My son, Joe, is a people person – just ask anyone who knows him. What I really mean is: he is a passionate people person – not like most of us. Most of us like people well enough, especially family and friends. And we engage with those people readily. But when it comes to mere acquaintances or strangers, we are a lot more guarded. For some unexplained reason, we feel a need to keep the real ‘us’ hidden. So we wrap ourselves in a protective veil of polite but detached anonymity. We don’t try – or even care – to get to know the other person – just like Anne in Kathleen’s story. We may not even realize that we are telling each other, “You are not important to me.” We want to blend in, to be one of the crowd, to not stand out, to show that we have nothing to offer and want nothing in return. We don’t want to share anything personal about ourselves. Only when we slowly get to know someone, do we begin to trust enough to begin sharing little bits of ourselves. So, in lines at grocery stores or at ticket booths or in any number of queuing opportunities, we ignore each other. We stare into space or look at inanimate objects – anything to avoid eye contact or any type of interchange with others around us. We put on the don’t-talk-to-me look. In waiting rooms at doctor’s offices we grab a magazine or a cell phone to avoid human interactions. In groups of people at gatherings we stand around engaged in meaningless small talk – polite and distant. Some of us connect with others more readily than this. But for a lot of us, we steel ourselves against some unknown threat. We are uninterested in meaningful conversations as we rush thru our day.
Well, my Joe won’t have any of that! And, although the ‘Joe’ in Kathleen’s story isn’t my Joe, they do seem to have a lot in common when it comes to enjoying people. See, in Joe’s opinion, if there are people around – the opportunities are boundless. There are fascinating stories to be heard, wonderful families to learn about, exciting adventures to hear about, laughter to share, horsing around to enjoy, valuable information to exchange, real person to real person connections to be made, a worthy friend to get to know, another human being to nourish and be nourished by . . . . another soul to be brought into the warm glow of human to human connection.
Doesn’t matter where you are, if there is another person at hand, Joe will strike up a conversation. And he won’t start with small talk like, ‘Nice weather we’re having.” or “How about those Bengals?” Nope. He goes charging right thru that polite/distant veil and goes straight for the person inside with “Do you have kids?” or “Nice husband you have there!” or “I want to know how you get the ideas for your books” (said to a writer at a vendor’s table). And then, he’s off and rolling – listening to the person’s stories and asking more probing questions about what he has heard. In a few minutes time, he has the
person telling his/her life’s story. And the two of them are laughing and talking like they have known each other for years. They both part company, smiling and obviously uplifted by the experience. I have seen this scenario play out time and again. And I have come to realize what an amazing gift Joe has for making real heart-felt connections to others. What good he does for the world, one person at a time!
But, here’s the thing: I haven’t always felt this way. I used to think that this was a ‘behavior’ that needed to be ‘fixed’. I know, hard to believe. But I think you will understand my journey if I take you back in time, and you follow along for a while……
Joe has always loved people – from the day he was born, I think. He has always been joyful and loving. He began interacting with and accepting strangers from the time he was one year old. By the time he was 2 years old, there was a constant stream of teachers, teacher’s aides, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, neurologists, medical specialists, and evaluators from all corners of the professional world. He started attending the local elementary school at age 6. All the staff there loved him and freely gave him hugs. So from his early beginnings, it became natural for Joe to trust people and to become a ‘hugger’. When Joe reached middle school (he was around 12 years old), one of his special education teachers told me that we really needed to get Joe to cut back on the hugging. He hugged everybody – teachers, students, even strangers. Students his age did not go around hugging everybody and it looked ‘inappropriate’. Plus, it wasn’t safe. Joe knew no strangers and would most likely walk off with anyone who invited him. I was a little hurt because I know he did it out of affection and his love for people. But there was some logic in what I was told, so I agreed. And my husband and I joined the staff in coaching Joe to shake hands instead of hugging. This was somewhat effective. He learned that shaking hands still helped him connect with people, so he went along. Problem is, he would shake hands with the same person four, five, six (or more) times (also inappropriate).
So, by the time Joe got to high school at the age of 15, he was a hand-shaking maniac. The Special Education staff at the high school said, “We really need to do something about Joe’s constant hand shaking! It is really inappropriate.” Additionally, Joe still approached strangers with the same openness as if they were a solid friend. We were told that he would never be able to ride a Metro bus because of the potential danger it posed – he would readily go anywhere with anyone. He knew no strangers. He could never be left alone or go into public places alone because of the threat of predators. It was upsetting and seems harsh. But, please know that these were well meaning professionals who were truly doing what they felt was right to best prepare Joe for an adult life. Also, at the time, I was in agreement as to the problem and the course of action. So, efforts were launched to teach Joe that one does not talk to strangers. People only shake hands once per encounter. Support staff who accompanied Joe in the halls at the high school or into the community on outings were constantly interrupting his attempts at ‘inappropriate social behavior’. Joe tried, I really think he did. But one hand shake just did not do it for Joe. And it just wasn’t in him to not talk to people. At the time, his conversation skills were not that well developed and he struggled to make the personal connections with people that meant so much to him. He began reverting to the hugging mixed with hand shaking. He continued to seize every opportunity to try and interact with anyone and everyone. Then along came an attraction to girls. Hugging took on a whole new meaning. And so, there we were again, inappropriately hugging everyone. Joe’s main purpose in life at the time seemed to be to socialize. He spent every available moment throughout his day talking, shaking hands or hugging.
