There have been times when I have been astonished by the impact attributed to my words.
A few years ago, I received a "bread-and-butter" thank you note from a houseguest that went on, in the tiniest of handwriting, for two pages, thanking me in the most glowing terms for my sage advice and wise counsel.
This was confusing, because I couldn't remember offering any advice at all. I wrangled my memory, trying to recall what I said that was so brilliant as to precipitate such praise.
It wasn't until half a day later that I fully remembered the conversation. This guest and I were in my kitchen late Friday night, after everyone else had gone to bed. We were stacking the dinner dishes and chatting.
She shared stories of her life with me, and we discussed a couple of issues that were bothering her. She asked me what I thought she should do to handle a particularly difficult relationship with a family member.
My reply was, "Wow, that's such a difficult situation. I have absolutely no idea how to handle something like that."
We talked late into the night (there were a lot of dishes.) I remembered feeling impotent and frustrated that I had nothing to offer her. I went to bed disappointed at how unresolved and difficult her situation remained.
Years before that, I attended an annual party at a friend's house. I sat on the sofa, focusing on keeping my paper plate of buffet goodies and plastic cup of seltzer balanced and upright.
Someone vaguely familiar rushed over, earnestly seeking me. It took me a moment to place her. She was a mutual acquaintance of the hosts and me, who had moved out of town a couple of years earlier. Her name bobbed in and out of my mind, just out of reach. I tried not to squint, tried not to let on that I was struggling to retrieve her name.
"I just had to come over and thank you," she said.
"Thank me?" I started to demur, figuring she had me mixed up with someone else.
"You changed my life."
"I followed your advice."
"My advice?" Now I was certain that she had me confused with a different person. The last time I saw her before that evening was a few years ago, at the same hosts' party. We had never been at each other's houses when she lived in our town.
I was a bit relieved, because now we could reveal our names to one another, and the confusion would dissipate in chuckles about mistaken identity.
"Three years ago, we sat on this sofa, at this same party," she explained. "I told you I always wanted to go to graduate school to study [I've forgotten what she studied!]. You encouraged me. You told me I should go for it. I applied for the program at [some out-of-state school] and was accepted. That's why we moved to [whatever that state was]. I just finished my program."
Okay. This took some serious mental time travel, but, finally, I located the memory of that event. We were chatting on the sofa, as she described. She described her passionate interest in a certain subject. She told me she was more interested in this subject than anything she was doing during the day, and that she wished she could spend the day studying [whatever that subject was.] She told me about the graduate program in the other state.
I casually said, "Wow. If it means so much to you, why not apply? They can only say no. If you don't apply, they can't say yes." I'm sure I shrugged while saying this.
The topic changed, probably to mystery novels, and I never gave it a second thought. Until she came over to the sofa three years later. I had no idea we were having anything other than a small-talk moment at the time.
I learn from this that no moment of listening with empathy is ever wasted. Words don't have to be profound (or even decisive) to have an impact on others. They have power that transcends their content.
I have a dream. In that dream, I have an advice column. People write in to ask me what they should do about sticky life situations. I reply with a well-written, detailed and specific article describing why I have absolutely no idea what they should do. I explain that they are the world's expert on their own opinion.
Weeks later, they write follow-up articles, thanking themselves for following their own excellent advice.
Once a year, the publisher hosts a advisee reunion get-together and serves ice-cream. Everyone orders a different flavor, and all are satisfied.