Fourteen years ago, I read an article in The Sun Magazine about gratitude, diapers, and where love lives.
The article was entitled “Many Thanks: Gregg Kretch on the Revolutionary Practice of Gratitude.”
At the time, Kretch and his wife were the “founders and operators of the ToDo Institute, a nonprofit center in Monkton, Vermont, that [offered] educational programs on Japanese psychology”; namely “a form of self-reflection called Naikan (pronounced ‘Nye-con’), which translates as ‘inside looking.’”
Both Buddhists, the couple specialized in trauma treatment as well as more mundane therapeutic dilemmas through two practices: gratitude and self-examination.
As Gregg explained:
It’s common for someone in counseling to blame other people — parents, spouses, exes — for the way he or she is.
Little time is given to developing a sense of appreciation for what other people have done for you.
And it’s the uncommon shape that appreciation takes that struck me most: diapers.
Probing Kretch on Naikan’s systematic approach to reflection, which usually starts with the patient’s parents, the interviewer asked:
I’ve heard that a common assignment given to participants … is to calculate the number of diapers their parents changed for them when they were a baby. This seems a little silly. Isn’t it enough just to acknowledge that your parents changed a lot of diapers?
I can’t say my mother changed “a lot” of dirty diapers for the same reason my bank statement doesn’t say I wrote “a lot” of checks, and the deed to my property doesn’t say I have “a lot” of acreage.
Truth is in the details.
With that decade-old lesson on the power details and diapers still pressing on my mind, a week ago I set about the task of loving one of the most important people in my life … my father, Michael Orendorff.
I wrote him a “thank you” letter: a thirty point thank you letter.
Here’s what I sent.
I’ve been meaning to write you for some time now.
But just like you said six months ago on my 33rd birthday, “As with most resolutions, it took days [or, in my case, weeks] to finally come around to doing it.”
The truth is you’ve come up a lot in the last few weeks.
Well … not you per say; but the subject of “Dads.”
A friend of mine lost his father three weeks ago and—in two separate readings—the whole issue of “resentments transformed” also reared its head.
I say that not as a backdoor to bring up anything from the past (even less to paint this letter with a backhanded tone) … but instead to say this: you love me well.
That isn’t something most of the people I know can say about their father. Really, it’s not something most people in the world can say.
But you do … you love me well.
Still, as David [my uncle] pointed out after your Thanksgiving email, love lives in the details.
So, in the spirit of details … here’s why you love me well.
You taught me what type of salad to buy, and which to avoid. Iceberg = bad. Spring mix (especially spinach and kale) = good.
The letter you wrote me on my birthday two years ago was the best present I’ve received in 35 years … from anyone.
You weren’t just a blessing at my wedding, you went the unbelievable extra mile of coordinating with the colors.
You send me this text when I told you about the difficulties I was having getting my daughters [from a previous marriage] to the wedding:
Having the law on your side statement reminds me of the warning given to bicyclists. You may have the right of way but when 1600 pounds of steel hits you, you still lose.
You’re honest with me. (See number 4.)
You gave me your genetics. (Not sure if that really counts. You didn’t exactly have a choice in the matter, but I’m still very grateful.)
You made sure I never went hungry … ever.
You gave me a work ethic that in every area of my life has made all the difference. (I’m constantly grateful for this one. In fact, I used to share it with my philosophy classes at the college whenever the issue of grace came up. So much of who I am is due to the nature and nurture you passed on. In other words, I have very little to do with my success.)
You introduced me to Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis, which—speaking of philosophy classes—is something I constantly use as a teaching tool and as a tool in my personal life.
You gave me intelligence. Talk about grace and (again) something I can’t take credit for.
You love in the details. Case in point: the Thanksgiving email you sent that was about exactly why you’re grateful for every member of our extended family … name by name.
You and Melinda [my stepmom] immediately embraced me and showed me incredible grace when my life fell apart five and a half years ago. I called you from jail, which I’m sure is every parent’s ideal situation after a multi-year silence from their son. But the way you opened your lives back up to me was staggering. No questions. No guilt. No belittling. No shame. Just love. (Extra love because you didn’t bail me out.)
You don’t just read the stuff I publish … you proofread it.
You celebrate my “wins,” like the first time I guest posted on Copyblogger; even though you had no idea what Copyblogger was.
You (and Melinda) “blow up” my Facebook account with 20-30 “Likes” at least once a month. That always makes me smile and feel loved.
You taught me to be grateful … for small things and big things alike.
You read to me. In particular, you read C.S. Lewis to me … something I’m doing with my own daughters now before they go to bed.
You’re on Twitter.
You married Melinda. (Wow … I can’t say “thank you” enough for that move. Good work.)
Physically and athletically, you’re a beast. I joke with my friends that I realized long ago I’m never going to be stronger or faster than my dad … I’m just gonna have to wait until he gets weaker. 😉
You’re the best conversationalist I know. I loved watching you connect with my friends the night of the rehearsal dinner, but I wasn’t surprised. Your wit, genuine interest in other people, and intelligence make you (hands down) my favorite person to talk to.
You recommended The Undoing Project at the very moment I was beginning to explore behavioral economics.
You were one of the first people I told about emailing Daniel Kahneman, and him emailing back. I fanboyed out so hard, and you not only got it but also celebrated with me.
You told Patricia and I about Red Mouse. Those stories were worlds unto themselves. Reading your write up to my daughters was one of my happiest moments of this past year.
When you visited us last summer, you connected with Alana about things triathlon related. You went to her swim team practice. You blew her away at Lake of the Woods. You kindled her growing love of the sport.
You continue to email me even when I don’t email back.
This morning — Father’s Day — you sent three questions that personify you and me as your son. The second asked:
“If you felt maximally, deeply, almost unconsciously cared for and secure in your core how would your life be changed? In what ways would your interactions with other people, things and incidents be different? (Yes, another spiel you are being spared.) Or surprise me and say you are living in that state already such that worries and fears and … are at their minimum and hopes and dreams are embraced playfully each day.”
Years ago, I wrote up what I “really want” for my daughters, which echoes so perfectly how you wrote above: “I want my daughters to be absolutely secure, to know in their bones that they’re loved and that they can trust and rest in both their parents.”
The first question asked:
“On the whole, are you glad you came into existence or not? (Of course, I have in my head a long background spiel about why I would ask that but, once again, I spare you.) There were a lot of possibilities when the sperm were out hunting for an egg. The possibility that became the particular you, is that a good one at this point in your life? (Both a fun question and a serious question.)”
Yes, yes I am.
Thank you for being my dad.
And for loving me well.
So … why share all this?
Because now is the time of year we shop for cards with words we’d never pen and frantically scribble down platitudes to fill in the blanks.
But that’s not where love lives.
Love lives in the specifics … in the nitty gritty and rarely beautiful details of what actually happened.
Whether it’s color coordinating at a wedding, pointing out the difference between salad types, or counting diapers, it’s not the devil that’s in the details … it’s salvation.
My hope is that you’ll take some time to write your own thank you letter before the year ends.
If you do, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.