By Joni L. Miller, Ph.D.
As a Lenten practice I'm sending 40 letters of gratitude to people who impacted my life. This is Week 1 of 7. For whom are you grateful?
When I was a child I had a two block walk home from where the school bus dropped me off. I was extremely timid and shy, and wanted to get home quickly so I would feel safe after being in the frightening world of school. I walked by an elderly man’s house who was often outside taking his afternoon walk. He was retired from the army and walked with the kind of bearing you would expect from a career military officer. He usually stopped me when he saw me to remind me to stop looking down at my feet. To engage with life. To smile my radiant smile and let other people see it. I didn’t understand then how those simple interactions impacted me. Now I see. Simple interactions can have profound impacts.
Colonel Smathers. I still think about him when I find myself walking with my head down, a stance to which I sometimes revert when I stop paying attention. I spent a lot of my life keeping my head down, letting depression and significant social anxiety limit my world. I survived day by day, trying to get to a place where I felt safe.
In my mid 30s I was separated from my first husband and trying to remake my life after this upheaval. I was disconnected from friends, disconnected from the things that had given me support and comfort in the past – things like attending church, playing the piano, and going out with friends. My ex-husband didn’t ask me to stop any of those things, but he didn’t like my friends, my music, or church so I thought it would be better to do things he likes so he would be happy. If he was happy, I could be happy. I was wrong. After we were separated, I started introducing those things back into my life. One Sunday I walked into a new church, stepping into a century old sanctuary, with golden wooden pews and beautiful stained glass windows. I felt in that moment this was where I was supposed to be.
I went every Sunday to the early service. I sat in the same little section on one side, out of the way, where I could remain anonymous and reconnect with God. And often I would cry. I was polite to people, shaking hands during the “passing the peace” part of the service, but I always bolted out of the church when the service was over (I mentioned I had social anxiety, right?). There were other “regulars” in that section but I sat in my pew trying to be invisible so no one would notice me crying. This went on for months. Then, one Sunday I sat in the back row of that section behind three women who usually sat behind me. I was just tooling along the service like usual. We were singing a hymn. I was singing the alto part, harmonizing for fun. The passing of the peace came after that hymn and the women turned to shake my hand. One of them, Lillian, said, “You’re musical. I could hear you singing alto. Do you want to play handbells? We’re always looking for more people.” I was surprised. I did play handbells and I enjoyed it greatly. So I said yes. Lillian made sure I felt welcome when I came to handbell practice, something really important to an introvert with social anxiety. Lillian introduced me to people and guided my way into the greater world of that community.
Thus, with one small decision – to sit behind the women instead of in front of them – my church experience went from being a passive recipient of healing to being a participant. To making friends and sharing my gifts. To learning and growing in a myriad of ways that go beyond faith. I could probably write 40 thank you’s to the people at that church who entered my life as I was getting divorced. Every member of the bell choir. The people involved in the contemporary worship service. The small “secret” study group. Lou. Sam and Jeannie. Michael. Gaye. You helped me come back to the core of who I am. And I am immensely grateful for those who helped me at the beginning of that “newly divorced and uncertain” season of my life.
I asked Lillian several years later about that day. She said they had been watching me, seeing my pain and grief, wanting to reach out, but honoring that I clearly wanted to be left alone. She said she saw an opening to connect over music and took it. I thanked her then and I thank her now for seeing someone in pain and finding a way to connect, finding a way to bring me in, for being my friend at a time when my foundations were shaking and I needed anchors to hold me in place.
This counts as my first letter of gratitude. I am writing publicly since Lillian died in December before I could adequately express my appreciation for how she impacted my life. I’ll share themes and anecdotes from the other 39 letters, but the letters are meant to be private – an appreciation for our connection and a description of how each impacted my life.
And, Colonel Smathers, I keep my head up now, engaging with the world and letting people see my radiant smile. I thank you for the reminder and the memory that to this day keeps me from looking at my feet.
We’re connected to each other in ways large and small and we don’t often understand or acknowledge the impact we have on each other. Who had a positive impact on your life in a time when you were struggling? Who is on your list of 40 people to thank?
By Joni Miller, Ph.D. © 2019
Photo by Jennifer Webb on pixabay.com