By now, I am used to answering the question. It comes up like this: A friend will say to someone else present, “John wrote a book, you know.” And the other person there will look at me, silently for a moment. Maybe they’ve known me for a while and find the notion that I would complete a book highly implausible. Perhaps this is a chance encounter, and they have sized me up only for a moment, and now they are trying to figure out how this unlikely looking person could have actually completed a book.
Then, after this pause, they say, “So what’s it about?” The question is asked with an uncertainty that says, “I’m not sure I want the answer to this question since it may take up a few more minutes than I want to wait.” No worries. I don’t like talking about myself for very long anyway. So I’ve come up with a short answer.
“A couple years ago, things were not going so well in my life. [I’ve learned to spare them the details.] And then I got the idea — well, really, I was inspired [don’t want to give more details here either, as cocktail parties don’t really lend themselves to theological discourse]. And my inspiration was to write thank you notes, one a day, for a year. 365 thank you notes. And when I was done things were a lot better.”
So how did I actually complete a book? Even now, I am not sure. My original inspiration had been to write thank-you notes, not to write a book. When I had finished my first 365 notes, I began to write a book about it. I wasn’t sure I really could write it.
As a New Year dawns, and the book originally released as “365 Thank Yous” is being re-released as “A Simple Act of Gratitude,” I find myself grateful for so much more than the ability to identify myself as a writer at cocktail parties. In my life, the book has been so much more than an item for idle conversation. Because I was lucky enough to publish a book, my gratitude to many people in my life was writ large on a stage larger than I could have intended when I carefully wrote the original notes.
The book has now become a living cycle of gratitude in my life. I have not stopped writing thank-you notes, for now I have even more for which to be grateful. The people I send them to write back. I’ve heard from teachers, classmates, colleagues, friends, doctors, relatives, even distant relatives, and have a greater appreciation for the hundreds of good people who have touched and cared for my life.
Those who have read the book, and who have now been writing thank-you notes themselves for more than a year, are finding the same renewal in their lives. I know because they write to me. As one of them wrote last week:
“Your thank-you book has changed my life! I started writing long overdue notes and reaping phone calls, visits, loving hugs and happy times remembering happy times.”
There is no feeling like knowing you have been able to bring joy to the lives of others from the pain in your own.
Start the process of renewal in your own life. Just use some simple note cards. If you’re like me, you have unused ones hanging around. Of course it is proper to mention the gift, and what it means to you. But try to picture the person who gave it to you, where they are in life, and the effort they put into your gift, and the other things they have done for you. And then write from the heart. You have only a sentence, one chance to write one, true, sincere thought about what this person has meant to you.
Here are some suggestions to make this journey a part of your way of life:
Cultivate a Grateful Heart.
Of course, at the beginning of my journey, in January 2008, I did not have a grateful heart. So many things were going wrong that I felt I had nothing for which to be grateful. In fact, I didn’t even know how to spell the word. But I had a goal, and that gave me the discipline to keep going, and what eventually occurred was a change in my heart. The goal of writing one note a day gradually made me watchful during the day for opportunities to be grateful, and note by note, I began to perceive the many good people around me, and the blessings in my life that I had failed to appreciate. And when I was grateful for these blessings, they seemed to multiply.
Don’t Make a Lot of Rules.
Several people have written to me after about three months of writing thank you notes, worried that they are running out of things for which to be grateful. If this happens, do not feel enslaved to mathematical perfection of the exercise. If you feel you are at the point of writing notes that are insincere, or perfunctory, take a break. If you don’t write a note every day, don’t panic. If you have written enough to awaken your perception of those things for which you should be grateful, the blessings will come, and you will find that it is only good manners to write in response to them. As your heart becomes more grateful, it will show you the way.
Don’t impose a rule that you can’t write to the same person more than once. I had many repetitive situations because I was running a business, and my notes provoked action that required another note. For example, when I thanked other lawyers for referring good cases, they referred more good cases. Each one required a thank you note, and really why not? Every person’s life is different. The things for which you are to be grateful will come to your attention in time if you are looking.
If you do write repeat notes to your spouse or romantic partner, make each one special, by finding a special card, or enclosing them with flowers, or a ticket to a spa day. She/he has done something nice for you. Now it’s your turn.
Recall a Turning Point.
It was after about three months that I, too, had already thanked the obvious people in my day to day life. So I began to look beyond my immediate circumstances for persons to whom I needed to write a thank-you note. For example, I began to look back, and to write notes to the friends who rescued me from self-destructive behavior in my youth, to the doctor whose operation saved me from a life of pain, and to the doctor who told me to stop drinking.
This was an especially satisfying part of the journey for me, and I hope it can give you a broader view of life.
Inevitably, life has its periodic rough times. By going back and thanking these people, I connected with better times and renewed the friendships forged then. This enabled me to take a longer, more balance view of the difficulties I experienced in the near term.
To make a start at expressing gratitude, try the “wall of gratitude” at my website, 365thankyounotes.com.