Anderson: Our Words and Actions Can Mean More than We Ever Imagined and That’s a Good Thing (column)
January 26, 2018
"I just finished reading A Map of Heaven. I absolutely loved it…the note you included at the end hit home. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2017. I am currently going through radiation. Hope you are doing well."
I received this message as I sat with 10 other members of the prayer shawl knitting group at Next Page bookstore, in Frisco. I've been a member for three years, but always felt removed from the impact of the prayer shawls until I attended a Sunday morning service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Breckenridge. Maggie Ducayet stood and asked the congregation if anyone who had taken a prayer shawl would raise their hand. I turned in my seat and was stunned when nearly every hand was raised.
I thought of that moment after I received the message on Wednesday. I had included my own brush with breast cancer in a brief essay at the end of my novel. I did it because the novel describes a woman's battle with cancer and the spiritual quest that resulted. But I also did it because my world had cracked open after my diagnosis, my feeling of invincibility had been pierced. It was similar to the feeling I had after my father died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a glimpse of how thin the membrane of our own mortality is from one moment to the next.
In my novel, I described how our actions have a ripple effect in the universe, whether for good or not. We drop a pebble into still waters and don't realize that long after we've left the water's edge the ripples from that small action have traveled beyond our imagination.
But I also did it because my world had cracked open after my diagnosis, my feeling of invincibility had been pierced. It was similar to the feeling I had after my father died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a glimpse of how thin the membrane of our own mortality is from one moment to the next.
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When I wrote "A Map of Heaven" it was a means to work through the grief of losing my father to a sudden heart attack. Much of that experience is woven into the novel. But because I wrote it over the course of 20 years, it also reflects my spiritual growth. Through the stories of the characters, I explored difficult questions we face in our relationship with one another and with God. How do we deal with the grief after a spouse commits suicide? Or a sibling succumbs to mental illness? How do we reconcile estranged relationships? I put all of these questions into my novel and then sent it out into the world.
It's been four years since I published "A Map of Heaven." It is still my favorite book. But I am also surprised when I receive a message via my Facebook page from someone telling me that its words rang familiar to them.
After I received the message on Wednesday, I wrote back and asked if I could send her a prayer shawl to keep her shoulders warm during radiation treatments because I know how cold hospitals can be. She replied saying yes, she would like that, she's finished 25 radiation treatments and still has 11 to go.
And in this moment, I experience first-hand how the prayer shawls warm the heart of someone we will never meet. And how the words I write might be a comfort to someone I will never know.
But it speaks more clearly to the impact we all have in the world. Our gestures, whether kind or inconsiderate and most often without thought as we hurry through our day, may have an unrealized effect on someone else.
Jesus came into the world to give his love to each of us. He gives us bread and wine and asks us to do this to remember his gift. And he asks us to go out into the world to be his hands and feet to give ourselves as he gives himself to us, even now. He asks us to give.
But what will I give? I hesitate to do an act of kindness because I don't believe such an insignificant gesture could make a difference. Now, I challenge myself to believe the smallest kindness can create a ripple of goodness that might become a wave of love breaking upon a distant shore I may never see but which arrives when it is much needed.
Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson is the author of "A Map of Heaven." She lives in Breckenridge. Join her at Facebook.com/suzanneelizabeths or SuzanneElizabeths.com.