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My Gratitude Project

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Following is a very personal post from me to you. I am sharing this with you because I believe I should. Initially, when I embarked on this project I thought I would keep it to myself — a personal journey. I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue my intent or question my motives.  The more I’ve sat with this project and what I learned about myself, about trust, vulnerability and about the beauty of other people, the more I believe it may inspire, motivate or make someone else smile. It sure made me smile.

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February, 2013:

I am that person who walks around all day, grateful for  the things I have: I have a loving husband, two amazing adult sons, money in the bank (not a ton, but enough), my health and my parents who tell me they are proud of me all the time. I also feel a sense  of anxiety and fear that one day it will not be enough. I worry that I could lose it all. There is no rationale for this fear — I have not lost it all before. I do not come from poverty. I have not suffered great hardship. Yet I fear that my sustainability will not survive. I worry, too, that I may not be enough… again no rationale.

During a meeting with an advisor I trust, it was strongly suggested to me that I need to do something completely out of character for me: In order to build full trust in my gratitude and appreciation for the blessings in my life. This person told me I will need to go up to complete strangers (one per day for seven days) and give them an envelope containing a personal note and cash (an agreed upon amount that she and I decided). The note will contain a personal message of gratitude — I will express appreciation for my life, my gifts and a wish for the recipient  — and will  be signed with just my first name. This is not about promotion, evangelizing or anything other than my being authentic, vulnerable and sharing my gratitude in a very real way with a stranger. It was important that the delivery of the note/cash was face to face (I could easily make an online donation to a charity) and I must pay attention to their eyes when they say “thank you” to me.

As she’s sharing this assignment with me, I realized how far this is going to push me outside my comfort zone — even though I speak for a living! I have no trouble addressing an audience of several hundred strangers, speaking on live television or even making small talk with strangers anywhere. I am NOT shy!

Why, then, am I trembling at the thought of being vulnerable with a stranger over something that is so important to me (gratitude)? Why am I afraid of rejection and intimacy in this way? Whole new set of feelings are emerging for me, yet I know in my heart I must go through this.

For the next seven days of my life, my mission is to find one person every day. She tells me that I “will know who it is supposed to be” and I will share the message and the note with the right person each day. I’m told to seek out someone who may not be happy, maybe sad.

Day one

As I walk around the mall, I am suddenly keenly aware of everyone around me. I’ve walked around this mall hundreds of times. Never before have I paid such close attention to everyone around me. Many people are happy. Or at least not sad. I found myself acutely tuned into watching everyone: Their facial expressions, body language, behavior with their companions and children. I don’t think I ever paid attention to strangers like this!

I am nervous. What would this person say when I try to hand them my note and tell them why I’m sharing my gratitude this way? I never have trouble making small talk or chit chat with strangers. Now I had a specific, personal mission! I was looking for “the” person I was supposed to share this gift with. Is it him? Is it her? How will I know??

Envelope number 1 is in my hands. I suddenly see an Indian woman sitting alone, appearing to be waiting for someone. Her husband? She looked like the right one!

Timidly (for me!) I approached her and choked out my first words.  “Pardon the interruption,” I started. She seemed so eager to hear what I needed to say. That surprised me.

I continued, “I’m working on a gratitude project. You see, I have been so blessed and im truly grateful for so much in my life….”

She interrupted me to say she’s also so grateful for so many blessings in her life! I’m surprised… again.

I proceeded to finish my statement and handed her the note with the money inside. She seemed stunned. She held the note and looked up at me, wide-eyed.

Then, she asked if she could give me a hug. Now I was the one who was stunned!  We embraced and I said goodbye.

I walked over to where my husband was standing and I looked back. I saw the woman sharing my note with her husband. They were were delightfully reading my note, smiling at each other.

I was giddy with joy! I can’t believe what I just received! Would all my recipients be like this? Likely not. But she was my first and she made me so happy (as I made her happy). And I believe she will pay it forward. My heart is overflowing with gratitude!!

Day two

My husband and I are having lunch at a local restaurant. Again, I’m keenly aware of my mission, looking around at other diners. I see a man sitting alone in a booth, waiting for partner to return from the restroom after paying the bill. No. I didn’t want it to be him. For some reason, he looked intimidating and I wasn’t even sure he would speak English (for some reason this occurs to me). I’m actually scared to approach him. It’s the fear … mixed with the knowing that he MUST be the one that makes me get up.

I cautiously approach. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that people at other tables watch as I give him my envelope with my little gratitude speech. He enthusiastically receives the note. I am mindful to pay attention to his eyes as he says “Thank You”. He has kind eyes. We say good bye, he smiles to me.

