Three little words.
Oh, but not just any three words. The three most impactful words.
There’s no taking them back. You say them, and they’re out there. Forever.
For this reason, most of us are very careful with them; so careful, in fact, that we rarely say them to anyone other than our romantic partner or close family members. And even then, we’re pretty reserved with our use of the precious words, maybe only saying them a handful of times in an entire year.
A couple of courageous trend busters changed this pattern for me recently and really made me think about how pointless all this reticence is. The first came in a random text message with no other context. It was from a friend—a woman I’ve never met in person, but who I’ve had extensive conversations with about our shared experience struggling along after our young children died.
I told her how sweet it was—how it took me a bit by surprise, because I almost never hear it from anyone other than a family member—and how her words absolutely filled me with joy for a moment. I then was bold enough to ask her what compelled her.
Her response was just as interesting as her random expression of love. She basically shrugged me off like it was no big deal—like saying “I love you” to people you care about should be the most natural thing in the world.
“I thought of you and wanted to tell you.”
And that’s all I have to say about that. My apologies for stealing a little line from Forrest Gump there, but her response immediately evoked him in my mind.
Her logic was so innocent and pure and devoid of motive or ego. She’s a brilliant person, but her simplicity here was almost childlike. Needless to say, while my icy Winter Warlock heart had already begun thawing before, it was an absolute puddle after that.
She did go on later to reference our many conversations and say that I’ve been a constant in helping her with her pain. Of course, she helped me as much or more than I helped her, and our shared loss is the clear basis for our bond.
Maybe this particular expression of love isn’t so surprising given the circumstances and her perspective on the fleeting nature of life. Her son was here one day and gone the next, taken by a mysterious and random illness.
I guess she figures there might not be another day. Say it right now, or you may not get another opportunity.
Better to jump the gun and let go a little early in a relationship or at an inopportune time, than not at all. The person you want to say it to could be dead, or you could be for that matter. When you have that kind of attitude, any small concerns about awkwardness or misunderstandings take a backseat to authenticity.
Score one big point on the “emotional IQ test” for the bereaved parent. Like me, I bet she sucks at holding her tongue when she disagrees with some dumb comment made at a dull dinner party. Her mood swings probably have all the predictability of the path of one of those hurricanes tracking through the Caribbean. But she just crushed the question about vulnerability.
Okay, so circumstances at least partially explain the first random expression of love, but what about the second that came a week or so later?
I received a call from an old friend I’ve known for 20 years. He’s at least 10 years my junior. We met while training at the same gym when he was a teenager, and I was in my late twenties.
To be honest, I didn’t like him at first. He was a know-it-all kid with no life experience to back up his many opinions, and he annoyed the hell out of me. I was pretty sure he was indifferent at best toward me as well.
Over the next three years or so, we spent a bit of time around each other, and the kid sort of grew on me. He was certainly an eccentric character, like most people who are drawn to weight training.
He even stopped by my house a few times to train in my garage. Who knows what pearls of wisdom I dropped during those training sessions, but I guess I had one or two minor insights.
He moved away for college, and we kept in touch sporadically about his career as a shot put and discus thrower. After college, he left the East Coast entirely for graduate school in Arizona, and our conversations dwindled further but didn’t completely disappear.
One day, after not hearing from him for quite some time, he called. He was at a crossroads with his graduate program in chemistry and wanted my thoughts on changing direction entirely to teach and coach.
I was careful with my words. I felt like I barely knew this young man anymore, but as I talked, I realized I did know quite a bit about career struggles and finding your path. I did what I could for him, trying to listen as well as speak.
To my amazement, he actually made a huge switch and ended up doing exactly what he said he wanted to do—teaching and coaching—no doubt for far less money than he’d have made as a research scientist. We’ve talked a handful of times since, and he always thanks me for my advice, though I can never remember exactly what I said and am certain it had far less to do with the change he made than his own determination.
This brings us to the most recent call and hopefully provides a bit of context as to why I might be surprised at his expression of love. In my mind, I’d had a bit part in his life, playing a relatively small and inconsequential role.
