When life gets particularly overwhelming, I try to focus on something positive. I’ve written previously about how I find shifting my perspective to gratitude to be particularly helpful when dealing with difficult things. Although, with all the changes to daily life during isolation, I’ve been so overwhelmed and distracted that it’s been difficult to focus on any one thing let alone gratitude. How am I supposed to know what I’m thankful for when I don’t even know what day it is?
Humans of New York is a photo and interview project by Brandon Stanton where he captures the stories of New Yorkers (and sometimes beyond). Given that social distancing is currently making that impossible, he shifted his perspective and is helping people document their own lives. In a Facebook post dated March 15, he asked people to write to him to tell their own “#quarantinestories.” One option he suggested for a focus was, “Maybe somebody changed your life, and you want the world to know about them.”
The results have been some truly amazing stories. A significant number of people have taken him up on that suggestion and focused on someone who has changed their lives.
These stories range from funny to tear-jerkers. In terrifying times, it’s wonderful to be reminded that there are some absolutely wonderful people in the world. And for those who are still living, how amazing must it be for them to see someone’s gratitude so plainly expressed!
Although, what about the stories we don’t hear? Most of the submitted stories will never be featured. There are probably amazing love letters submitted to Brandon where the life-changing person will never know that they’ve made a difference. If the stories aren’t featured on Humans of New York, the subject will never see the role they played in that person’s life.
The work Brandon is doing is touching the lives and hearts of millions of readers. What if we use that as a jumping-off point both to help ourselves focus on the positive and thank the people who have made a difference?
A decade ago, a Mother’s Day contest asked for nominations explaining why an amazing mom deserved to win the prize. I submitted an entry for a friend who provided support and information when I first had babies. Her children were a little older, so she had more experience and one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. I was only able to be the type of parent I wanted because of the example she set and the love she provided. However, my entry wasn’t picked and so, I realized that even though I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how much she meant to me and how she had changed my life, she never even knew I nominated her. I never told her and since my submission wasn’t picked, she never knew what I wrote or what an influence she had.
How many other people like her are out there? How many people have made a difference in someone’s life, but have no idea? What if we do something about that?
Who has changed your life? You can focus on huge life-changing events or even small courtesies. What if we write that down and send it to them? So many of us are anxious, angry, and scared right now. What a difference it could make both for us to recognize our gratitude and for that person to be thanked and made aware of their influence!
If you find the idea intriguing, but don’t know where to begin, here are some suggestions:
1. Be specific. Are there specific things that person did that helped you? What did they do? Please don’t think that you need to only focus on huge events. Someone doesn’t have to pull you from a burning house to change your life.
2. Tell them how they helped you. Often, other people have no idea what a profound effect their behavior has on others. How did what they do make you feel? How exactly is your life different because of that person? What do you think your life would be like if you’d never met that person?
3. Don’t second-guess yourself. You will probably feel raw and vulnerable. You may consider scrapping the whole thing or leaving out certain emotions or details. You may worry it’s too much. You may worry about your spelling, grammar, or sentence structure. When that happens, feel free to recognize the feeling and tell that inner voice to, “shove off.” Then get on with your writing.
4. Keep the focus on the other person. Sometimes we mistake manipulation for gratitude. We write ourselves as the heroes in stories that are meant to be about someone else. We use our “Thank you,” in an attempt to get attention or compel someone to behave in a certain way. Write about the person who helped you and write for them. I suggest sending it directly to them or reading it to them rather than posting publicly. If you want to share it so other people know how wonderful that person is, please ask them first.
5. Be inspired by others’ stories. Humans of New York features some amazing stories from others about how certain people changed the storyteller’s life. Read those “#quarantinestories.” They may help you recognize people who helped you and the stories can help give examples of structure for how to tell your story.
6. Be creative. Don’t feel as though you’re stuck with the exact formula HONY uses. You may want to tell your story by writing a song, creating a graphic novel, painting, etc. Feel free to express your gratitude in whatever way works for you.
Social isolation has kept us physically separated from those we love. We need to find ways to connect with our humanity and with each other. In these difficult times, hopefully, thinking about and then writing to others explaining how and why they changed our lives can connect us to those we love and to our sense of gratitude.
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