I told my husband that I see where this project is truly for me… but maybe it is also for the people I’m sharing with?  I said was for me.

Before they exit the restaurant, I see the man show my note to his wife. They stop by our table on their way out. He says “thank you” again and tells me he will pay it forward. They both smiled at me and said good bye again.

Interesting that he offered to say he would “pay it forward.” Did he mean the cash, the note or the project?

Day three

The Denver area is hit with a blizzard. All morning I’m stressed and nervous that we won’t get out of the house today. The snow is really deep! What will I do if I can’t get my card gifted?

Finally, my husband and I get the car out of the neighborhood. I realize how preoccupied I am with these notes of gratitude. They’ve become such a wonderful/scary distraction.

We duck into a Subway sandwich shop for lunch (they are open in this blizzard!) I see a teenage girl with a friend/sister. She makes eye contact as we eat. I smile back. Surely she’s not the one I’m supposed to give this card to? She doesn’t look like she needs it… She seems happy or at least content.

The longer I sit there, the more I’m convinced it is her. Oh boy! Here goes.

My speech was more brief this time. She said “thank you” and took the note. She didn’t open it while I finished my sandwich, gathered my coat and my husband and I braced ourselves to go back into the storm.

As we fetched some groceries next, I thought a lot about this girl. She didn’t look hungry, scared, lonely or angry. She looked fine. Maybe even better than fine: The neighborhood we were all in is considered affluent, so she’s likely well off.

Then I consider this: I looked like that at that age. On the outside, I had trappings of wealth and affluence. I attended a classy private school and lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood. We all had cars when we turned 16. However, inside I questioned myself constantly: Was I enough? Was I good enough? Would someone love me? How would I leave my mark on this world? What was to be my destiny?

So, the more I thought about this beautiful young girl, the more I hope she will one day share the story of the day a strange, cold woman greeted her in a sandwich shop and gave her a note about gratitude. And some cash. What would her friends say? Would they consider doing the same one day? I sure hope so. That would make me happy.

Day four

Today, I find myself looking really hard for the person I am to gift to today. Almost overly hard I’m trying to find this person. Then I began to question if I was trying too hard. I reminded myself of the purpose of this project: Focus on the gratitude. Be grateful. Don’t worry. It will find me. Trust the experience.

Just prior to my business meeting at a local bakery, I find myself looking around the room, longing to find my “day four” person. Just then, I glanced at a pleasantly dressed business man, late 30’s, waiting for his meal to arrive. He winked at me. Not a flirtatious wink. More like an acknowledging wink. Ah! Got it!

I walked over and offered him my note which he gladly accepted it and thanked me genuinely. How nice. I noticed his eyes when he said “thank you” and it made my heart soar.

Awkwardly, my business meeting at the bakery faced him. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him open the note and then finish his meal.

As he got up to leave the bakery, he came over to me at my meeting and said, “Thank u for the smile today, Lida” and shook my hand. I asked him to pay it forward and he nodded. He smiled again. Yes!

Day five

Today I realized how dreadful my math skills truly are. Last Friday, when I began this project, I went to the bank to excitedly fetch the  bills which I would include in my notes of gratitude. I wanted fresh, clean, crisp bills. Unfortunately, I realize today that I actually requested the wrong amount (one extra day’s worth), and am now faced with a dilemma — I can either gift an extra note one day, or go a full eight days instead of the intended seven days. Not a crisis, but it certainly reinforced that math is not my thing. I smile.

I’m particularly stressed today because I have a medical procedure tomorrow and worry how I’ll hand out my card. For today, I can get around and find someone. Lucky for me, I spotted my person in the parking lot of my grocery store.

Again, she didn’t look destitute or despondent, but she was an older lady (likely 70s) and was alone, loading groceries into her car, then putting away her cart. I stopped her and gave her my story, then the card. She seemed apprehensive — a stranger (dressed nicely, mind you) is approaching her in a parking lot. She said “thank you” and turned to walk away, card in hand. I know she’ll read it. I trust she’ll smile. That’s how this works. I trust.

Something I forgot to mention a few days ago…. I decided to keep several of the notes, already filled out and stuffed, in my purse. This way, it is random which message and thought the person receives from me. No two notes are the same. To me, this ensures that the recipient gets the right message for them.

