I was born in the middle of a pack of seven siblings at the tail end of the Baby Boom. For Catholic families of those times, seven kids was considered large, but not unusual. In the Nativity Olympics, mom would have made it to the medal stand, but she would have had to settle for a Bronze behind the likes of Mrs. Bruce (n=14), and Mrs. Wolf (n=10).
Some years ago, I had occasion to visit my grade schoolalma mater. As I stood surveying one of the classrooms, my already towering respect for the Seventh Grade teacher, Sister Mary Leonard, soared to Mount Rushmorian heights. Here I stood in a room with no more square footage than three normal-sized bedrooms. I tried to imagine Sister Mary Leonard confined to such a tiny, Lilliputian, air-conditioning-free space with forty, large, Gulliver-sized seventh graders. Her ability to really teach the humanity shoe-horned into this little box was almost beyond my powers of comprehension.
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 both the trellis, and organic material that allowed my spiritual, social, and academic roots to stretch to new places. Sister Mary Leonard’s Belief caused her to believe in me. In her eyes I could see the outlines of personal possibilities.
Years ago, I ran into my friend, Jim Linhares, at a convent where I was renting office space for my nascent psychotherapy practice. I asked him what he was doing thirty miles from home on a workday. He said that he had taken the day off to fulfill a personal promise he had made to himself. He had always vowed that he would, one day, go back and thank his first grade teacher for all the good she had done him. On that day, he was having lunch with Sister Emerita. He was making good on that promise. Jim’s trip to pay out his vow created a forehead slapping, “I could have had a V-8,” moment for me. In an instant, I realized that Sr. Mary Leonard had slipped away without my ever having thanked her for changing my life.
By way of contrast, shortly after his death, Dr. Beutenmueller’s daughter called me. “Doc” or “Beauts” was my favorite college professor. In searching for his rosary that was to be placed into his hands at the funeral home visitation, she ran across a letter I had written upon my graduation from college. In it I told him what I should have told Sister Mary Leonard. “You have changed me.” After I sent it, I would never see him again. And yet “Doc.” kept my letter right next to his most treasured possessions: his Bible, prayer book, and rosary. His family asked me if I would serve as one of his pall bearers at his funeral and grave site.
As our pandemic has shifted to endemic, at long last, I have returned to in-person retreats and talks. For the last month and a half, I’ve been facilitating resilience retreats for healthcare leaders throughout the Midwest. On such retreats, I regularly solicit stories from their jobs that exemplify what gives them passion for their work. Their accounts of profound service, and deep connection never fail to inspire. Very frequently, these stories contain a Jim Linhares/Doc Beuttenmueller moment when the recipient of their service returns to voice appreciation with a card, or a visit.
Like Sister Emerita, Sister Mary Leonard, or Doc Beuttenmueller, these healthcare leaders didn’t get into their work for the “thank you’s.” Nonetheless, gratitude has a way of feeding and inspiring people. Appreciation has a way of saying to its recipient, “Not only is your work meaningful to you, it is meaningful to me and so many others as well.” It has a way of letting the object of the gratitude know that “You are seen.” And human beings are built to be seen. Human beings are built for delight. Standing before the mirror that is gratitude, we come to see ourselves and our contribution more clearly. In addition, appreciative feedback places the banality of our daily activities into a coherent pattern that we can appropriate as evidence of a vocation that matters. When the weight and grind of those activities bears down at a later date, we can call to mind what we learned in the mirror of gratitude, and recall the “why” that gives meaning to what is frequently experienced as drudgery.
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 those who express gratitude may benefit nearly as much as the one who receives this expression. You and I have an inborn power, a resource that can change a life for the better.
Who are the Sister Mary Leonards, and Doc Buetenmuellers in your life whom you could feed and be fed by manifesting gratitude?