If asked to describe in one word how it felt during the lowest point of life, what would that one word be? Teaching school, I tell the girls to “paint a picture.” Watch the scene you want to write as of it were a movie in your head. Watch it, and then try to recreate it on paper. On this Thanksgiving, the question I’ve been asking myself is: how would I recreate that feeling for someone, how would I communicate what I felt for a very, very long time?
Alone in a barren room that’s locked; there’s no way out and you know the oxygen is low. It’s only a matter of time before panic sets in as you try to rack your mind for a solution. Your thoughts narrow, the outside world fades away, which serves to shrink your perspective and exaggerate your problem in the most dangerous place of all: your mind. The only thing you can think about, the only thing you care about, is finding a way out of the trapped room because you feel like you’re suffocating and finding an escape is the only way to freedom. Unable to think of one, you start to second guess yourself and discard ideas as fast as they pop up because that’s stupid, it would never work. The air popped, you start over, and crash, and start over, and crash, until eventually… one of two things happens: either something breaks through the fog and allows you to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel in which case you suddenly feel like you can breathe again. As oxygen fills your lungs and eases the panic shaking your heart, you’re peripheral vision improves and your perspective shifts: the way out was in front of you the whole time, you just couldn’t see it because your blown out of proportion obstacle was blocking your vision.
Or you give up completely in which case eventually you either get logged in a mire of despair and start thinking of more permanent solutions or you adapt to living in a state of constant breathlessness, anxiety and fear. Neither option produces respite or joy, only numbness.
I was about fourteen, give or take a year. While I don’t recall where we were headed or from whence we’d come, I distinctly remember having been on a long drive, one typical for our family, for at least a few days. I’d been gifted a Teen study Bible by my mother and the checklists in the back were a great motivator for my inner nerd who loved all things related to organization and checklists. So, I’d been steadily chugging along in the reading of scripture and the writing that’s as much a part of me as breath. I don’t remember acting that much out of character for me; maybe I was a little overly sentimental, maybe I was a little too much stuck in my comfort zone but, on the whole, life was as it always had been.
With the exception of the nightmares.
I was in one of the Kid rounds, a series of recurring dreams that involved the disappearance, or loss of, a boy I’d nicknamed Kid. These dreams were absolutely heartbreaking. They weren’t scary in the normal sense of the word, but I dreaded them so much so I would resist sleep in order to avoid them. I did not understand the dreams at the time and I did not want to. They made me sad.
The Kid dreams and the presence of my father had me rattled maybe but that’s in hindsight. At the time, I just knew life seemed very one dimensional, very narrow. It was hard to dream, but it was next to impossible to stay in the present and the past wasn’t much better. There were bright spots, of course, and the written word—both the ones I created and the ones I spent hours reading—made for an excellent escape.
In other words…. I thought I was fine.
On this day, we stopped and I happened to be ahead of everyone else, walking in. Except the strangers who was in front of me. I wish I could remember more about him. All I can recall for sure is that instead of just walking in, he turned, pulled open the door and waited for me to enter. He held the door for me.
To this day, I don’t know why this simple but universally under appreciated action struck some hard core nerve in me, but it was like a straight shot of morphine to the heart. I remember him smiling at me briefly as I said “thank you” and then—poof—he was gone. I looked for him the entire time we were there, hoping to catch a glimpse of him again, because suddenly, in my head, there was a new chant that was rocking my world: there are good people still. There are still good men.
I hadn’t even really realized I’d been doubting that. I hadn’t realized I needed that reassurance. Until I got it. First, it made me cry. Then it made me believe. Finally, it offered hope. I turned the rest of the day, and the next, into a sort of game in which I deliberately searched for examples of goodness, of kindness. I jotted them down, one by one, as I saw them. Evidence of kindness was all around me; I just hadn’t seen it because I was hurting so badly that all I could see was the pain. When you stump your toe in the middle of the night, the throbbing pain forces you to think about nothing else but whether or not you’ve hurt your foot so badly they’ll have to amputate that toe. Only when the throbbing subsides can you see that your toe was never really in danger of being amputated. The same is true for heartache; when you are in the grips of true pain, true hurt, when you’ve been emotionally wounded so badly there world loses its colors, you can’t see anything except what you have to do to survive the next minute.
