Last week, I shared my thoughts on the Power of Love Notes in a lay service at Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalists in Odessa, FL. Here’s the text of my talk, with a little old material, and a little new. Wishing you the love of family and friends, and only labors of love, on this Labor Day weekend.
The Power of Love Notes
Shared August 28, 2011 at Spirit of Life UU
It’s funny when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed and have to write on the topic of love notes, and you’re feeling anything but the love. But that is, after all, the whole point of the love notes I’m here to talk about. From the notes you love to find on a pillow to the notes you put in lunch boxes, love notes have the power to change a day, repair a mood, lift a spirit, and put you back on the right side of the bed. There are few things that can pack as much affirmation and encouragement in such a small package.
I first came to consider love notes when I got mad at my husband earlier this year. Like the start of this sermon, it all started with a bad mood. Without going into details, suffice it to say I was cranky one day –I was annoyed, and frustrated and felt like I had no control over my life. So I took it out on my husband, my best friend of 32 years, my partner of 30, and I wrote him an angry anti-love note, complaining virulently about – everything. To make matters worse, I typed it – two pages of pouty bitter poopiness in Times New Roman 12 point.
The letter was still warm from the printer when I stormed into the bedroom to lay it on my husband’s pillow. He passed me coming out of the bedroom, and I told him stiffly, “I’m leaving a note for you.”
His face brightened, and he asked hopefully, “A love note?”
A love note! We used to write each other love notes all the time. My heart sank. I looked down and noticed he was holding some tools. He was fixing something.
“I’ll look at it when I’m done,” he said, smiling, as he headed towards the garage.
I snatched the letter back, tore it to shreds, deleted it from my computer and emptied my recycle bin. I wrote a new note, this one in a curly love font. “I love you!” I wrote. “I appreciate everything you do for us, the hard work you put in at the office, the home repairs and improvements, and the wonderful pleasure of your company. Thank you for everything!”
My decision to say “I love you” instead of “I’m ticked at you,” made all the difference in the world. He beamed when he read the letter, and all the other stuff just fell away. We keep passing that one love note back and forth. I still get frustrated, but all I have to do is say “I love you,” and it comes back to me in spades.
Not long after that, I came out to my car with a load of groceries and found a note on my windshield. This is it here. It says, “I really love your sign. If only the whole world felt you. Thank you.” It’s unsigned.
The sign on my car to which the letter writer referred? It’s my “Coexist” car magnet.
That simple outreach from a stranger was immensely thought provoking. While I’m sure the note leaver wouldn’t have considered his or her comments a “love note” in any way, “ it struck me as one. Like an anonymous Valentine or a secret pal, the truest compliments are unsought, the warmest encouragements unsolicited, the best love notes unsigned.
While I was still pondering the Power of Love Notes, I began reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain , our Keystone Book Club read for the summer, and was surprised and delighted to find Mark Twain had some reflections on love notes, too.
“The frankest and freest and privatist product of the human mind and heart,” he wrote, “is a love note.”
Especially an unsigned one, Twain said, for those were compliments actually “given away” with no expectations of anything in return.
“It was mine – all free – all gratis,” he enthused about an unsigned complimentary note he once received. “No bill enclosed, nothing to pay, no possible way to pay – an absolutely free gift.”
What could be better, what could be truer, than something given away without any inherent or suggested obligations?
Love notes don’t actually have to be written notes, though – they can be made manifest as a hug, a generous act, or a kind word. Looking a cashier in the eye and saying, “Thank you and I really do hope you have a nice day,” is a love note. Waving and smiling at your letter carrier is a love note. Stopping to chat with a neighbor is a love note. Sending an unexpected letter of appreciation to a teacher or a boss or a co-worker is a love note. Calling a friend just to say hi is a love note.
As a matter of fact, love notes, for the most part, are simply acts of kindness, which is what makes them so powerful, and so accessible, for you don’t actually have to know or even actually love someone to be kind to them. Kindness, said Samuel Johnson, is in our power, even when fondness is not. And that’s a good thing, because some of the people who need love notes most can be some of the hardest people to love. But that’s really what makes a love note such a great tool, and one of the things that in giving it away makes you richer.
