Free to Give and to Receive
A cold November morning. I'm slogging through the parking lot of our small-town Safeway on my way to buy a few necessary items. I'm neither excited nor bummed – just doing some necessary things. At the entrance, there's a card table set up, festooned with flags and poppies, reminding me it's Veterans Day. Sitting at the table is a long and lean man with wavy white hair. He's wearing a denim jacket and vest adorned with medals and ribbons. I nod to him and smile, mentally adding some cash to my list of things needed – a small donation.
The aisles are not crowded, but still, I'm wary of being up close to other shoppers in our rural area – many have been ardent COVID deniers who remain unvaccinated. So, my trip is swift, and a little stressed. Blasting out of Safeway, I see the Vet's table and realize I forgot to get cash. I dig through my little purse and come up with one insufficient dollar. I hand it to him and figure he's likely a Vietnam Vet. My era of remembrance. And I was one of those out marching against that war. Not against the soldiers but the war. I thank him for serving and ask him if he's cold (it's freezing).
I apologize for not having more to donate to the local VFW he's representing. He leans back and smiles. He tells me that's just fine – no need. Just stopping by was enough. He offers me a traditional Veteran's Day Poppy – I thank him and tell him to save it for his cause. He picks something from another box on the table. "Here, take this," he says. It's a tiny bracelet strung with brown elastic and rectangular plastic beads of poppies and the VFW emblem. I again decline, knowing they have to pay for their trinkets. But he is adamant and puts the bracelet in my hand. I slip it on. It's lovely. I realize it's a magic bracelet because I'm no longer in neutral. Instead, I'm inspired. Grateful. Connected.
I'm wearing the bracelet as I write this. Because it's still magic. Let me explain what I mean.
Most of us go about daily life without either enthusiasm or obvious trepidation. We seldom expect surprises that disrupt predictability. But over the past couple of years, I've been a disruptor. When I interact with someone – say, placing an order or bagging groceries – any one of such common encounters – and I am able to notice something special about him or her, I say it. I intrude on our normal exchange with an unexpected, true observation.
Here are a few examples: "What pretty earrings you're wearing! …" and "What a pleasant voice you have …" and "You've been so helpful, thanks a bunch," and "Wow, you have the bluest eyes!"… and "I love how you handled that problem, nicely done…"_ and .. well, you get the picture. I intrude on the everyday moment with a positive and personal remark. And each time, I get a surprised and grateful reaction. We share an unexpected interlude that leaves us both in a better mood.
The fact that I also feel a little elevated by these exchanges made me curious. Sent me to Googlesphere where I found support for my personal goodwill mission. And, it seems I was on to a real thing. According to folks with lots of letters after their names: "Appreciation for another person lights up parts of the brain that also activate when you get a monetary reward." It's not just a flash point that lasts a couple of seconds and then vaporizes. We experience observable changes in parts of our brains tuned to react to feeling good. What's more – this happens for the giver as well as for the receiver.
Here's a science geek explanation: Bodies and brains under stress release chemicals to handle the load – among those is cortisol. To reduce the need for cortisol, we seek out remedies such as rest, meditation, exercise, calming music. But guess what? Receiving compliments and positive feedback from other people produces the same result and with two-way benefits.
But, Americans seemed trained to not interfere with personal space, especially with strangers. So anxiety about violating this borderline is natural. Lots of us are afraid to intrude. However, I've learned a few things from my own experience as a serial breacher. Here are my guidelines, supported by experts on the topic.
1. The observation must be true and sincere;
2. My 'compliment' should be speciific - relative to something I can observe
3. The comment will be short – not one to open a discussion but simply to elicit a positive reaction;
4. My intent must be to make the receiver's day a little better.
My thinking? Who doesn't like to be noticed and appreciated? Most of us don't get enough of this in the course of a normal day.
So as we launch into holiday mode (with its attendant stress), I'm suggesting that part of our "gifting plans" include a conscious effort to uplift a stranger with a compliment. Grocery store, gas station, waiting in line, restaurant – the field is vast and varied. To honor a stranger with just a few words is a personal power that costs us nothing and delivers many returns.
That's what the decorated veteran did for me – within minutes. And that was before he gave me the plastic poppy bracelet I'm still wearing with gratitude. Your turn next. Give the gift that's free. One size fits all!
Thanks for spending a bit of your time with me. I appreciate your attention and your feedback. I hope we all approach the impending season with optimism and intentions to spread goodwill. Let me hear from you – Your feedback keeps me thinking and writing and positive about being human in a tumultuous world.
Check out my ongoing community project and support if you can – Tribute to the Heroes of the Caldor Fire.