For me, that was obeying and writing. Obeying gave me the illusion of safety and control; writing gave me an escape for when I couldn’t handle the hurt. It gave me a way to dream and to believe in something that I realized I didn’t really believe in. I said I believed in happily ever after, in love and in dreams. But I didn’t, not really. That’s why I never shared who I really was with anyone; like a chameleon, I adapted and became whoever the people around me needed me to be. Because I did not trust that love was real; no one would really love or care about or want the real me.
I hadn’t even spoken to this stranger, I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t given him anything. I hadn’t needed to be anything. I was just walking behind him and yet, still, he’d seen me. And, even without me doing a single thing to earn it, he’d taken a moment of his time to hold a door open for me. He’d done something nice for me, for absolutely no reason. It wasn’t because I was pretty; he was much older than I. It wasn’t because I had my hands full; they were empty. It wasn’t because I asked him to; I hadn’t spoken to him at all. The only reason that made sense was that he’d been kind. And that meant kindness was real. It was more than a fairytale authors invented. And if kindness was real, there was hope, because who was I to assume that my life wouldn’t be changed by it the next day? What act of kindness would I miss if I weren’t alive? If I really hurt myself, I’d miss witnessing something more beautiful than the sunset, something more meaningful than a blooming flower.
That man, that perfect stranger, changed my life. A few short years later I would start volunteering. I’d go into classrooms, spend several weeks teaching kids and then, at the last lesson, I’d present each child with a bag of three gifts: one would be a handwritten short story with the main character loosely based on that specific child, the next would be a handwritten letter sharing whatever promise I saw in that child. No two stories and no two letters were the same. The third gift was a handmade craft like a snow globe or bookmark or something less meaningful but fun.
The reactions from the school children melted my heart and reinforced the belief that everyone everywhere just needed to be seen. A little boy in the sixth grade told me he was going to frame his letter. A girl in the eighth grade who shared some of my past turned red in the face, laid her head on the desk and literally cried. Many jumped up to hug me. They thought I was giving them a gift. What they didn’t know was that they were the ones gifting me; they were teaching me that I could be that man, that by sharing the hope I’d been given, I could mask the pain. I didn’t lose sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe I didn’t get closer to the light, maybe I still struggled and still hurt and still dreamed terrifying dreams and maybe I still had hidden doubts about how worthy, or not, I was of affection… but this idea of kindness mattered. It had power.
I still do the same thing; I recently wrote 78 individual letters and distributed them to people I work with; adults, not children. Some were more personal than others because I know some of the people better than I do others. I even used Google translation to write in Spanish for those people who I knew don’t speak English.
I didn’t sign the letters, but left them anonymous. Some recognized my handwriting and so knew right away; others heard through the grapevine that the author was me. When asked directly by a couple, I admitted it was from me and, if there was a good reason, I volunteered that it was from me. But most of the recipients won’t know who the letter is from. Some don’t even know my name or face at all. And that’s ok. Because what I wanted to show was that they are seen. Someone is watching them, someone is looking up to them, someone is trying to be like them. Maybe it’s their children. Maybe it’s their family member. Or maybe it’s a complete stranger who sees the effort they put into their work day by day.
Today, I don’t need a stranger to hold a door open for me to believe that kindness is real. I know it is. Even when it feels like no one notices me; if I go a full week without a thank you or a hug or a kind word, kindness is shining everywhere. And you don’t have to earn it – it’s something that is given regardless of merit.
I’m thankful for kindness, for my sweet girls, for my mother and sister, for the kids I’ve taught, for the teachers who invested in me when they didn’t have to, for each person who’s ever offered me a hug and for perfect strangers who hold open doors for people who don’t think they deserve the smallest kind act. The hope shared when we tell someone I see you restores self-esteem, makes the idea of tomorrow achievable and frees those kept trapped by fear. I am motivated and inspired by relationships; more than money, more than experience, more than passion, a connection to others is what drives me. Because a genuine connection seeks to remove the mask and unveil the real person beneath; a connection says, So you’re a writer, so you’re strong, that’s amazing. Now tell me your fears, show me your scars, and see me stay.
We’ve all been in that barren, locked room. We’ve all felt inadequate and invisible; not good enough. But it’s not true. And we need each other to keep the world open and hope within sight. Who do you see today?