Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Small acts with big impacts — community

  • Café Balagan co-owner and manager Gill Sasson prepares a drink in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Published: 3/17/2023 3:49:29 PM

Every day around noon, my husband Michael, a political scientist and prolific writer, stops writing at his desk and walks to downtown Northampton for lunch. He always goes to the same place, BalaganCafé, and orders a sandwich and café latte. The servers at Balagan know Michael well and they always share in conversations about politics, the city, the weather, and, more recently, updates about our granddaughter, Fiona.

Recently, Michael was sick with a cold and could not make his daily pilgrimage to Balagan for lunch. Knowing he still wanted his favorite sandwich, I went off to Balagan to get a take-out for him. The servers were surprised to see me and not Michael, and inquired about where he was. I told them that Michael was sick, and I wanted to take home “the usual” for his lunch.

Noah, one of the servers, packaged up Michael’s favorite sandwich and gave me the latte in a paper take-out cup. When Noah handed me the latte, I noticed loving notes were written on the take-out paper cup. “Michael, we miss you,” the writing said. “Get better fast and come back to see us soon!”

I returned home with the sandwich and the decorated paper cup. Michael was much better the next day, I think the loving notes did it.

I thought about the messages written on the paper cup from Balagan as I read the book “Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides” by Stanford University Professor Geoffrey L. Cohen. In this thoroughly researched and enormously helpful book, Cohen discusses the small acts that establish a sense of connection and belonging — in a school, community, house of worship, academic setting, place of employment, and other social groups.

Big events, like a surprise 40th birthday party or a lavish retirement celebration, certainly contribute to a sense of belonging, but in fact, it is the small, every day interactions that cement our sense of being seen, valued, and cared for. The cup from Balagan with the get well love notes is an example of a small act with a big impact. Michael was reminded of his ties to this community, and that people care about him.

Cohen describes how we long to belong. We long to feel noticed, included, we want to be part of something larger than ourselves. We long to feel the pulls and tugs of the unseen connective tissue that holds us together — the sense that we are visible, integral to communal life, and appreciated by others.

In his book, Cohen reviews extensive research that demonstrates how an array of practices and small acts can establish connection and lessen the political polarization in this country, combat racism and stereotyping, and enhance a sense of well-being in individuals and communities.

“Small gestures and brief experiences of connection can have surprising effects,” Cohen writes. “By helping to foster belonging in others, we will also feel more connected, empowered, and fulfilled.”

Mother Teresa addressed this very notion when she said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We do belong to each other. In so many ways, my well-being is tied to your well-being. My emotional and physical health and safety are in your hands — as yours are in mine.

Cultivating a sense of belonging goes beyond simple politeness and common courtesy. It involves noticing, commenting, remembering, and helping. It means using even seemingly insignificant interactions as a way to say: I see and appreciate you, your presence matters, I understand that we are connected in ways that keep us both safe and well.

Cohen writes, “Research shows that when our sense of belonging is threatened even momentarily, we’re more likely to feel worse about ourselves, perform below our potential, behave impulsively, see others as hostile, and lash out defensively when provoked.” He continues, “On the other hand, even fleeting experiences of belonging can have far-reaching benefits.” These “fleeting experiences of belonging” may be as small as being recognized, feeling welcomed, and being included.

Cohen believes that each one of us has the potential to engage in “situation crafting” throughout the day — shaping a situation, even in seemingly minor ways, in order to foster belonging. According to Cohen, research has shown that, “… a small gesture or a thoughtful comment can often alter a situation, or people’s perception of it, in ways that relieve tensions and make them feel appreciated and included.”

At the church I serve in Springfield, we speak often about knowing “who we are, and whose we are.” Individually, each of us defines who we are, and that is revealed through our choices, actions and behaviors. Knowing whose we are is different. At the church, we mean that we belong to God. We know whose we are as people of faith; we are God’s beloveds. But knowing whose we are applies in community as well.

In Northampton, I often experience the “small gestures” Cohen refers to and I believe that is why I feel so embedded in, connected and loyal to this community. I feel that I know who I am and whose I am — I belong to you all, and you to me. When I think about this community, one word comes immediately to mind: gratitude. And that is a powerful and belonging-enhancing feeling.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, Ministerial Team, Alden Baptist Church, Springfield, is also founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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