by Elizabeth Mills
As a student volunteer for the Aphasia Initiative this past semester, I was able to take away a multitude of valuable lessons from this incredible group. Above all though, what resonated with me the most was learning about the power in not being afraid to make mistakes and the ability to find joy in these mistakes, an especially pertinent lesson for anyone, like myself, who tends to sweat the small stuff.
Knowing many of the language and communication challenges of Aphasia, I had the preconceived notion that there would be feelings of frustration, fear, and embarrassment amongst the group members. Although these moments of difficulty undoubtedly existed, there was an overwhelming sense of lightness, ease, and lack of pressure in the Aphasia Initiative. This was even in the face of this semester’s challenging new “Toastmasters” program, where members were encouraged to give speeches in front of the group. Were the speeches perfect? No! Did members struggle with finding words, stringing together phrases, and sound substitutions? Yes! But there was very little shame surrounding these mistakes! Despite each member’s circumstances, they did not beat themselves up over these issues. Aphasia or not, this is a good lesson for everyone in not being too hard on oneself.
Not only were the members not bogged down by these mistakes, they were willing to laugh and find joy in them as well! On the first day of volunteering, a member accidentally said that his daughter was “400 years old.” I instantly thought to myself, “That was pretty funny, but is it appropriate for me to laugh?” Not a moment later the entire room was filled with a chorus of joyful belly laughs. I quickly realized the capabilities of joy and laughter as coping mechanisms in life’s difficult moments. On the last session I attended, I could not help but look around the room with a big smile on my face as members used silly impressions and vocal qualities to practice different speaking techniques. This was a perfect example of the Aphasia Initiative’s bright, optimistic climate that comes along with not being self-conscious of making mistakes and being perfect.
This ability to be silly, laugh, and not take oneself too seriously all stems from the Aphasia Initiative’s overwhelmingly supportive environment. The members face similar challenges, so they pour understanding and encouragement onto one another. I have observed one individual reassuring another to “take their time,” while struggling to find their words. I have seen everyone cheer as a member finally produced the target sounds of a word after many tries. During the “Toastmasters” speeches, I have witnessed members being surrounded by words of motivation and celebratory outbursts as they tackle the daunting task of speaking in front of others. Ultimately, we can all look to the Aphasia Initiative for an important lesson in how laughing about mistakes and not taking oneself too seriously fosters a joyful attitude, even in the face of hardship.