When I suggested our college-age YMCA cabin group do the activity “I’m from a place” I knew I was suggesting they open their souls to each other and trust that the group would support them. That was how “I’m from a place” worked. In this activity, the group stands up and spreads around the room—our room being about 15×15—and the group is quiet. Then one person steps to the side and says, “I’m from a place….” And fills in the rest of the sentence for them. It doesn’t have to be detailed, it can even be general, but it should be personal.
I’m from a place where my parents don’t understand what is important to me.
I’m from a place where I’m not sure where to go with my life right now.
I’m from a place where it is hard to tell who my real friends are.
I’m from a place where I feel loved and supported most of the time.
Since these are college-age participants, their comments often are about finding their place in the world, what kind of decisions to make etc. And, when someone in the group steps to the side and says their statement, then everyone who identifies or connects with that statement comes to stand near them and put their hand on their shoulder (or on the shoulder of someone who already has their hand on that person.) Then, once everyone who has moved is done and there is a few moments of support, the next person steps to the side and says their “I’m from a place…”
This goes on for maybe 30 minutes with a group of 12. Usually everyone goes about 2, maybe 3 times. It is quiet. It is thoughtful. It is supportive. It is intense.
And the feeling in the room as people quietly say something that is true for them, is powerful.
As the facilitator of the activity, I usually go first. It sets the tone and gives them an idea of how it works. It also gives the permission so to speak, to go to the place where they share the thing they struggle to say. I don’t do this with all groups. Not all groups get to the place where this activity is the right choice for them. This is also one of those activities where I ask the group if they are interested in doing an something that really puts it out there. I tell them, “This is a beautiful activity and it is powerful, but if you aren’t in the mood and want to keep it light, are feeling distracted etc., it is totally cool to do something different.”
This particular group was on board.
So we started. Simple. Deep. Honest. Even when their I come from… was vague, it always hinted enough that individuals could interpret it as they wished.
Such as, “I come from a place where I’m really struggling right now.”
We don’t know why or how that person is struggling. We don’t know if we are struggling in the same way. But the reality is that it doesn’t matter. If you are struggling and I am struggling, then we come from the same place.
We got the activity started and before you know it people gathered around, hands on shoulders, a hand or two on backs and other people standing nearby. In a few moments, the whole group was connected. Silent, but connected.
After a few moments—which we called “Giving the sharing its time” someone new stepped away. And on it went from there.
My anxiety climbed after about 10 minutes when I thought about sharing my “I come from…” with the group. I wanted to be able to say how what had made this last year so painful—so heartbreaking—but couldn’t find the words. Everything seemed inadequate, or too specific. I wanted to speak a truth for me—one that captured the profound loss without saying the details.
Also, as the leader of the group, I didn’t want it to be about me too much. I could be a part of the group to a certain extent, but not so much that the spotlight stayed on me. The only people who had a sense of what my last year had been like were my co-leader and one of the participants who I had know for 4 years. As I scrolled through possible phrases, they all seemed to miss what I was trying to say.
I come from a place of deep hurt.
I come from a place where this last year I feel like I no longer remember who I am.
I come from a place of deep, deep anger at the events that have happened.
None of them worked.
When I finally knew what to say I almost panicked at the thought of speaking such pain aloud. To say this in a group of strangers would be one thing, but 2 of the people (my co-leader and “R”—the participant) would know what I meant.
I stood to the side and said, “I come from a place where I have lost one of the most important things in my life this year.”
Gradually, one by one, they came over to me. The comforting pressure and warmth of hands rested on my shoulders. Gathering friends—strangers only 2 days ago—moved beside me and behind me. Then R walked in front of me and faced me. She went against the norm of the activity, stood a foot away from me—closer than you stand if you are going to have a conversation, more like a hug—and she looked up at me until she had my eyes. Reaching out, she took both of my hands—another unchartered territory in the activity—and she held both my hands.
She knew what I was referring to when I said I had lost significant things and people. She knew exactly. Standing behind me, or next to someone else was not enough. R knew the pain I was referring to. She had seen it play out. Even though she was 16 years younger than I was (a 19 to my 35,) she stood with me in that moment. I was unaware of the others once she did that.
Rarely have I felt so exposed, so vulnerable and so supported at the same time.
She didn’t say anything. She just smiled at me and squeezed my hands.