[for Valentine’s Day, an expansion of love and appreciation beyond the romantic…]
I first heard this story from the mediation teacher Jack Kornfield, though I’ve heard variations of it from many other sources since.
When a fifth-grade teacher’s class became especially disruptive one day, throwing spitwads, calling each other names, and shoving each other in the aisles, the teacher demanded silence, then instructed everyone to take out one sheet of paper. She told the students to write down the name of every other student in the class, one name per line, down the left-hand side of the paper. Then she asked the students to write a brief description of something they appreciated about each student in the space next to the student’s name.
Silence took over as the students concentrated on the task. At the end of the class period, she gathered all the papers and told the students she would give further instructions the next day. After school, the teacher cut apart the comments, reassembling them into one scotch-taped piece of paper for each student At the beginning of class the next day, she handed each student a list with twenty-three comments of appreciation about themselves.
The students read the sheets-most of them quietly, some with giggles, a few wiping tears from their cheeks. Many of them had had no idea that they were regarded positively by their classmates until that moment. The exercise became an important opportunity to take in the good about themselves that their classmates had shared and to know, too, that they were contributing to their classmates’ feelings of being nourished by appreciation.
But the story doesn’t end there; nor do the lessons about emotional intelligence. A decade later, one of the students was killed in combat in Vietnam. After the memorial service, the father of the young man came up to the teacher and handed her a neatly folded piece of paper. It was the young man’s list with his classmates’ comments from that lesson in the fifth grade. His father said, “They found it in the chest pocket of his uniform the day he was killed.” Overhearing that, a former classmate came up to them both, opened her purse, and pulled out her sheet of paper. “I’ve always carried this with me; today was an especially important time to remember.”
We all are sustained by the love and appreciation of others. We all need to be reminded regularly of that sustenance. Any time we share our appreciation of another, we are using our emotional intelligence to sustain them, too.
Exercise: Carry Love and Appreciation in Your Wallet
- Identify a group of people who all know each other-your coworkers at the completion of a project, your monthly book club or golfing buddies, family members at Thanksgiving-and suggest everyone send a card or email to everyone else in the group with a sentence or two acknowledging something they appreciate about that person, something positive and true. You can simplify this exercise, if you are comfortable doing so, by asking ten people you know-friends, coworkers, or neighbors, even if they don’t know each other-to send you a card or e-mail with a simple phrase or sentence of appreciation. (You may already collect comments like this if you write down what people have written on birthday cards or congratulatory cards.)
- Assemble the comments sent to you into one piece of paper you can fold and carry in your wallet or tape to the bathroom mirror. Read through this list of emotional nourishment at least once a day for thirty days-a month of steadily resourcing and taking in the good.
- Each day, after you read through your list, notice how you feel about yourself as you take in and savor the appreciation. Notice where you feel any warmth or glow in your body from reading the list.
- Set the intention to return to this warm glow of self-appreciation as you move through your day, checking in with yourself periodically. Pause and remember the list (look at it again if you need to) and recall that self-appreciation.
- At the end of the month, reflect on how reviewing your list of appreciations every day has strengthened your resilience in coping with the new, the difficult, the stressful or hurtful. You may add to the bottom of your own list an appreciation of your growing capacities to create resilience for yourself.
This practice is especially helpful at times when your sense of self-worth is being challenged. You’re using your own emotional intelligence to create a resource of support as you remember the appreciation of other people.
Practices of self-appreciation have been shown to diminish bouts of anxiety and depression. Taking in the love of others and cultivating love for ourselves activates the release of oxytocin, creating the calm in the body and enhancing the neural receptivity in the brain that allows us to learn more resilient strategies of coping. It also provides all the benefits of cultivating positive emotions: putting the brakes on negativity and deepening the wellsprings of optimism, connections to others, resilience, and fulfillment.