As I prepare for outdoor guests throughout this summer, I find myself steeping plenty of cold-brewed tea in a glass carafe. Unlike with a colorful ceramic teapot, I can see inside as the color changes whenever I open the fridge.
I also have some loose-leaf floral teas that make the water rather pink, black teas that turn it dark brown and herbal teas that fade into yellow-green.
It occurs to me that I also change color depending on what I steep in. If I follow national or global news, I change color. If I retreat to a solitary corner in my house to watch funny YouTube videos, I change color. If I spend all day watching kid-level shows with my minions, I change color.
And if I choose to be present and engaged with the children, mindful of my schedule and the family’s needs, and use some amount of self-discipline to take care of business even when I don’t feel like it, guess what? I change color.
Call me a chameleon, but my surroundings have a very clear effect on my mood, behavior and my sense of self, even just day-to-day. And I’m convinced this is a universal concept.
Parenthood has made me extra sensitive to news stories involving human suffering and I’ve had to step away from the need to know things all the time. The sometimes challenging amount of self-control needed to maintain this has improved my mental and emotional state gradually but noticeably over the last few years.
Other people aren’t sensitive in the same way, but I have seen the long-term effects of steeping in popular culture in myself and in other people. It leads to a pattern of behavior following those same values: self-interest rather than selflessness, retaliation instead of forgiveness and going with the flow of trends instead of charting a purposeful course.
It would be foolish to insist that we are not affected by our surroundings. The shows we watch, the music we take in, the books we read, the people we listen to, the groups we follow on social media — all of them exert influence on us.
My mom had this great phrase when I was a kid: “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.” She said it so often and pointed out the relevance of my friend choices so calmly and carefully that the family proverb really stuck with me. I would spend my life steeping myself in the company of people who did not come from my own family and would necessarily teach me different ways.
This is, of course, good for kids. Our own families are an insulated pocket and our parents retain the primary control of what we ingest as kids, what we think of as normal and the ways in which we interact with the outside world. Those are our foundation and it allows us to build a family unit.
But at some point that sphere of influence widens and wise parents carefully choose role models for their children’s lives to strengthen and enhance the commitment to established family values.
Those values are key. They give us a compass for seeking out the tea leaves we steep ourselves in as we go out and make our own way in the world.
If I want to be intentional about who I become, I can’t afford to waste this short life on things that are miles from my core values.
Some of the main values I choose are the transcendentals — truth, goodness and beauty — in my daily life and parenting, so whenever I am overwhelmed by dark or ugly things from the world outside, I know where to go back and center myself.
As a parent, I can instill these same values in my children using a variety of methods. We homeschool and highlight meaningful poetry, great literature, art appreciation and penmanship. In our home, we decorate purposefully to emphasize the importance of our faith and the value of knowledge and details.
It’s important that these things are both tangible and highly visible. We are sensory beings — whatever else we are, we experience the world, life, relationships and feelings through our senses.
With that understanding, I can more mindfully choose what I steep myself and my family in as we grow and develop, choosing to be the best steward I can be of this beautiful responsibility given to me.