learned how hard it would be to put into practice.
I'd just finished graduate study and started work in a residential school for children. Most of the kids, ranging in age from 5 to 13, were there because they had difficulties living in their own families.
William arrived with a bald spot because his dad had grabbed him by his hair in anger and pulled out a fistful. Then there was Joan, an only child who alternated between feeling deep rage toward her mother and crying over her for days.
As time went on, I knew I wasn't responding to the children's real needs.
One day I counted 19 major crises, including stealing, lying, and swearing. I began to feel like a failure. I was still giving good-night hugs, but exhaustion and frustration made them tentative, tinged with irritation rather than genuine affection.
Over the holidays, I poured out my difficulties to a friend. The conversation got onto a spiritual track, and I soon realized I needed a new point of view.
I took time to pray with ideas I found in two of my favorite books on spirituality: the Bible and Mary Baker Eddy's "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures." I kept track of my insights, questions, and ideas in a daily journal.
"Science and Health" describes God this way: "Father-Mother is the name for Deity, which indicates His tender relationship to His spiritual creation" (p. 332).
I was inspired by the idea that God is a tender, loving Mother as well as a strong, supportive Father who cherishes His-Her children. Could I see these kids as being cared for by this Father-Mother? And could I express that same kind of love and care? The answer came in the form of an inner nudge - to write down something I appreciated about each child.
Shauna helped the younger kids practice their musical instruments. Jake's snow-sled jumps were breathtaking and his courage contagious. Joan, who'd never held a broom in her life, was doing a better job sweeping the floor.
As I noticed and appreciated these things, I actually began to witness more and more of the inherent strength, beauty, and goodness in each child. Joy welled up in me as I felt God's love melting the coldness in my heart.
I tacked a large sheet of butcher paper across the dining room wall and wrote one thing I appreciated about each child. The next morning when the kids came to breakfast, I read the list out loud. The children blushed and giggled.
Then it was my turn to blush - they wrote and illustrated stories of appreciation for me and for one another - little acts of kindness, small accomplishments. Our wall became a mural of gratitude.
I found it easier to be patient. I thanked them when they did something helpful - and they smiled back. Mundane jobs became opportunities for creativity and growth. We worked out a routine for doing chores to music - the faster the music, the faster the chores got done.
As the year drew to a close, I realized our "appreciations" were building blocks for the children's future, helping them value and build on their inherent goodness and strength as they matured.
Many years later I ran into one of the children, now grown. She mentioned how much she had loved being in our "family." It had been a tough time in her life, but she'd worked through it because she felt someone cared for her.
My spiritual practice is helping me see and appreciate the divinity reflected in each of us. The discipline is worth the effort, because it's this kind of love that transforms my thinking and helps me work to heal the hurts of others. And with this deeper understanding of divine Love, my hugs have become more meaningful, too.
Adapted from an article posted on www.spirituality.com .