Having just arrived for my first year in college, I was assigned to a small orientation group with seven other freshmen like myself and two friendly seniors who knew their way around campus. Over the next several days, we all got to know one another as the seniors led us through a series of discussions about where we were from, the challenges of college life, and what we might come to expect both in our classes and in the dorms.
Looking back on it, it's all sort of a blur, but what I remember most about that week was that at its conclusion, the seniors—having now come to know us pretty well—took the time to write personal notes of encouragement to each of us as we officially entered this new chapter of our lives. And the reason I remember this so vividly was that my note really made a big difference to me. It started with a brief observation that I seemed to be a quiet person, but then went on to say I shouldn't hesitate to speak up more as I always seemed to have something well-considered and important to say when I spoke. While I'm sure the two people who wrote the note don't remember it at all, and I can't track with any precision how their words changed my life, I really believe they did. After all, I still remember them forty years later.
It's not unusual for youth camps, weekend retreats, and church outings to end with some sort of exercise or ceremony in which heartfelt words—friend to friend, counselor to camper, parent to child—are exchanged, because we all know that authentic, thoughtful, and generous words of encouragement are one of the most powerful things in the world. They reliably move our minds and change our perspectives, fortifying and inspiring us with confidence and a particularly catalyzing brand of courage. In fact, I'd go even further to say that such encouragement is one of the main ways God moves in the world, using human voices to transmit both the words God desires us to hear and the spirit with which God wants us to live. We thirst for this voice in our lives.
I have a theory that one of the contributing factors to the division in our culture, and why we're becoming ever more siloed in our society, is that we work hard in a complex, high-velocity world and often exhausted at day's end, we all just want to be reassured and encouraged with a message that everything, as we see it, is going to be alright. For this reason, we retreat almost exclusively to sources where we know this sort of fortifying encouragement will be reliably found—places where we can count on being offered confidence and courage to keep going back out there day after day. When you think about it, it's a pretty reasonable thing to want and need. But what if we could be recharged in some other way? A healthier way. To this end, what if we made a point to simply encourage each other more? That is, what if we made it our intention each day, where we can, to leave those we encounter with a thoughtful and meaningful word of encouragement well-tailored to their circumstances.
Sadly, one of the reasons I think we fail to do this and instead require special notes and capstone ceremonies to give each other such profound encouragement is because it takes a special courage to offer it. It's hard, after all, to earnestly tell someone what you see inside them—what you think they could be. We're often afraid to be so serious with each other, so we hold back. But we shouldn't.
If you've experienced how powerful and meaningful such encouragement really is, then for a moment, consider your sphere of influence. Maybe there's a child, a grandchild, a youth whom you coach, a particular student you teach, someone you mentor or employ. Perhaps there's a kid in your school a few grades behind you. Do you have some influence in your neighborhood or within your apartment complex? Use this currency to offer some apt encouragement to someone within your circle of concern.
To put a finer point on it, let me ask this: How many times each day do you have the opportunity to transmit courage to another person with a well-timed, well-tuned word in a way that they really feel it, yet for whatever reason, you hold it back?
God — Who do you want me to encourage? What should I say? What do You want to say to them maybe, just maybe, through me? May I have the courage to speak. Amen.
— Greg Funderburk