To compound the issue, Joe’s need to socialize interfered with another important component of his future. In high school, Joe was enrolled in a program to help him develop job skills for a potential job as an adult. Joe was given a variety of job assignments in the community to help him explore what might be a good fit for him. Unfortunately for Joe, these were all jobs that required constant attention to the work and little to no interaction with other people. While these jobs may work for some individuals, they definitely did not work for Joe. Predictably, he was much more interested in interacting with the people around him than in accomplishing the tasks at hand. I was told that Joe could never hold a productive job in the community without constant supervision because he was too focused on being social and could not focus on his work. So I believed that Joe’s constant need to connect with people was holding him back from having a real job in the community – a real place in the world.
I wanted Joe to be able to have a job in the community, to be accepted in the community, to be safe. All this didn’t exactly feel right, but the arguments were very convincing and the stakes were extremely high. So, my husband and I ‘bought in’ on the program of fixing these behaviors. But, it was hard. How could we stop Joe from constantly socializing? Joe would approach people wherever we were. He wanted to engage them but struggled with conversation. He would say something that was on his mind that had no context in the present. People wouldn’t know how to react or talk with him. He would resort to hugging or constant hand shaking to make a connection. It was embarrassing for me and for the other person. I started a reward program with Joe to help him resist hugging or hand shaking with everyone he ran into. It was fairly successful. In the mean time, he got a lot better with conversations. I coached him on how to talk about something the other person might be interested in. It was a constant effort to remind him to not hug, but he did improve. However, Joe would still approach people – people who wanted to be anonymous. He would ‘bother’ others in line, store employees, people in church pews next to him, people in waiting rooms, people on the street. Very often he would throw his arm around complete strangers. My husband and I were constantly ‘pulling him off’ of people. It was embarrassing. It was frustrating. It was futile.
AND THEN, some exceptionally wonderful, brilliantly intuitive, insightful people came into our lives. After high school, Joe joined StarfireU, a place where individual gifts are expected, discovered, valued, and nurtured. Staff members there started telling me things that were contrary to what I had heard before. Bridget Vogt said, “If I ever go into a room full of strangers, I want Joe Wenning by my side.” Tim Vogt wrote on Joe’s PATH poster, “Joe, there are people who need you in their lives!” Other staff members at StarfireU started to tell me that Joe energizes a room with his enthusiasm; he enlivens guest speakers with his insightful questions; returning guest speakers miss Joe’s energy and interaction in their sessions when he doesn’t attend; Joe is so empathetic and is a great ‘cheer leader’ or comforter for others. I am told time and again how valued Joe is for his gifts with people. I start to realize that what I had been trying to squelch – the part of Joe that would not be held down – is in fact, Joe’s most valuable gift.
And so, I begin to let go of the control. I begin to stand back and watch as he ‘does his thing’. I witness human to human connections as he reaches out to a stranger. I watch as he touches the heart of another person. I find myself following him as he enriches the lives of others. And, now that I am not in his way and he doesn’t have to struggle against me to explore his ‘people passion’, I notice that he is making tremendous progress towards more ‘appropriate behaviors’. He is hugging less and conversing more. He responds when I try to give him better ways of approaching people. He senses that I am not trying to control him any more – I am trying to help him be more effective at doing what he loves most. I still struggle with the danger of predators – it is real. But Joe has made it clear that the life he chooses must be full of people. I need to honor that and yet find ways to protect him. But maybe, it’s just possible that, having more people in his life actually does protect him. I am learning too that there is a reason for every behavior – and sometimes that reason is me. And as for those of you who want to remain anonymous: good luck if you happen to be around Joe Wenning. You might want to stand in a different line because I am not about to stop him, I know he is giving you a gift! It is still a journey for us. But I find that each time I try harder to follow Joe instead of stand in his way, I am rewarded. This new path that we are on is not futile – it is fertile.
Joe and I recently went to the Union Terminal’s African Culture Fest. Joe loves culture and is looking for a way that he might volunteer at the history museum (history is another one of Joe’s passions). So, this was a great opportunity to show up at the museum, get more comfortable there, and meet some of the other volunteers. Before we got there I promised myself that I would follow Joe and would only offer support when he needed it – no matter how embarrassing it got – no matter how uncomfortable the other person was – no matter what. It was his day and he was in charge. He loved it, of course. He chose which programs we attended, what vendors we interacted with, and which people we approached. The most remarkable interaction of the day was with an artist (woodcarver/painter/dancer/drummer) named Michael. Michael was demonstrating his woodcarving and that attracted Joe right away. Joe struck up a conversation with, “I want to know how you started this woodcarving?” And so it went. Michael talked about carving techniques and he told several of the stories around his wood art. He showed us some of his Batik paintings. He formed a genuine connection with Joe and me (because I was drawn in and loved the whole interaction too!). Joe recognized Michael’s talents and suggested that he would be a great person to teach a class for StarfireU. So we asked him if he would be willing to meet with some of Joe’s friends to share his work. He enthusiastically said, Yes!
Michael is a fascinating and warm human being. But then, Joe already knew that! And you know, Joe didn’t hug Michael once – well, I don’t remember if he did. And even if he had, it would have been quite appropriate! The very best part of the day happened in the car, on the way home. As Joe reflected on his day, he announced, “You know what I like about me? I’m a good connector!” Now who could argue with that?
And thus, on our journey towards the 5 shared experiences, Joe has made great strides towards making contributions and I have made progress towards learning to respect the person that is Joe Wenning!
p.s. If you ever get the opportunity to be party to one of Joe’s conversations with a stranger, I highly encourage you to join in – it is a wonderfully enriching experience!