When I graduated from high school, I started a list of people I wanted to thank—the ones I looked up to, the ones who encouraged me, the ones who were my heroes even if they didn’t know it. I even started to write a few letters.
But I never sent them.
I called them the “Dead Letters” and kept them in a folder in my desk, tucked away inside the bottom drawer, under a collection of half-filled journals and unfinished scrapbooks. A manila coffin where the letters could die quietly, peacefully.
Four years later, getting ready to graduate from college, I realized I had another chance. There were so many people who had changed and challenged me, whose everyday actions had taught me a little more about grace. I made a list of names. Bought a box of envelopes. Found some nice stationary.
And I couldn’t start writing. Could. Not. I would pick up my pen and stare at the paper, all of my words gone.
This did not even remotely make sense. I love words. I love people. What was going on? Here’s the explanation I came up with for why it was hard for me to start the letters:
Because people might come to wrong conclusions, reading a love letter when I only sent a thank-you note. Because it’s hard to express exactly what I mean when I don’t always know either. Because I worry that I don’t matter as much to them as they matter to me. Because if I say that I love these people and why, it will hurt more when I have to say goodbye.
Because if these letters stay hidden and unsent, a part of me will remain safely tucked away where it can’t be hurt.
After looking at my reasons, I knew I had to at least write the letters, even if I didn’t send them. And as I did, I realized something.
They weren’t thank-you notes. They were love letters after all.
Right before my college graduation, I saw a performance of The Curious Savage. It’s a play about loss and leaving (and also a house full of delightful crazy people—it is a comedy, I promise, despite how I’m making it sound). In it, one character bemoans the fact that no one has said “I love you” to her the entire day.
To which Mrs. Savage responds, “People say I love you all the time—when they say, ‘take an umbrella, it’s raining,’ or ‘hurry back,’ or even ‘watch out, you’ll break your neck.’ There are hundreds of ways of wording it—you just have to listen for it, my dear.”
That seemed like solid advice. So I started listening just a little bit better.
Since then, people have said, “I didn’t put vegetables on your half.” Or “Cause any trouble yet today?” Or “I know that feeling.” Or “Seriously, though, you really do need a budget.”
And I have heard, “I love you.”
Looking at the world this way is anticipating heaven. There, we’ll know what it means to love others without the fear of rejection or misunderstandings or hurt feelings or half-truths or loneliness and insecurity and unknowns.
There, all our letters will be love letters.
I did end up sending that second batch of letters, and ever since then I’ve challenged myself to take opportunities to tell people what they mean to me, to point out God’s grace I see in their lives, to thank them for the little things they do. I am not always good at it, because I am still afraid (and also incredibly awkward). But I try, and that counts for a lot, I think.
Valentine’s Day is coming up. As a single person, I’m supposed to hate this holiday with a passion I normally reserve for eating broccoli and doing my taxes. But I just can’t. There are so many people who I love that it’s hard to have room for jealousy or regret. Sometimes it feels like I could write a thousand love letters. Maybe by the time I die, I will.
This Valentine’s Day, especially if you’re feeling lonely, maybe you need to listen a little bit better. Maybe you need to notice the ways those around you are saying, “I love you.”
And maybe there are letters you need to write, Facebook messages you need to send, words you need to speak to friends or mentors or random acquaintances who once did something that made a difference to you. Say “I love the way you bring joy everywhere you go.” Say “I’m going to miss you.” Say “Thank you for showing me what it means to be brave.”
Go on. Just. Say. It.
Maybe I’m the only one in the world who is afraid to do these things. But just in case I’m not, I want to encourage you: it’s hard. And it’s worth it.
The letters we send and the words we speak will be incomplete, and that’s okay. Maybe that’s even part of the point. God uses weak people, after all. He uses our less-than-eloquent speeches and half-finished thoughts and awkward silences. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Your words won’t be perfect, but they matter, and they will mean more than you think.
And, for that, at least, they should be given a chance to live.