5 min read

Uncle Phil's Hug

The other day I was scrolling through the Twitter GIF menu to try to find one of a comforting hug I could use to respond to a friend who was sad. After going through the obvious ones that I often use, and past the ones that were too cutesy or romantic or sexual to be appropriate, what eventually popped up was this:

If you're a younger GenXer or older Millenial, there's a good chance that you immediately recognize that scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. If you're at all like me, there's a good chance that that scene is one of your strongest memories of 90s television and that you still think about it from time to time, but maybe you haven't actually watched it recently? Take a few minutes to watch it again, although maybe only if you're in a place where you're okay with crying:

(Yes, I cried when I first saw that episode back in 1994, and I cried when I re-watched it after finding that GIF, and I cried again and more than once re-watching it just now as I'm writing this newsletter.)

The thing that always stuck with me from that scene when I saw it as a 14-year-old was Will's breakdown at the end, the tremble in his voice when he asks "How come he don't want me, man?" And the hug, of course. And those things still hit me as I watch it now at 41. But I'm also so struck by James Avery's performance as Uncle Phil.

It's an understated and generous performance, for one thing. At the time, Will Smith was still a relatively new actor. He'd just come off his first dramatic role in Six Degrees of Separation and although he'd been well-received in that movie, he was still very much learning how to do dramatic acting. Avery's performance in the second half of the scene has a stillness, a restraint to it, which both gives Smith the physical space to move on the set and holds an emotional space for Smith to be in.

But it's not just what Avery's stillness is doing for Smith, the actor. It's what Uncle Phil is doing for Will, the character. Uncle Phil doesn't say much to Will in this scene, but what he does say is kind of a master class in holding emotional space for someone who needs it. He says "I'm sorry" to Will, expressing and offering sympathy without overcomplicating it or centering himself. He tells Will that it's okay to be angry, acknowledging and validating Will's emotions, and giving him a safe space in which to feel them. He offers to help, but doesn't push. He acknowledges Will's strength and resilience. ("Yeah, you did.") He does all of that with such gentleness and compassion, just being present and steady for Will, even though you can see on his face how much pain he feels for what Will is going through.

And then, the hug. At this point, when Will is at his most vulnerable, he doesn't try to say something to cheer Will up. He doesn't tell Will that it will be alright. He doesn't try to stop Will from crying. He doesn't say a word, he just reaches out and pulls Will in, and then holds him and lets him cry while the camera pans away and the credits roll.

It's been hard for almost everyone the past year. We've all been through so much, and even those of us who felt like we were "keeping it together" during the pandemic have started to fray lately. How many of us need an Uncle Phil right now to just hold us while we cry? And yet, Uncle Phil could only be what he was for Will in that moment because, ultimately, he was in a position of safety and abundance. It's never easy to really be there for someone else, but when your own emotional reserves are depleted it becomes next to impossible. The Uncle Phils and their hugs are fewer and farther between right now, not just because of social distancing but because the people who might otherwise take care of us are going through it, themselves.

But maybe you are usually the one to take care of the people in your life. Maybe you are usually the Uncle Phil, the rock that your loved ones can anchor themselves against while they weather their own storms. Maybe that's something that you see as your purpose or your calling, and maybe you feel best about yourself when you're able to be there for them. But maybe right now you need an Uncle Phil to hug you, too. It's okay to need that. And it's okay to ask for it, too. You don't always need to be the one to give care; you can be taken care of, too. I don't know where all of this will end up—maybe things will get better and maybe they won't—but I hope that you can at least find a moment or two with someone to feel things with. If nothing else, just know that you're not as alone as you think you are.

Another Flower Portrait

I think it looks a little like it's shy. Or maybe shushing me.

What I've Been Up To

This week on Keep the Channel Open, I'm talking with writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan about her latest novel, Starling Days. I enjoyed the book for a lot of reasons—its depiction of depression felt very authentic to me, but even though it includes some very heavy scenes, it also includes lightness and tenderness and all sorts of other emotions and tones. In our conversation, Rowan and I talked about some of our experiences as mixed-race readers, all about the book, and at the end we had a fascinating discussion about faith and making meaning and family traditions.


It's Friday, so here are a few things that mattered to me recently:

  1. Helen Zaltzman recently released an episode of The Allusionist titled "Additions and Losses," which is about the ways that people's attempts to express sympathy are so often really just conveying their discomfort with disability or loss. (Content note: the conversation includes mention of ableism, cancer, and child death.)
  2. A friend recently shared the video for No-No Boy's song "The Best God Damn Band in Wyoming" with me. The song is about the singer's "Japanese Grandma," Joy Teraoka, and her bandmates in the George Igawa Orchestra, who performed around the state while incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, from 1942-1945. As someone who grew up on stories of the Internment, I found it very moving.
  3. Anne Helen Peterson wrote about labor shortages and how they're being driven by more than just temporary burnout but actually demoralization, and how this is a sign that our economy is deeply broken.

As always, this is just a portion of what has mattered to me recently. In case no one has told you lately: you are enough, just as you are. You are not a problem to be solved. You are a person, and you matter.

Thank you, and take care.