A Friday life challenge. One of the heaviest (and frankly most frustrating) aspects of not feeling your best is that you have to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy focusing on yourself. In the end, you can get burnt out from feeling like the main character of a movie you are not enjoying (or anyone in a DC superhero movie).
There is a way to flip the lens and put yourself behind the camera. That is to shine the spotlight on others by thanking them, even when you are not in the best place. Here is an exercise that I suggest to anyone looking to give. Even when we feel low, we have tremendous value as a human and there are ways to share that aspect of life.
During this past year, I was lucky to receive a few surprise gifts from some incredibly special souls in my life. They always seemed to be perfectly planned and came when I desperately needed a boost. They were so simple: a bag of coffee, a great card, an old dvd. The excitement of having something unexpected in the mail was such a mini thrill. Can you even fathom how excited someone in the wild west must have felt when the pony express came by with a letter that was already 4 months old?!?!
One particular piece of mail really made me stop in my tracks. One day I came home from a day where the world had given me a half decent bruising. I was questioning myself, my abilities, my past, present, and future. Waiting for me in the mail was a small package. Inside was a card from one of my former students who was graduating from Naval Civil Engineers Corps Officer School. It included a commemorative pin from his graduating class and a note with kind words about his appreciation for guidance I had given him(supposedly- I learned more from him I think). I have been lucky to have special connections with several of my former students(colleagues). In particular when they tell me they are going to serve in some capacity in our military, a very complex emotion comes over me. It is a strange brew of extreme pride mixed with a parental worry about the state of the world and the troubles that exist. It is always a special surprise to hear from them. However in this case I was shocked and overwhelmed by this gesture. I thought how could I have influenced him enough to think of me at a moment as monumental as his military graduation? It helped me realize how profound our effect can be on each other. I was filled with gratitude and a genuine desire to reach out. But a normal thank you did not feel like enough, so I decided to begin an exercise fueled by his act of kindness.
I began writing a thank you card each night for the rest of the month. In the beginning, I had a loose list of the people I wanted and needed to thank. So my final act of each day before going to bed was to write a thank you card. I would never decide who it was for until that moment, and I never reread them. Write and seal, that was the system. Within a few days it became the highlight of my day and it changed my perspective entirely. Seeing who my brain felt like writing to that day was an incredibly joyous experience. As the days went on, it became so much easier to express my thanks and to identify new candidates for my mental list. Putting myself in a position to give when I had been in a long ‘need’ phase was a completely different life energy. It made me feel like a contributor to the human race again. My mind began focusing on gratitude all around me. Things that I appreciated, from a perfect willow tree to a great exchange while getting a cup of coffee, stood out in my daily memories. Life had highlights.
This exercise was complete. I was so appreciative for the new thoughts and perspectives it had helped emerge. However it still had more to give. This desire to give thanks to others was done completely with the intention that nothing would be given in return. A thank you for a thank you? That can get out of control quickly.
However I started receiving a few messages and phone calls from my friends telling me that it was such a perfectly timed boost for them. My cards arrived right when they were having a bad day and questioning different aspects of their lives. It is so easy to forget that all of us have aspects of our days that are frustrating and filled with all the challenges of being a person. Even those who may seem to have their lives together or have a positive outlook on social media. (Nobody would only present the good parts of their lives on facebook right?!?!?!)
The mail was delivering the same emotion I had received. We had built a network of thanks. It became the starting point for some real meaningful conversations with family and friends. I began to see the cards displayed on shelves in their homes or suspended on their refrigerator. It was clear that it had a personal value that I did not expect from my small piece of paper and ink.
So my challenge to you is this. Try to show thanks to someone once a week. Something deliberate with thought. It doesn’t need to be expensive or cost anything at all. A special text, ordering them funny socks, a small card with a heartfelt message. Let your feelings be a small alert message for this act. When you feel like your life is too hard, take a breath and look for a way to give. It is impossible to feel self- pity and gratitude at the same time.