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The Amazing Benefits of ‘Circling Up’ to Include the Excluded

  • Heather Avis Author
  • Updated Jun 26, 2019
The Amazing Benefits of ‘Circling Up’ to Include the Excluded

The circle is a powerful shape. It is a universal symbol of wholeness. And there’s a reason for that. It can build understanding and a sense of community that goes far beyond our backyard trampoline.

In many Native American traditions, the circle is a symbol of equality, where no person is more prominent than any other. When gathering in a circle, there’s an understanding that all people are allowed to speak and that their words will be accepted and respected on an equal basis.

Luther Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux, a notable author, educator, philosopher, and actor, says, “Love settles within the circle, embracing it and thereby lasting forever, turning within itself.”

I love the idea that love exists within a circle rather than being boxed up or confined by rigid lines.

When I read Luther Standing Bear’s words, I envision our family’s daily morning prayers in which we take a few moments to circle up, hold hands, and look at one another face-to-face. Even when our prayer is done and we let go of each other’s hands to head our separate ways, we take this circle of everlasting love with us.

Circles stand in stark contrast to lines. Lines create boundaries around or within an object. Lines separate and divide. Think of the last time you had to stand in a long line—what emotion does that memory evoke? I’m guessing it’s a negative emotion, which is why so many of us do our level best to avoid lines.

More importantly, when we stand in a line, we rarely turn around to see who’s standing behind us, which means we have little opportunity to know anything about the people in front of us and even less about the people in line behind us.

Lines can also be indicators of worth or privilege—those at the front of a line being superior and those at the back of a line being inferior. Lines, by design, have a beginning and an end, a first and a last, a hierarchy. And wherever the line is made up of people, whoever is first inevitably has the power and the privilege.

While these observations about circles and lines may seem simple, I’ve experienced the not-so-simple ways they show up in the complex systems that govern most aspects of our lives—systems such as our schools, workplaces, and even our neighborhoods and communities.

Most of society’s systems are ‘lines.’

“Line” systems  work in favor of the kinds of people who have the abilities and the resources to make it to the front of the line. But they don’t work for those without abilities and resources—those who are dependent on the community andrequire the relationships and love of circle systems. 

But let’s not forget that it’s often the people at the front of the line, the people the systems favor, who have the greatest need to circle up and be known. The space at the front of the line creates isolation and misunderstanding. But when we are accustomed to front-of-line benefits, we don’t want to give that up; we don’t want to risk our power, our place, and our privilege.

Flexing into a circle prevents exclusion and creates community.

But if those of us at the front of the line are brave enough, we may just find that when we bend and flex until the line becomes a circle, isolation is replaced with community.

In his book Becoming Human, my hero Jean Vanier points out how difficult and uncomfortable it can be to even take notice of people who are different, the people who are most likely to be pushed to the back of the line: “Who are those who are different? Often, they are in discomfort while others live in comfort. Their cries become dangerous for those of us who live in comfort. If we listen to their cries and open up our hearts, it will cost us something. So we pretend not to hear the cry and so exclude them.”

To this I would add, not only do we pretend not to hear their cries, but we also situate ourselves so far from their cries that we no longer have to pretend not to hear them because we truly cannot. We make our way as far up the line as we can to place ourselves as far out of earshot as we can from the cries of anyone who is different.

Our efforts to have our adopted daughter, Macyn (who is blessed with Down Sydrome) fully included in a general education classroom (instead of special education) and be seen as a valuable and worthy member of her school is a story about lines over circles.

When we questioned the lines that had been put in place—specifically, the lines that separated her from the general ed classroom—it was both an inconvenience and a threat. We were asking everyone involved to rethink the structure of how the whole system is set up, and we were asking the people who benefited most from these systems to lay down their power—and to see that in so doing, they were not giving up any of their rights, but rather extending those same rights to others.

Including the excluded ensures we hear their cries and face them.

When we said we wanted our daughter out of the special education classroom and fully included in her school community, we were creating a space for all the people in the school to hear her cries.

We believed that as those in power circled up and then widened the circle to create a space for Macyn within it, they could begin to see the power in her. By insisting that our daughter not be placed in a segregated classroom, we placed a spotlight on some of the unjust realities of this system.

Although the education system claims to be set up for all children, it only works for those who have always had access to the front of the line or to the rare students capable of pushing their way to the front.

When we challenged the school to circle up, we asked it to take on a shape that allows my daughter’s face to be visible to everyone in the space. It was a simple enough request, but it wasn’t easy.

And the need to circle up—to hand over our power— does not begin or end in our schools. We need to start choosing circles over lines in the majority of our societal systems. Although there may be a time and place for lines, I wonder what could happen if we as a culture began to imagine and work toward a world in which the lines that shape us can be bent toward one another.

If we begin to bend, I believe these bent lines will turn to circles, until we finally see each other face-to-face.

Of course, often there’s little reason for people who stand at the front of the lines to want to turn around and see those standing way behind them.

Why would those of us who benefit from the lines want to make a change to circles?

Jean Vanier tackles this question in Becoming Human:

“The excluded, I believe, live certain values that we all need to discover and to live ourselves before we can become truly human...If we start to include the disadvantaged in our lives and enter into heartfelt relationships with them, they will change things in us. They will call us to be people of mutual trust, to take time to listen and be with each other. They will call us out from our individualism and need for power into belonging to each other and being open to others. They will break down the prejudices and protective walls that gave rise to exclusion in the first place. They will then start to affect our human organizations, revealing new ways of being and walking together.”

The reason we choose to give up our power and gather together in circles is so we can know each other and be known.  It’s only then that we become truly human.

Choosing to embrace the challenges and graces of doing life in circles has drastically and irrevocably shaped me as ahuman and as a mother. More often than not, it is my kids who are the ones at the back of the lines in the systems they have to navigate. The more my kids have pushed me to turn aroundand see those at the back of the line, the more I believe in the power of the circle-up mentality.

I’ve made it my calling to create a world of circles for my kids, but it’s a calling that runs even deeper than that. It is within circles—spaces in which all people can be seen and find worth and belonging—that I have experienced Jesus in new ways, and learned to see all the people he loves, face-to-face.

I see Jesus when I shift my gaze and my heart from my own successes and seek out and cherish the differences in the people around me.

As I learn to see everyone as my equal, I recognize Jesus as our great equalizer. The circle is a symbol of equality, where no person is more prominent than any other. If I teach my kids how to see Jesus in others and how to gather together all kinds of people to know and share God’s love, then as a mother I can say, “It is well with my soul.”

This adapted excerpt was taken from Scoot Over and Make Some Room by Heather Avis. Copyright © 2019 by Heather Avis. Used by permission of Zondervan: www.Zondervan.com.

cover of Heather Avis' book Scoot Over and Make Some RoomHeather Avis is the author of Scoot Over and Make Some Room and The Lucky Few, and a popular speaker, podcaster, and Instagrammer. Her family’s story has been covered by numerous outlets including TIME, TODAY, and POPSUGAR. She is a wife to her loving and supportive husband, Josh, and mother to Macyn, Truly, and August. They live in Southern California.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/william87