He called me for some relationship advice of sorts. That made about as much sense to me as his call years earlier seeking career advice until I thought about it for a second.
I have been through two divorces, so even if there’s not a record of success, there is a significant record of experience. I suppose I wasn’t the worst guy in the world to take a crack at this relationship dilemma.
We talked about it for a while and came up with sort of an action plan that was even backed up by a conversation he had with another friend who’s closer to the situation than I am. I felt pretty darned decent about the whole thing.
More importantly, I felt a lot more than just “decent” about the person I was talking to on the other end of the line. I wasn’t talking to an annoying kid anymore. This was a grown-ass man.
The youthful opinions with nothing to back them had been replaced by the thoughtful perspective of struggle—of disappointing failures and hard-earned successes. I liked the man he’d become, and I was proud of my tiny contribution.
I even wanted to say something about it, but I figured my approval would come off preachy, so I didn’t. And then he said it all for me and so much more.
“I love you, man.”
Yeah, he threw the “man” part in there. Most guys do if they ever say it at all. I’m sure he’d have punched me in the shoulder too if we’d have been standing next to each other.
I’m alright with that. It takes the edge off the emotion, just a little, but without dulling it much. The words are all still there, intact, and you have to process them.
So I tried. And like the dummy I am, I didn’t just let him hang up. I couldn’t after that. I had to know more. I tried not to embarrass him with my line of questioning, but I’m sure I did anyway.
“Dang Don, that’s really incredible of you to say. I thought I was just some guy you talk to a couple times a year.”
“Chuck, you’ve been a huge influence in my life, and it didn’t start when you helped me with my career switch. It goes all the way back to training in your garage. I didn’t have many male role models in my life. You had a house and a real job, and you were physically strong. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I just remember you being there.”
Whew, I don’t remember what we talked about either, so I’m glad he doesn’t. I thought we were mostly just hanging out and lifting some weights, and I told him so. He said he felt the same, but that it made a difference.
Imagine that. Hanging out and lifting some damn weights can make a real difference in someone’s life. They might even see you as some sort of meathead role model.
Gives me chills. Makes me think this new path I recently embarked on—owning a gym—is a lot “weightier” than I realized.
After that, I mumbled “I love you” back to him. And then I stopped myself and fixed it. I said it clearly like I mean it—because I do now that I see more of the picture—and man did that ever feel f*cking fantastic!
These two experiences have been an important wake-up call for me, and maybe they should be for all of us. As we approach the busy holiday season, we can all do better to be present and foster relationships that are important to us.
We can also realize that every interaction we have with another human being matters, even if we don’t see it at the time or ever. There are ripple effects to our actions that may reverberate years later.
This might sound scary and burdensome, but it shouldn’t. It’s an opportunity—the ultimate opportunity, really, to do the one thing we all want to do before we leave this world. The way we treat others is our best chance to make our mark and create our legacy.
If we’re going to do that, there’s no reason to wait for another day. We should spend time with people we love and tell them we love them right now.
That better day may never come, so don’t worry about how our love will be received. Just put it out there, and let it work its magic.
Of all people, I should know this without a reminder. I’m living it, just like my first friend I wrote about is.
If that’s not enough, I even pass it every day. As I make my commute into Philadelphia, there’s a homeless man holding a cardboard sign at one of the stoplights that says, “Please help. Lost everything in a house fire that took my six-year-old daughter.”
Lost everything. In one day. All of it. Gone. Even the one thing that mattered most. She was an innocent six-year-old—the same age as my daughter and my friend’s son.
It’s not always some random stranger on the street, either. It could be you or me or anyone. It really could.
Let’s all go home tonight and say those three most important words to everyone sitting in that house waiting on us. And let’s say them to someone every day this week and next and maybe forever.
Let them squirm if they squirm, but look them in the eye and say the words anyway. And mean those words.
I. Love. You.
Author: Chuck Miller
Image: Elephant Journal Instagram
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis