I am a big fan of gold stars. When I was in fifth grade, Mrs. Gregory had a big spelling sticker chart where she would place gold stars next to the names of the children who received an A on the most recent spelling test. I am pretty sure she gave out silver stars, too, but I was focused on the gold. I worked hard to earn those gold stars because they meant that I was good at something.
As an adult, the ‘gold stars’ I covet the most are words of appreciation and affirmation. I will go through a lot to hear some form of ‘Good Job!’ There have been many times in my life when I was unbelievably close to throwing in the towel until someone came along and told me that they saw how hard I was working and that they appreciated my efforts. In those words of appreciation and recognition, I found the strength and motivation to continue working on whatever personal or professional task was kicking my butt. Appreciation feels good and feeling appreciated motivates people to do good things.
The importance of appreciation was highlighted for me this past week in an unexpected way. Months and months ago, I thought about how trash collectors are nearly invisible to many of us, including me. I put my trash bin at the end of the driveway, head off to work, and the bin is nice and empty when I arrive home. I happened to be home on one of our collection days last fall and I saw our trash collectors working to keep the neighborhood clean. I was struck with a sense of appreciation for them and mentioned something on Facebook about it. I received a comment from someone telling me that her mom used to leave cold drinks out for the trash collectors, thought ‘What a brilliant idea!’ and then never did anything more.
I procrastinated on showing appreciation for a long time because I felt a bit awkward engaging a stranger, I forgot to get individual drinks, and, in all honesty, I was afraid one of the neighborhood kids would take the drinks before the trash collectors got to my house. Last week, though, I put all those excuses for procrastination aside. My husband and I put out the drinks along with a note of appreciation, thinking we would be gone when they came to pick up our trash.
I was sitting on the couch when the truck came and the men found the note and drinks. I didn’t get to see their faces, but before they left one of them pulled our trash bin back up our driveway to its place next to the garage after emptying it. When I saw that, I knew that our appreciation touched their hearts. This week, we didn’t put our bin at the end of the driveway because we only had one bag of trash in it. But when the collectors came, one of them ran up our driveway, opened the bin, and took the trash bag to the truck.
My heart was completely humbled by the kindness of those men in returning our bin to its proper place and in going out of their way to take our one bag of trash. A few words of appreciation to them seems to have earned us a favored position on their route. And that is all it was. A few words and a few cold drinks. Such a small effort and yet it clearly meant a lot to them.
Isn’t that the way it is for so many of us, though? We just want to know what we do matters. In our families, our communities, our work environments, our volunteer projects, we just want to know that our presence is valued and appreciated. Knowing how much that tiny gesture of gratitude from my husband and me meant to those men makes me wish I hadn’t waited so long to express my appreciation. There are so many individuals moving about in the world right now feeling like they are invisible, unappreciated, and undervalued. What would happen if we took the time to say ‘I see you. I see all you do. I appreciate you and the way you make my life better, easier, happier?’
This week, I was reminded of a piece of advice I heard a long time ago: Do not hesitate to follow the impulse to do good for someone. I am glad I finally stopped making excuses and procrastinating. The exchange of appreciation and kind deeds has made our little corner of the neighborhood a happy place on trash day.