I attended an event tonight recognizing 40 leaders in our community who are under 40 years of age. Four of the award recipients were my former students and current friends. It was such a moment of genuine delight for me to see each one recognized for their hard work, dedication and commitment to others.
Each award recipient was introduced with a brief bio, after which he or she was allowed to give a speech. The only hitch was that each was allotted three words for the speech. Well, three free words. Any number of words above three cost the speaker a per-word fee of $50. The funds raised hopefully went to a good cause, but the word limit also served the purpose of keeping an event at which there were 40 honorees from becoming obnoxiously long.
There were many clever three word speeches given. One woman generously used her words to share the important news “1 – 0, Cubs”. Another carried her drink onstage, pointed to herself and said, “Single!” After the laughter died down, she lifted her glass and completed her speech with the words, “Bottoms up!” Many in the audience were moved when my friend Nate, carrying his adorable daughter, stepped up to the mic and declared, “Adoption changes lives.”
Words are so powerful that three tiny little ones can convey a multitude of meanings, reveal unexpected layers and depth. I will never accept the lie, being promulgated all over the place these days, that something is “just words” and, therefore, doesn’t really matter.
Which brings me to a moment tonight when I made my own three word speech.
In the nearly 17 months I’ve been back in this city there are a number of people I haven’t gotten together with. Not because I don’t care about them, but because I haven’t felt right within myself – stressed and anxious and sometimes on the snarky side. This is an old (if not particularly positive) coping mechanism of mine – avoidance. I hole up at home and don’t make an effort to connect. At first, it feels ok. But the longer the period of time that elapses without connection between me and these friends, the harder it is to reach out, to cross that divide.
Anyway, as several of us stood chatting during the pre-dinner reception, an old friend joined us. When I moved to Minneapolis, it seemed that every time I had a particularly hard or bad day, encouraging mail from this friend would miraculously arrive. My particular favorite was a drawing she made of me as a superhero named “Captain Tenacity”. Honestly, her missives were so supportive and timely, they truly buoyed me up and gave me new strength. Many times I wished to thank her in person, to express how much her encouragement meant to me.
Instead, I had not seen or spoken to her since returning to town.
We greeted one another with hugs and smiles. I was faced with a choice – behave as if it was no big deal that we had been in the same city all this time without seeing one another, or apologize for being a lousy friend. Both felt very uncomfortable. But that drawing of Captain Tenacity popped into my mind, and I was overcome with the emotional memory of how much it had meant to me. I couldn’t just let this opportunity to finally say something pass.
I hugged her again, and as I did so, I said, “I am ashamed.”
Listen, I can’t say what impact those three words, or the explanation and conversation that followed, will have on our friendship. This all happened just a few short hours ago. What I can share, what I already do know, is how powerful those three words were for me. Holding them in, and holding on to the emotion that inspired them was toxic. Expressing my shame and remorse, owning those feelings, robs them of their power to hold me back.
I’m so glad I let them out, even if a cocktail reception filled with local leaders might not have been the ideal location. Words are important. If you have some hanging out inside you that need to be said, I urge you to use them. Just don’t underestimate how powerful they can be.