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I Wanted to Say Thanks; I Ended Up Saying Sorry

When I decided to mark my 50th birthday year by writing thank-you letters to people who had helped, inspired, and shaped me in my life, the last thing on my mind was forgiveness. But writing those thank-you letters turned out to be harder, deeper, and more meaningful than I’d ever hoped, in large part because it drove home the ways in which gratitude and forgiveness are twinned in human nature. By challenging myself to acknowledge all the ways in which I had been helped over the years, I necessarily faced facts: there were situations in which I hadn’t always conducted myself in a way that made me deserving of the help. And in situations where I’d clung to historical slights by a family member or close friend, writing a letter documenting all the ways those people had supported me over the years made me blush with embarrassment over my hard work and determination to maintain ancient disappointments. Making amends as I went, whether in the text of the letters I wrote or simply by promising myself to do better going forward, became a means of clearing a flight path for gratitude’s smooth landing.   

I started figuring this out in the very first letter I wrote, to my mom. The youngest of three kids, I had convinced myself growing up that I was about as perfect a child as anyone could ever hope for. In fact, my older siblings still tease me about the fact that when one of them was getting disciplined, I’d materialize out of the ether to say, “But I’m a good girl, right? I’m a good girl?”, which served only to make their situations worse. But as I wrote a letter to my mom, at a time when I was mothering my own teenage daughters, I knew what a fiction memories of my perfect behavior were.  I wrote:

And also, I’m sorry, Mom. While I tend to romanticize the ease of our relationship (“I never fought with my mom! I was the third kid who rode around on her hip all day! I was her little buddy!”) my guess is that I was actually as big a pain in your ass as the other two, if not bigger. I say this with confidence because I am a mother myself, and I now understand how much of ourselves we subjugate to our children’s needs, how sturdy we have to be in the face of their drama and emotion, how much we are treated as background noise when in fact, it’s us all along keeping the whole enterprise afloat.

Without making amends to my mom first, the full depth of my gratitude to her couldn’t be properly expressed.

Writing a letter documenting all the ways people had supported me over the years made me blush with embarrassment over my determination to maintain ancient disappointments.

When I started writing a letter to my brother, I was more aware an apology was in order. Three years older than me and a football player, there had never been a time during our childhood when I could match him physically. So when it came to conflict, I learned to seek my moments to even the playing field in our inveitable, everyday sibling conflicts.

One day in high school, when we were home alone for a few hours until our parents returned from work, my brother went down into the basement to grab something, and I simply locked the door behind him before fleeing the house to hang out at a neighbor’s. No reason. I just looked up from MTV, saw an opportunity, and went for it. My brother was stuck down there amongst Dad’s tools and the washing machine and the snow shovels until Mom and Dad came home at dinnertime and freed him.

All these years since, with the evolution of our relationship into something much kinder and closer, I have felt guilty about that day. My brother may not have even remembered it, but the remorse I carried with me needed to be expressed before I could thank him for all the ways he’s made my life better. Like the way that having him as my brother taught me to think on my feet:

That is not to say that it was always roses and sunshine between us when we were kids. If I haven’t said it before: Sorry I locked in the basement that one time and then ran to Steinbrenners’ house so I wouldn’t hear you bellowing fire at me. I saw my moment, and I took it.… Thanks to you, I grew up with a thick skin, a quick comeback, and a soft spot for anyone who could take it as well as they could dish it out.

(By the way, was my prank that day the reason that my brother has transformed the basement of his current home into a replica British pub including armchairs, dart boards, and a selection of beers of the world? I wouldn’t rule it out.)

As I worked on these letters I came to realize I didn’t have to actually send the letters for me to feel happy I’d expressed my gratitude. The bigger realization was that focusing on and writing down the positive things in my relationships made it easier for me to simply let go of what didn’t work well in them, effectively erasing the recording of stories I’d retold myself on a loop, sometimes for decades. 

That realization cleared the way for me to write a thank-you letter to a close high school friend with whom I’d lost all contact, 20 years earlier. As my version of the story went, he ghosted me without explanation, despite my efforts to stay in touch. I maintained a nice little burning ember of resentment over the years, stoked whenever I heard about his life from mutual high school friends with whom he had stayed in contact. Why not me? I’d wonder. When I began this project, I certainly didn’t put him on my list of people I wanted to thank.

But as I worked further through my list of letters, I knew I had to include him. Because when it came to “formative people” in my life, he had earned that berth in my shoulder-pad-and-Aquanet years, when I struggled to mask my lack of confidence with Bartles & Jaymes, clove cigarettes, and a proclivity for boys who looked down on me. In the unsent letter I wrote, I thanked my friend for all the times he’d prodded me to expect better for myself, to value my brains and ambitions instead of burying them for fear of scaring off the boys.

I realized that maybe the dissolution of our friendship had been more bilateral than I’d told myself. He had given me good advice that I ignored, to my detriment, so many times. The real miracle may have been that he stayed friends with me all the way through graduation day.

Either way, the resentments I had clung to for decades were  small compared to the steadfast support he’d provided at a time I really needed it. The process of writing the thank-you letter finally poured water on that stupid ember of resentment, extinguishing it for good.

Then something kind of magical happened. A few months after I wrote — and didn’t send — the gratitude letter, my old friend got in touch. Because I had taken the time to think through forgiveness and gratitude and the role I played in our terminated friendship, I was able to receive his overture with a measure of humility and authentic joy that I never could have mustered before I wrote it. We’ve picked up our friendship right where it left off. 

If I’d thought of my letter-writing initiative as my “Apology Project” rather than my “Thank-You Project,” I probably never would have written past the second or third letter. Who wants to start off a gala birthday season on the back foot? But 50 letters of gratitude later, I understand in a profound and powerful way how a well-expressed apology, even if it’s tardy, can become the fertile soil in which gratitude can flourish.

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