Sr. Mary Leonard was one of those life-changing teachers who had the ability to look down into a child’s soul and read its contents. She had a genius for clearly laying out expectations and then providing the appropriate tools to ensure that they could be met. Her combination of affection and structure provided the trellis and organic material that allowed my spiritual, social, and academic roots to stretch to new places. In her eyes I could see the outlines of personal possibilities.
Which brings me to the day that I ran into my old friend, Jim Lynhares, out front of the Precious Blood Motherhouse where I maintained office space many years ago. I asked him what he was doing thirty miles from home on a workday. He explained that he was making good on his decades-long vow that he would, one day, go back and thank his First Grade teacher for all the good she had done him. Which led to my forehead slapping, “I could have had a V-8” moment. I realized that Sr. Mary Leonard had slipped away without my ever having thanked her for changing my life.
Gratitude has a way of feeding people’s souls. Shortly after his death, Dr. Beutenmueller’s daughter called me. While collecting up his most precious possessions (e.g. Bible, prayer book, and rosary, etc…) she ran across a letter I had written him upon my graduation from college. In it I told him what I should have told Sister Mary Leonard. “You were the one professor who changed me the most.” After I sent it, I would never see him again. I would, however, meet his large, loving family because they invited me to represent all of the students whose lives he had changed by serving as his pallbearer. This experience tracks closely with some research I have conduct over the last couple of decades in my delivery of resilience workshops to healthcare, education, and not-for profit professionals. Any time I ask a selection of those professionals to name an experience that exemplifies the passion they feel for their work, at least seven out of ten times they describe a situation in which someone took the time to write, call, or tell them what their contribution meant to their lives. Gratitude feeds people.
In retrospect, I can see that Sister Mary Leonard wasn’t the only one who would have benefited from my gratitude. Resilience research has shown that the regular practice of gratitude grounds us and gives us the psychological muscles to weather difficult situations. For those with an explicit spiritual life, this research dovetails nicely with the insight that each of us are carriers of Spirit. Divinity is the ground we walk on, the air that we breathe, and the horizon toward which we are traveling. When we nurture a fine-tuned sense of gratitude for the thousands of gifts that surround us, we are brought more in touch with the true nature of things. Everything is a gift.
Whether one nurtures an explicit/conscious spirituality or not, studies that measure the impact of gratitude time and again have revealed that the practice of expressing gratitude increases the sense of well-being, happiness, and resilience in the one expressing the gratitude…even more than the one who receives it. Which leads me to offer a challenge or invitation to my SMC readers, and listeners (depending upon which language appeals the most).
An Easter Exercise Guaranteed to Bring Unexpected Happiness and Resilience
For the fifty days of Easter, could you make an explicit practice of writing an old fashioned post-marked letter of gratitude to those who have been a gift to you in some large or small way. In this day and age, almost no one sends snail mail. Your old school letter will slow you down to write more reflectively, and will have greater impact on the receiver than is possible with email or text messages.
You decide the appropriate amount and interval for the letters. Some of you will take this exercise on at the Platinum Member Level and write your first letter on Easter Sunday, and conclude this exercise having completed fifty separate post-marked letters that may include grocery clerks, coffee baristas, barbers, hairdressers, old neighbors, and more. Others will participate at the Gold Member Level, sending letters to coaches, teachers, significant mentors, and old grade school, high school, or college friends. The Silver Member Level members will know the warmth of sending cards and letters to sons, daughters, grandchildren, grandparents, godparents, moms, dads, siblings, and significant family of choice. Members at the Blue Ribbon Level may only write one long overdue letter to someone living or dead.
Remember, the more heartfelt, the more powerful for both the giver and the receiver. Research has indicated that the most powerful way to discharge this exercise is to read your letter to the subject of your gratitude in real time, and then mail it. Some hints: don’t be afraid to reference important experiences with the person. If arthritis, disability, or a lack of penmanship skills prevents a handwritten letter, feel free to type your letter, but by all means sign it or personally mark it somehow, and mail it. Do your very best to avoid sending it by email or text.
I look forward to hearing your stories of the impact of this exercise. And in the meantime, be assured of my gratitude for including Sunday Morning Café in your life!
I Appreciate You,