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Lately, I’ve been on a bender. An inspiration-bender, where you gorge on inspirational advice from the Internet, and then wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life. Perhaps you’re familiar with it.
An inspiration-bender is similar to other kinds of benders in that there’s usually an initial, frantic act of grasping. Then there’s a period of excess. Indulgence. And when it’s over, you wake up the next morning with a massive headache, and Oprah Winfrey in your bed.
An inspiration-bender shifts you into overdrive, and leaves you emotionally exhausted. “I should be less of a loser and more of a WINNER,” you say to yourself. “There’s all this stuff I should be doing.”
Stuff like learning a language online or starting a business or setting up a website. Knitting something. Maybe Etsy. Bottling your own craft beer. Waking up early, for sure.
Waking up early really seems to be a thing.
So does starting a yoga practice. Avoiding corn syrup.
Goji berries? A do.
Artisanal soapbars? Yes.
Definitely yes to the standing desk. Also: llama farms.
And sustainable everything, because obviously.
But NO to living outside your truth; NO to not reaching for the sky so that if you fall, you land amongst the stars. NO to buying electronics during Mercury retrograde; NO to SUVs, and to step aerobics because what are you, a monster? Only crazy, un-actualized people still do step aerobics.
TED talks are a preferred drug of choice when I’m on a self-improvement-bender. Several weeks ago, I watched one where a young woman stood next to an empty U.S. Postal Services mail crate, and delivered a speech on the importance of logging off.
"My generation has grown up paperless," said the speaker, Hannah Brencher. "We've learned to diary our pain on Facebook. We speak swiftly, in 140 characters or less."
Hannah explained how she spent her free time leaving little notes of encouragement across New York City. She had handwritten 400 of them, and counting.
“The world needs more love letters!” she said to the cheering crowd. I started wondering what it would feel like to do what she did.
You’ve seen those bumper stickers about the benefits of random acts of kindness. But what about the impact those acts have on the actor? What would happen it I spent a week littering the quiet corners of my city with anonymous letters of hope?
Would anything change? Would I be inspired, through the act of inspiring others? I decided to try it out. Here’s what happened when I spent a week writing love letters to randos, and leaving them around town.
The day I decided to do this, I had a doctor’s appointment at the women’s health clinic across the street from my apartment. I arrived to find a little girl at the door. She was alone. And barefoot.
I pushed the door open carefully, and she smiled up at me.
“Where’s your mother, sweetheart?” I said, loud enough so my voice would carry inside. And even as I was doing it, I knew I wasn’t actually talking to the little girl. I was talking to her mother. I was judging that mom so hard.
In the waiting room, I found the little girl’s older sister and brother tearing up the place: shouting, scaling the furniture. A young nurse appeared eventually, and called out to the kids:
“Excuse me!” she said, over the noise, and the kids stopped punching each other long enough to listen.
“Do you guys want some lollipops?” she said, and I immediately thought:
What?! Sugar? What kind of nurse is this?
Then I realized what I had done. I wasn’t even ten minutes into this Mother Teresa-experiment, and I had already harshly judged an entire waiting room full of strangers, and one woman who wasn’t even there.
In my hand, I held the tiny, random love note I had written earlier. Inside I’d copied a Rumi quote about love and tolerance. I thought about hypocrisy then; about whether recycling someone else’s words of compassion mattered when I was failing to act with compassion in this moment, with these children. Did it?
I didn’t know, but left the note on a chair, anyway. I’m pretty sure one of the kids tore it up.
Or possibly ate it.
Next location: an outdoor subway stop. It was raining as I ducked for cover under the shelter. At first, I didn’t see the man huddled underneath the awning. He smiled at me.
“Nice day,” he said.
“Gorgeous,” I said back, smiling.
I headed to the other end of the platform, leaving the note in a patch of dry, wondering who would claim it, wondering if it would be the homeless guy. I stuffed a fiver in the envelope, then noticed two things: 1) I was still smiling, and 2) the man was right.
It was a nice day.
I went for a run in my neighborhood, up by the water tower, with a sealed note in my pocket. The water tower is a place people come alone (usually with headphones on), to kick rocks, and stare blankly at the view below.
I was about to leave the note on a bench, when I heard a rustling behind me. A middle-aged woman. Frail. Pale. She was wearing a heavy cardigan, even though it was 83 degrees out.
Cancer? I wondered.
My eyes followed her as she walked around the lookout. I could see then, that she was wearing a wig.
Cancer, I thought.
I wanted to press the note into her hand. I wanted to reach out and give her this massive hug. Are you OK? I wanted to say. Are you really?
I watched as she paused by the railing, breathing in deeply, her gaze on the skyline; the air hot, cloudless, perfect. I was there, with her, in that moment. I really was. It felt like we were the only ones.
I waited for her to leave before propping the note up, against the water tower. My phone let out a ping. A daily horoscope-message.
“Be of service on a one-on-one level,” it read. “Make a difference for one person today.”
I wondered whether I had.
And maybe I’d always be wondering. I needed a way to connect to the letter-recipients. The next batch of love letters I distributed weren’t quite anonymous. I set up an Instagram account and, on the back of the envelopes, wrote out the handle.
Then, I waited.
But nobody wrote back. Fifteen pictures, fifteen drop-offs: cafes and sidewalks and hiking trails and one crowded college campus except: nothing. For days.
Until suddenly? There it was.
“We loved finding our notes.”
It was connection. Contact. A hand, outstretched. A moment, elevated.
I read it again, just to be sure.
We loved finding our notes.
Hooray, I quickly typed back.
Hooray, hooray, hooray.