A number of years ago I wrote an essay called “Unwitting Gifts” in which I reflected on how an offhand remark can help change the way we think. Such a remark can be so monumental it feels life changing—a gift even when the giver is oblivious. We’ve all had those eureka-moments resulting from a spontaneous comment, but one I am referring to in this article was a made forty years ago and a second-hand comment, at that.
Recently I had coffee with Christine, a woman I’d been out of touch with for decades. She had been a student in a university Drama Department where my husband was a faculty member in the early 1970s. Christine and I reconnected about a year ago at a memorial service for the professor who had been the Drama Department Chair then. His students, who spanned four decades, created a Facebook page in the aftermath of his death and continued to post updates about themselves long after the memorial service. I saw a reference to Christine’s blog on the Facebook page and, after reading it, was so impressed I dropped her a line to suggest we meet for coffee.
About an hour-and-a-half into our coffee date, which we were both finding lively and interesting, Christine mentioned how unsure of herself she’d been in school and through her thirties—even into her forties. She confided that her insecurity was sometimes incapacitating and her vulnerability meant repeated faltering as she struggled to find her niche. Convinced she was less talented at acting than other drama students, she was uncertain where she fit in.
At this point in our conversation she shared a remark she had heard recently for the first time—a casual remark originally made by the deceased professor some forty years earlier. She and her friend (I’ll call her Rose) were sharing memories about their university days when Rose nonchalantly cited the remark as she reminisced about the beloved professor. It seems he was chatting about his theatre history class with Rose, a high achiever in the department.
“When you write your term paper or exam paper, Rose,” the professor had said, “you'll tell me all the right things. . . and that’s wonderful—you’re a strong student. But when Christine writes a paper or an exam, she'll tell me something I’ve never thought about before.”
Chris paused here and looked at me. I could see tears glistening in her eyes and sympathetic tears sprang into mine as she continued talking. “Do you realize what this would have meant if he had said that to me? . . . if I’d heard it back then?”
I nodded. Immediately I understood how life changing it could have been for a young college student, awash in self-doubt, to have heard this observation from an admired professor. Thinking about it set off a reaction inside me that had become—by the time I got home—an unwitting gift.
Those words, “If only he had said that to me!” became a profound observation of an obvious truth. I began to think how rarely it happens—telling an individual the strengths we see in them, letting the bearer of the talent or strength hear aloud what it is he or she brings to the mix.
Whether teacher, parent, mentor, or boss, we have a responsibility to communicate truths to those in our care. A casual positive comment made today can easily have an effect that lasts a lifetime. We humans are reflective creatures who benefit from having others tell us what they see, holding up a figurative mirror for us. Even when commentary is fluff, it affects the recipient. If you tell me I have pretty legs, I’ll make sure to cross them ‘just so’ the next time we get together. If you tell me I’m funny, I’ll make certain I clown around when I’m with you. If you tell me I am brilliant, I will begin to understand that my mind works on a different level from other people’s. Likewise, if you tell me I’m fat or ugly or dumb, you are influencing me . . . and if you say nothing, well . . . that can be the most unsettling commentary of all.
Christine’s reaction to the anecdote set an empathic reverberation in me that made me realize how essential it is to speak aloud my positive observations to the people I interact with. If I see extraordinary ability in them, I must not assume—whether they be co-workers, my direct reports or boss, grandchildren, friends, or even my neighbors—that they intuitively understand and appreciate their talents.
It’s a simple thing, but how rarely it’s done—to say aloud to the people I interact with what they are good at. I hope Christine’s unwitting gift will remind me to Say It Aloud! whenever I have the opportunity. Doing so could have a profound effect on someone’s life.
Christine is brilliant and gifted and an original thinker, but she would have benefited enormously had she heard it as a young woman from a teacher she admired. Now, at least, I am going to make sure she hears it from me.
Copyright © 2013 by Sara J. Glerum
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