These two simple words can change your life

It’s quite simple, really. The concept of appreciation is a common one, rooted in the values of building interpersonal relationships, of increasing personal and professional satisfaction and of growing a community. When we appreciate something, and I mean truly and intentionally appreciate something, that feeling can transcend most anything. Gratefulness can outweigh disappointment and soften the resolve of any hardened heart; this is what we hope to pass on to future generations.

In a recent post, I discussed the veracity of my own personal and professional growth through two daily goals: (1) to make a stranger laugh, and (2) to be a better person today than I was yesterday. Sometimes, in the course of my day, these goals are easier to achieve than others, and while I ultimately achieve them, sometimes the points rack up with only the tiniest bit of effort. It usually starts with a smile, and it always ends with expressing appreciation.

This morning, I was sitting at the light at City Park, at the cross hairs between Esplanade Avenue and City Park Avenue. I was the first car in line and an SUV pulled up next to me. We glanced at each other, stone cold in our thoughts for a moment, and then I read the side of the vehicle: New Orleans Fire Department. I rolled down the passenger side window and he quickly rolled his window down, too. “Hi, you okay?” he asked. Nodding, my response was simple, “yes, I just wanted to say thank you.” He smiled a huge smile, glowing instantly, chuckled a bit, and that warm feeling of appreciation fell over me, too. He nodded at me; “you’re welcome.” Then we rolled up the windows and went our separate ways. I drove all the way to the office with that feeling – the feeling of appreciation – the warmth of knowing I was grateful.

For anyone growing up in the US, the military is a big thing, regardless of whether it’s a positive, or even negative, influence. I don’t discount the fact that there are many in this world who have had negative experiences with the military or law enforcement. For me, though, growing up in a strict Roman Catholic home and within a law enforcement family, and having spent four years in Air Force JROTC in high school, I have a much different level of appreciation for the sacrifices that authority figures, particularly law enforcement and other community service providers, make every day. I know what it is like to watch a family member walk out the door for a police beat and not know whether he’ll return, fearing for his safety, and yet I also know what it’s like to feel grateful to see him again the next morning, knowing he was out in the community doing right by us.

I almost went into the Air Force; I wanted to be a pilot. And, while I did not join on account of my obligations to my younger sister, my heart still yearns for my dress blues, my officer’s cap, my name tag and perfectly shined shoes. I miss the structure, the routine, the giving of myself to a higher purpose – to protect, to prevent, to assist. To be clear, I am not advocating that the military is always good, or that law enforcement is always in the right. It’s not necessary to explore those philosophical and practical concepts to truly embrace what I want to bring to light. What it boils down to is simple appreciation. Simply being grateful of the structure, the purpose, the sacrifice another makes, even if, in fact, you do not benefit personally from the act of sacrifice itself.

I was raised to say please and thank you to everyone, no matter to whom, just as a matter of respect. At some point in my life, I also started to go out of my way to intentionally thank active service professionals in uniform when I saw them. I would yell thank you across a street or walk past someone just to thank them. And generally, I had restricted my extra “intentional” expressions of appreciation to just military personnel. Then, I grew into thanking law enforcement and from there, I grew into thanking community service providers. Now, when I see first responders, I am beyond feeling urged; I feel compelled. Compelled to thank them, show my appreciation, to embrace the feeling of gratefulness and to hope to change that person’s day, allowing them to take a moment to acknowledge their personal sacrifice in being a first responder, and to be grateful for being appreciated. That seems circular, I know. But just think about it. When we appreciate someone, a person will usually acknowledge our appreciation. What I propose is that in that moment, that single moment, where gratefulness knows no bounds – color, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, gender, sex – we can shift the energy of the world to the positive, if only for a millisecond, if only for a moment. We can change how we feel about our life. We can, actually, change the lives of other people, and in effect, change the world.

Last fall, I was walking with a friend in Brussels. Suddenly, I felt compelled to thank a pair of Belgian army personnel standing near Schuman Circle. As I crossed two streets and approached with tenacity, they braced themselves, pulling their automatic weapons closer to their bodies, ready for defense. I walked right up to them, looked both of them straight in the eyes and I smiled. I thanked them. Their shoulders fell, they softened – and without hesitation, they responded – “de rien.” It’s nothing. You’re welcome. Two simple words in response to two simple words. But in truth, it’s not just “nothing” that others do for us. My friend was floored that I would thank them, or even speak to them. She grew up in a culture that did not see the military in a positive way and that’s okay, because I explained to her that it’s not about what they stand for – it’s about the men and women who stand on that corner, or live on that base, or go to work each day knowing that they might be running toward an emergency, toward terror, toward un-safety, so that we don’t have to. The sacrifice they make is worth a moment of appreciation, just as an expression of appreciation to a parent or sibling or coworker would be.

So, next time you see someone – a fireman, a police officer, military personnel, an EMT, any first responder, or even the person checking you out at the grocery store or your coworker who simply “did their job” – try it: say “thank you” … thank you for keeping us safe … thank you for helping us in an emergency … thank you for being here today … thank you for your sacrifice. It’s easy to do this, takes only a moment, and has the capacity to change someone’s day. You’ll know that you did something for someone else, perhaps on a day when they really needed it, and honestly, you’ll feel better. You will glow at your own expression of appreciation, and not in a conceited way, either. That feeling, that glow, that gratefulness – it will grow. It will change how you look at the sacrifices others in your life make, for you, with you, alongside you. And in that feeling of appreciation, you will find a moment of extra happiness, and together, those moments will transform into a habit of gratefulness and your day-to-day will turn more positive.

When we lead by example, we change our community. And maybe, just maybe, that random person you thank will be the one who interviews you, or picks you up off the street when you fall, or perhaps they will be the one who changes your life somehow, some way … and if we’re lucky, our future generations will feel grateful for others and will feel empowered to change their world, too.

It’s time for you to do the same. So, start by thanking yourself for all your hard work today. Now, thank someone else who went out of their way to help you. Or, frankly, just thank someone in your circle. Everyone deserves a little love. And, if you’re having trouble finding gratitude in your daily life, then I’m your girl. Let’s chat.

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About Sheila: An attorney, a social worker and an educator, she’s unlike any other person you’ve ever met. She thrives on a challenge, loves to solve puzzles and fix things and definitely loves helping make other people’s lives better – stronger – more efficient – happier. She tells terribly corny jokes, but maybe, just maybe, if you’re nice to her, and even laugh at her jokes, you’ll get something specially baked, just for you. Yep. For real.
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I have two goals each day: (1) to make a stranger laugh and (2) to be a better person each day than I was the day before. I meet these goals. Every. Day.

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