A few years ago, at a student retreat, I introduced the practice of gratitude letters. The retreat theme of “Paying Attention” allowed us to spend time with mindfulness practices designed to focus our attention on what really matters. These letters gave participants an opportunity to offer thanks for a particular person and then give or send them the letter, if possible.
Gratitude letters seem appropriate for this time of year too. Many of us celebrate Thanksgiving, an occasion when we gather with family and friends and spend intentional moments giving thanks. We are also nearing the end of a calendar year, which is a chance for reflection on where we have been, what we have done, and perhaps even what we have left undone as the year ends.
There are clear benefits to writing such letters. Mindfulness and paying attention are two, of course, but focusing on someone in our life who has mattered is my focus in today’s article. It could be a family member, friend, mentor or teacher, coach, faith leader, or even someone who is no longer physically present in our lives. One friend of mine wrote a letter to a teacher who had died earlier that year, and then she gave it to his spouse. Through her own teary whisper, his spouse mentioned how deeply touched she was; how the thoughtful letter helped her with her grief. For my friend, it was the chance she never took in person to say thank you and then to say goodbye to her mentor.
At that same retreat several years ago, I received a letter from one of the students. That was a surprise, especially given that we had not spent much time getting to know one another. Her letter was written with gratitude for the time and energy I (and others) had put into designing and offering the retreat. It was a gift to me at the end of a tiring weekend.
To whom would you write your letter? Better yet, when will you write to them? Set a date by which you want to write the letter, sometime between now and New Year’s Eve. Carve out some time to write. Some people do well with an outline or bullet points as a starting place. Perhaps free form writing, letting thoughts come as they will, is more your style. Whatever helps you put pen to paper is what I recommend.
I’m taking my chances that my mother will read this article, like I think she has for most of my previous ones. My letter is to her. Recently, I found myself thinking about how she went to college while I was in elementary and middle school. I remember waiting for her to finish one of her elective classes while I worked on my own homework. Having been to college, now working at a college, and parenting, I know what kind of sacrifice that was for her as a working parent.
I’m grateful for her sacrifice as well as her commitment to education. She didn’t have the kind of experience with college I got to have 10 years later straight out of high school. But her willingness to go back to school for her nursing degree and to take me to her class, left a lasting impression. No doubt, it became a significant factor in my own love and dedication to higher education today.
My mother shaped my vocation, and that is pure gift when someone does that for us. A gift that deserves my gratitude.
To whom do you owe your thanks?
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford, Georgia with his spouse and eight-year-old.