The Words We All Still Need to Hear

It’s May and endings are everywhere.

Aidan is graduating from high school. Quinn is graduating from eighth grade, which means he’s graduating from youth soccer, which means I’m graduating from eight years as his coach. We are just days away from the last practice I’ll ever lead and the last game in which I’ll ever be allowed to shout like a madman on the sidelines.

It makes the ritual of the Awords feel particularly precious.

The Awords are a tradition I started years ago. Every season, after the parent-player scrimmage which concludes the final practice, we order pizza and hand out a kind of award I call an Aword. Each player gets a certificate with a word that reflects something delightful about who they are, along with three synonyms and a benediction. It is not a recognition of their performance, it is a celebration of their personhood.

On a Tuesday afternoon, at a weekly staff meeting with my employees, I’m sharing all of this when I get unexpectedly choked up. Why? Because I thought the ritual would end years ago. I figured when the kids entered middle school and became too cool for almost everything, they’d quit being interested in the Awords. I was wrong. In fact, as middle schoolers, they sit in even greater anticipation, waiting to hear what words will be bestowed upon them.

We are never too old, it seems, to be seen and understood and lovingly named, and the truth of this stirs something in the depths of me.

A few hours later, I’m in the midst of another ending. It’s Aidan’s final spring choir concert. The students all sing beautifully, and then their choir director lines the seniors up on the stage. It’s her first year as the director, but she is starting a new tradition: each senior will be given three words to describe them, and a benediction. Before she begins, I have a moment to wonder if the high schoolers have outgrown their interest in this kind of thing. But only a moment. Because one after another she declares their words, and one after another they start crying.

We are never too old to be seen, and understood, and lovingly named.

This scene is still lingering with me two days later, on Thursday afternoon, as I keynote an online summit for fathers and share the story of how an important truth first dawned on me. I’d been blogging for a couple of years when a letter to my daughter went really viral, and the two of us wound up on the TODAY Show. As a result of that appearance, I got connected with a wonderful literary agent who suggested that, because my letters to my kids were resonating so much, I should write a parenting book. I shared this with my wife, who is a child psychologist, and she told me that I had no business writing a book on parenting. I knew she was right, and it made me curious: if it wasn’t the parenting element of the letters that was moving people, what was it?

I sifted through the thousands of emails I was getting at the time and I realized the vast majority of them were not saying, “I’m going to save this letter for my daughter,” or, “I’m going to write a letter like this to my grandchildren.” The vast majority of them were from adult men and women saying, I needed to read these words. I needed to be reminded that I’m worthy, that I have value, that I’m not alone, that I belong, that I matter, that I have a reason for being here. I needed to be reminded that I’m loveable. That’s when it hit me:

We all still have a little kid inside of us waiting on a love letter.

Just a few hours after I shared that story at the summit, our parent-player scrimmage is already over—the adults are nursing hamstrings that will only become more sore over the coming day, the kids are devouring pizza—and I begin reading out the Awords. As always, when the kids begin to realize what’s happening, they drop their pizza and wait eagerly with a single question written all over their faces…what kind of words will be spoken about me? I’ll never forget the widening of the eyes of the quietest kid on the team when I started reading his words. It was a look of wonder.

Two days later, it’s Saturday morning—just an hour before I will coach my last game of youth soccer—and I decide to give out one more Aword. I give it to the little one who still lives on inside of me. I picture him, as a young child, sitting in a pile of his books in his bedroom, his parents telling him he has to put them all away if he wants to eat dinner, and him refusing. He’s the part of me that refuses to give up on his passion for books and his dream of writing them. He’s so stubborn he’ll choose his stories over food! And I love him so much for that. So, I give him the word “stubborn,” and inside of me, a little boy’s eyes widen with wonder, because he’s always been made to feel ashamed of his stubbornness, but for the first time he’s seeing the beauty in it.

“The past is behind us, but it is also, always, within us.” So begins my first novel, The Unhiding of Elijah Campbell, and I suppose a phrase like that could sound a little ominous. But really it’s the most hopeful of promises. Because the past contains your youngest, truest, worthiest, most loveable self. There is still a little one inside of you waiting on a love letter. What do they need to hear?

And why wait another day to say it to them?

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.