Day six

Today I have a medical procedure. I’m more nervous that I won’t be able to identify the person to give my note to, than the procedure… I asked my husband to remind me, after I come out from anesthesia, about my note. Maybe there’s a nice nurse or someone in the medical center I should give it to? This is what I’m focused on. Maybe a nurse…

Instead, when we are seated in the waiting room, I notice an older woman (maybe in her late 80s?) crocheting patiently. She is waiting for someone who is likely having procedures, too. She looks worried and not very approachable. Nevertheless, I approach. I softly tell her what I’m doing and that I’d like to give her a card, which expresses my gratitude for all I have in my life. I ask, “May I give this to you?” And she shakes her head and mutters, “No”.

I’m stunned. Really? I never saw this coming.

I continue, “It’s just a note sharing my gratitude for the things in my life. I’m not asking for anything.” And she says okay. This experience left me a bit deflated, but still hopeful.

After my procedures, my husband and I head to a restaurant for lunch. I’m still a bit woozy from anesthesia, but I’m also starving! We enjoy a nice lunch, talking about nothing.

Seated near us are a bunch of young people, laughing and chatting. One of them seems to be the alpha figure — he is telling the best stories, advising them on food choices and holding court, so to speak. The others seem to enjoy him. They are a cute group of young adults, likely in their early 20s. The one guy is telling stories of his delivery job and how hard tips are to get. They all agree. They politely order and are waiting for their food when hubby and I get up to pay our bill.

As we pass them, I stop. Remember, I have an extra envelope (due to my poor math skills. I could give a second envelope today!) I tell them about my project and they smile. This sounds cool to them! I hand the talkative guy the envelope, but I lay it on the table. It’s a message for all of them. They all thank me and I walk away. As I stand at the register, I see them open the note. The alpha guy puts the money I left in the center of the table; he’s obviously sharing the windfall with the others (is he leaving a good tip?) even though tips are hard to come by, as he noted. Then, I see one of the girls take a photo of the note with her iPhone. Will she post it online? Will she tell her friends about this weird lady who stopped by their table and left them this note with some money? Would she encourage her Facebook friends to do something similar? Who knows. It made my heart sing to see these young kids appreciate the small gesture so much. I know my sons would do the same thing if this happened to them. This makes me proud.

The marketer in me starts to think about patterns: Older women do not seem as receptive; men seem delighted and appreciative; teens and young adults are very gracious and thankful. Hmm…. maybe something here….

Tomorrow is my last envelope. I’m excited and a bit sad, too. I’m not sure how/when or where the event will happen, but I’m encouraged that I’ll have yet another chance to leave a smile in someone’s life. How wonderful is that?

Day seven

I struggled to make today’s envelope significant. I felt a lot of pressure to make it count. It’s as if today is the end of this project/journey and I wanted it to end on the right note (so to speak). I see several people I considered handing my note to today — the guy at the end of the highway offramp holding a panhandling sign? The older woman at a restaurant? I was making too much eye contact, focusing too hard again. I needed to remind myself to trust the process.

Similar to what happened to me a few days ago, I spotted a woman with a child in a shopping cart at the grocery store. As she passed me, she smiled and seemed to wink at me. Not a weird wink, just an acknowledgement — Maybe mother-to-mother? Maybe to tell me she was the one! But, by the time I figured it out, she’d passed by. If I turned around now it might seem strange, as if I’m chasing her down. She’d given me a sign, and I didn’t seize the opportunity.

After fetching my couple of items, I spotted this woman and her child again, this time they were in the line to check out. I paid for my items and walked over to her. Her son was adorable and was fidgeting in his seat in the cart. I approached and said, “Excuse me” as I started telling her my story, ready to hand her my card.

She smiled back and I acknowledged how beautiful her young son was. “He’s three” she said, in broken English. She barely spoke English! It never occurred to me (as it had earlier in my week, at the restaurant).  I proceeded to tell her I’d like to hand her a card, which expresses my appreciation for things I’ve been given. My gratitude. She took it and said “thank you,” genuinely. Yay! Then we made a few minutes of small talk about her beautiful son (hers is three, mine are 20 and 21!) and I left.

How wonderful that my final card was to a woman, mother, foreigner and beautiful woman with her beautiful son. My heart is soaring!

Reflecting Back

It’s now been several weeks since I did my Gratitude Project. Even so, I find myself thinking about the experience often — from the fear I felt at the intial suggestion, to writing all the notes, the first woman I gave my note to and the last woman with the child that I met.

I wonder what I was supposed to learn and whether I was supposed to tell anyone what I’d done. Even though I took notes during the seven days, I didn’t share the journey with anyone except my husband, who fully supported my project.

