Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Things We Wish We'd Said All Along

On our wedding day we got some inspired advice just prior to the actual ceremony: "Some of the most clever things you come up with should be left unsaid." We've probably quoted it a million times since, usually with a knowing smile. We both have a penchant for biting sarcasm and witty retorts. Yet occasionally we've actually taken that counsel and swallowed some of our funniest -- but potentially hurtful -- comments and comebacks. I credit that counsel for the fact that we're both still married...and still alive!

But the converse is also true...the importance of saying out loud some of the kindest things you think, but are prone to keep to yourself. Another piece of advice we received at our wedding was the importance of sharing some specific, deserved praise every day. And for some reason that seems as difficult and counter-to-human-nature as swallowing the clever barbs.

A few years ago I had this guy named Greg working for me who was a master at this. He had a girlfriend who was really needy...bordering on neurotic. He told me he learned a lot from that relationship – it taught him to verbalize all the positives. He said, "We think good things about people all the time, but rarely take the trouble to say them out loud. This girl was forever doubting my love and affection for her, and I realized if I just started to SAY all the things I was already THINKING about her, she was a lot happier. So now it's just a habit — I do it with everybody." Very cool guy.

Last night we had a farewell party for a friend who was moving away. She's one of a select few of Jeff's filmmaking students we've remained close to after graduation. When we found out she was leaving, people literally jumped at the chance to throw her a party, offering to help with food, set-up, etc. We had a big barbecue and watched movies – some of her student films, and a feature film Jeff made.

BUT...we didn't think that was enough of a send-off for this truly extraordinary girl. SO...we created a farewell book for her, complete with goodbye messages from all the guests at the party, and a little flip-book motif where everyone added to the cartoon stick-figure in the upper-right-hand corner so by the time we were through it made a silly little "movie". ALSO...we arranged all the chairs in a circle and asked anyone who wanted to share a fun memory of Johanna (while the book was circulating).

WHAT WAS AMAZING...was what happened next. People spent what seemed like forever crafting these epistles to Johanna in the the souvenir book. Nobody wrote anything thoughtless and generic like "Good luck -- keep in touch." Instead, they composed these beautiful letters about the contributions she's made in their lives, the influence she's had, her innate goodness and unselfish heart. How they love her sense of humor. How approachable and easy-to-talk-to-about-anything she is. How she made them feel loved and important. Attempting in every way possible to express the extent of their love until their was no room to contain it and it was spilling onto the next page, and the next. People were clearly eager to have a chance to say what was in their hearts with respect to this girl.

MEANWHILE...as people were sharing their memories (which could have seemed sort of forced and awkward) the same phenomenon took over. People were literally sobbing, talking about what a key person she's been in their lives, how they looked forward to going to work or school every day JUST so they could see HER. And they were laughing about hilarious pranks and hijinks. And nearly everyone mentioned how they've watched her reach out to others in a way that could only be described as Christlike. I could go on and on. Because we all did. (The party went until two or three in the morning.) Once the floodgates were open, the deluge of love and admiration and well-wishing and celebration was unstoppable.

SO WHY DID WE WAIT UNTIL SHE WAS LEAVING? Now granted, this girl, Johanna, is extraordinary. And I don't think she had any idea To. What. Extent. the people around her adored her. She knew she had devoted friends, and knew she was widely loved, but I don't think she expected an outpouring of this magnitude. In some ways her obliviousness to her own power and goodness is what draws people to her again and again. But I also know that she struggled at times with some insecurities, and I wonder if a more regular dose of specific deserved praise from the people surrounding her would have eased some of that pain and helped her believe in herself early on. (She glows with confidence now). So why didn't we tell her all this sooner? Why didn't we say it every day? And why don't we extoll everybody else's virtues while we're at it?

After watching this event unfold at our house, I want to do a better job of saying out loud those things I think in my head. Not the hilarious cut-downs, but the specific recognition of what's good...of a job well done, a flattering hair cut, an infectious laugh. And I'm going to try to talk about the harder things to express too...character traits, influences, gratitude, love.

Ironically, just this morning I read an article in TIME about how negative comments on the internet have become. Now that may be true on You Tube and other places with a broader audience. But that hasn't been my experience here at all. In my small view of the blogosphere (read: my blog and the blogs I read) comments are what makes the world go around. People are kind and supportive and caring and encouraging. They laugh at your jokes and compliment you on stuff you never noticed as special. (I guess that makes lurkers the equivalent of all those people who might think kind thoughts but never say so – the path of least resistance.) Let's all make a goal – just for today – to say all those kind things we think. And watch what happens.

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Note to Brillig: See? You should have let me throw a barbecue for YOU! :)


breckster said...

Knowing Johanna I am not surprised, she is especially easy to think nice things about. :) And even though I was always exhausted the next morning I miss talking to you (and Jeff) until 3 or 4 in the morning.

I have been thinking about this very thing because there is a significant lack of kind things flying around my city. I may not be ready to be kind to my enemies, but I might be able to start saying the nice things I think... even if it proves I'm not really a New Yorker.

Brillig said...

Ha!!! If you'd thrown me a barbecue (dude, HOW many times did we try to make that work?!), it certainly wouldn't have gone like THAT! hahaha. She sounds amazing, and I love the idea behind the new attitude. We SHOULD say those things aloud more often. Beautiful post!

Kazzy said...

One of the things I LOVE about working in special education is that the day is full of positive affirmations flying around the room. Sometimes the kids are hard, but the feelings are almost always soft.

Kimberly said...

You've put so perfectly into words something that I feel very strongly about. I've shocked a few people by coming right out and saying something nice about them. How sad is it that it's a shock?

heather said...

Wow, you're a talented writer. And so nice of you to take the time to check out my blog and comment.
Kimberly is great, eh?
I'll be back to visit,

Jessica Stier said...

Thanks for your comment on my family blog. It's nice to "meet" you!

What a wonderful post! You have really said some things that I am going to try to take to heart. You are so right about how we need to say these things out loud.


gunfighter1 said...


So... was this the barbecue where you mentioned me to someone and they already knew my blog?

Eowyn said...

Thanks for making me cry--and I mean that in a good way. I used to be the kind of person that would say whatever I was thinking--both the good and the bad--but somewhere along the line, I closed up. Now for the bad stuff, that may not be such a bad idea, but for the good stuff? Bad idea. I will definitely be trying a little harder today to say the good things that I think.

And for the record--Brillig, I'd have come to your barbeque and I could only have said good things, because I only know of good about you.