Actually not my baby , or likely anyone else’s, a fiercely independent and highly intelligent friend from my boyhood/adolescence sent on a packet of letters I had written her more than fifty years ago. She was my best friend’s girl, but one of the few people I trusted with my secrets, and so, I wrote her, more frequently than I had remembered;.
What I find in reading the letters, almost all of which were written when I was a junior in boarding school, is that I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a friend willing to endure an endless stream of self-absorbed flotsam, and that in retrospect, I was a person I don’t like very much.
I would describe that person as jejune-superficial, naive, clueless, with an appalling insensitivity to those about him. It seems I was also thoroughly deluded in my conviction that my letters bubbled with wit and wisdom. The letters are abominably smarmy and self-congratulatory, and, worst of all, fatuous. I fancied myself something of a writer but writhe now as I read my clumsy attempts to imitate the writers I admired.
Bouts of writhing arrive fairly frequently as I catch myself being myself, particularly as I veer into grandiosity, but fortunately I experience the full-body writhe only intermittently. I often think of a little known film, Defending Your Life, which presented Albert Brooks as a fussy, fearful advertising man killed in a car crash, stuck in Judgment City until his life has been evaluated by looking at video footage of his behavior on earth. Now that is writhe-worthy. Happily, footage of my life is unavailable for distribution and I am spared much evidence of my foibles and failures.
When such evidence does arrive, as it did with those letters, after the writhing has subsided, I have a chance to see myself, perhaps not exactly as others see me, but with some approximation of accuracy. It’s not always pretty, hardly ever without some regret, but in that moment I’m given an opportunity to re-size myself, change my perspective, and fish around in the slag heap of my rarely used attributes to find a sense of humor about my inflated sense of self-importance.
OK, Humor. Check. This is the necessary step in moving beyond fascination with my own past to the better and more transformative appreciation of kindnesses done me by a host of folks who had lives of their own to patch together. I am not sure where gratitude goes when it slips away, but I know that my operating system starts to run rough without it. In my experience, there is an interesting and unexpected inversion in the gratitude self-pity formula. Whereas it is commonly believed that we can easily absorb a thousand compliments but dissolve when encountering a single criticism, I find that the grumbleverse has little hold on me if I can muster even shards of gratitude.
My son’s middle school had a motto worth repeating. “When in doubt, go with gratitude.”
So, I look at that pack of letters, consider the care and effort it took to read them, respond to them, save them for a half-century, and return them to me with a kind note reminding me of our friendship, and I am nudged, once again, into grateful appreciation of the people who have been so generous in their kindness to me. Unlike self-pity, which goes nowhere, gratitude not only provides perspective but also jump-starts my resolution to pay it forward. While I still have a reasonable idea of my place in the universe, it makes sense for me to lend a hand when I can.
It will seem I digress, but I do have a point yet to express as I remember a documentary recently aired as part of a public television fund-raising marathon. It’s You I Like is a tribute to Fred Rogers, an authentically kind and decent man with a rare capacity for honesty and courage and an appreciation of children as children that we will likely not see again. Any of his observations are best heard in his own voice, of course, but I’ll pass one along as the coda of this piece:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I’m grateful to the helpers. Even in scary times, they are all about us. I’m feeling grateful today. Maybe I’ll have a chance to be a helper.