I’ve found for instance, that hugging someone I’m angry at (providing they’ll let me) goes a long way towards eliminate the anger because, truth be told, I shouldn’t be “angry at” anyone in the first place. Anger at others is almost always more indicative of something going on inside of us, than of anything the object of our anger is responsible for. We can be angry or outraged at others’ acts – or inactions – of course, at meanness or injustice. But we also have to consider the source. A five year old or an 85 year old shouldn’t provoke the same kind of response we should reserve for congress, for instance.
Now I’m not saying everything can be made better with a love note – sometimes a letter of outrage is the most productive course of action. But for most of our day to day interactions, with family, with the strangers of our daily lives, responding with unexpected kindness can make all the difference in the world. Complete a glum store clerk on a piece of jewelry, or his or her efficiency, or commiserate with the day, and see what happens. Hug a sullen or cranky child without comment – and you may not see any commensurate response, but that’s okay. The best and most meaningful love notes, as Twain pointed out, are given freely and without expectation of reciprocation. They belong to the recipient to do with as he or she pleases, and that frees the giver, too.
“The best portion of a good man’s life,” said William Wordsworth, “are his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. “
As important as knowing how to give love notes, is recognizing when you’ve been gifted with one. How many times do you toss off someone else’s greeting or kind word, a swift peck on the cheek from a loved one, or a child’s smile. Those are all love notes! Receiving them with gratitude recognizes and affirms the giver, and considerably improves the chances for more of the same.
Sometimes love notes consist of what we choose not to do – like not get angry, not say something critical, mean or cynical, staying instead of stomping off. Choosing to overlook minor irritations, at home, at work, at school, on the road, in stores – and taking the time to tell friends and family and those we work and learn and worship and interact with on a daily basis that we appreciate them says we see them as individuals trying to make their way in the world just as we are. Finding that common ground of humanity, at home and in our communities, in our families and among friends and even strangers, can change the dynamic of our interactions and put us on the same team, working towards similar ends, instead of in opposition to one another.
“Always be a little kinder than necessary,” said James Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, and knew a thing or two about what’s important in life.
That can be hard to do, of course. As much as we like to think we’re caring and open, perhaps, as UUs, caring and open to a possibly greater degree than others, if we take a long hard, honest, human look at ourselves we might see something else.
In a recent article by David McRaney, author of the book “You are Not so Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion” , McRaney sets forth what he believes to be a common misconception many of us hold about ourselves: We celebrate diversity and respect others’ points of view.
And what he suggests is actually the truth: We are driven to create and form groups and then believe others are wrong just because they are others.
“You put on a mask and uniform before leaving for work,” says McRaney. “You put on another set for school. You have costume for friends of different persuasions and one just for family. Who you are alone is not who you are with a lover or a friend. You quick-change like Superman in a phone booth when you bump into old friends from high school at the grocery store, or the ex in line for the movie. When you part, you quick-change back and tell the person you are with why you appeared so strange for a moment. They understand, after all, they are also in disguise. It’s not a new or novel concept, the idea of multiple identities for multiple occasions, but it’s also not something you talk about often. The idea is old enough that the word person derives from persona – a Latin word for the masks Greek actors sometimes wore so people in the back rows of a performance could see who was on stage. This concept – actors and performance, persona and masks – has been intertwined and adopted throughout history. Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
This is a topic for a whole other service, but the salient point here is that we’re probably not as good and kind as we like to think we are, a hard truth but one worth considering.
Love notes provide an opportunity for us to be better than we are, an easy, simple way to step out from behind the social walls we’ve built, sometimes out of a need for self-preservation, sometimes just out of habit – and allow us to connect with others on a more honest, human level. The Power of Love Notes is a social experiment of loving proportions, an examination of what happens when you take the opportunity to tell others they matter, that you see them, that you appreciate them, that you care, that you recognize your and affirm your shared humanity.
So give it a shot – for a few days or a week or a month – and put the love out there, anonymously on car windows (don’t be a stalker! Just leave a nice note!), in compliments to friends and co-workers, in simple acknowledgements to those you meet in the course of your day – and see what some well-placed, low tech love can accomplish!