In particular, I think about this project when I fall asleep at night, reflecting on what an impact these people (and their reactions) had on me. I gave a little piece of myself, my trust and my vulnerability to these total strangers, and I grew as a person because of it. Maybe I made a real impact in them, too? When I speak to audiences or write a book I hope to reach people in a meaningful way. Now I know another way to build relationship in a meaningful way with people I don’t know. My heart fills with gratitude and joy and I’m sleeping better than I have in a long time.

As I said at the outset, I know I am a very blessed woman. I have a wonderful relationship with God, a loving husband, wonderful kids, fabulous parents, a career I love, and friends and clients who challenge me and make me smile. I have talents, abilities, experiences and knowledge that make me relevant for great opportunities, personally and professionally. Even with all that, this project taught me more about trust and gratitude than I could have anticipated.

I’ve decided to share this project with you, because I trust that’s what I’m supposed to do. Have you ever done something similar? Do you believe in the overwhelming gratitude that can come from random acts of kindness? I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, thank you for letting me share.

Lida

12 Responses to My Gratitude Project
  1. Maureen Burke
    April 2, 2013 | 10:46 am

    Great for you.Never surprised by your goodness.I volunteered in South Central Los Angeles,East L.A.,and was able to get 161 at risk kids,Division I Scholarships in Football.It was random,and I love those kids,now men,a ton. My focus,as you know is military.Kudos to you.Well done.Life changing stuff.xoxo

  2. Peter Sterlacci
    April 2, 2013 | 4:08 pm

    Brilliant Lida. What a wonderful project and thanks for sharing. Have you read The Magic? A must read!

  3. Janet Seidl
    April 2, 2013 | 7:12 pm

    Hi Lida,

    Wonderful! I am embarking on a new calling…Eucharistic Minister to the sick at our local hospital. I, too, feel a bit apprehensive about heading into this intimate relationship with strangers, but I trust that the Holy Spirit will guide me in both word and deed. God bless you and all of your readers!
    Janet

  4. Lida Citroen
    April 3, 2013 | 10:46 am

    I haven’t read it, Peter. On my list now!

  5. Lida Citroen
    April 3, 2013 | 10:46 am

    Thank you, Janet. What a beautiful journey you are on!

  6. Allison Friederichs
    April 3, 2013 | 4:38 pm

    Lida,

    What a treasure to read about your gratitude project. And kudos to you for being willing (not for the first time in your life, on top of it) to be willing to do something courageous. You should be so proud!

  7. Nikolai Tsang
    April 4, 2013 | 12:42 am

    I agree with Peter. I read Magic two and half years ago and it was by my bedside for a year.
    I want you to call my voicemail and listen to my message.
    Your gratitude project, I do daily or I do it 5 times a week. And I have been doing this for many years.
    So I could relate to all 7 days.
    Thank you for sharing. It makes my heart smile and I know what definitely has happened from each person you touch.
    Read Magic.

  8. Joy Overbeck
    April 9, 2013 | 9:03 am

    Hi Lida
    I just happened to run across this (no coincidences,huh?) and what a delightful inspiration ! I write a quirky God blog at http://www.godsayshi.org — would love for you to visit and comment..
    blessings to you!

  9. Larry Steward
    May 28, 2013 | 10:39 pm

    Hi Lida,
    You have inspired me in so many ways! I am a Vietnam veteran (purple heart/silver star) who read one of your branding articles on a VA Website. That caught my attention and I was curious to learn more about you, your work and your special interest to help veterans. I see I have much more to explore. I then saw this post and was very interested to learn about your wonderful experiment. Bravo to you for accomplishing your mission and then sharing it so that we too could experience the thrill of expressing gratitude. More than anything at this stage of my life, I want to express my gratitude to other veterans returning from war and making a transition back to civilian life. That can be a difficult transition for many and I want to find a way to help those veterans. I would like to follow up with you further about that and just wanted you to know I find you a very special person who must be positively impacting many people in very significant ways.

  10. Lida Citroen
    May 29, 2013 | 8:32 am

    Hi Larry,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a meaningful and generous comment on this blog. And, thank you for your brave service to this country.

    This truly was a very personal project and it means so much to me to know that people, like you, found it inspiring and compelling. What a great outcome from something that gave me so much.

    I look forward to knowing you and I applaud your effort to help fellow veterans!

    All my best,

    Lida

  11. SUSAN ALONZI
    May 31, 2013 | 8:40 am

    Dear Lida,
    Thank you for sharing your project and experience. When we pay it forward with no expectation, that is the true gift of peace and gratitude. Thank you again – it is in the kindness to others that we truly get to know God.
    Blessings abound,
    Susan

  12. Lida Citroen
    May 31, 2013 | 8:52 am

    Thank you for your kind note, Susan. I know you well enough to know you live these values… daily!

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