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As a motivational speaker, I get the privilege of meeting my fellow Americans all over the United States – from coast to coast – from corn fields to city centers. I meet them in their places of brokenness and celebration. I hear their stories, I hug their necks and I form instant connections with strangers whom I may never see again – but whom I will never forget.
I consider it my job, even my calling, to spread encouragement, humor and hope and to lift spirits in every place that I can. And, recently, I got the joy of visiting Lancaster to speak at a Healthy Woman event for Springs Memorial Hospital. And as timing would have it, I caught them on an “off” day.
I was informed the week of the event that spirits were down due to a story done on Lancaster that portrayed it in a negative light. I saw the story. And it was obvious that this reporter (a stranger) had gone into the town with the story already written – choosing only examples that backed up that story – and cast out to the world a story about a town that could not be further from the truth. Or, should I say, did not contain the whole truth?
So this message is for you, Lancaster. This is what I wanted to say when I was there, but couldn’t find the words. This is what the reporter left out – the rest of the story. And so, while it may be late, I hope you will take this message of love and encouragement from the wacky motivational speaker who visited your town.
Here is what I experienced when I went to Lancaster:
u A grace-filled spirit. I was invited to your town with warmth and respect. You didn’t act like I should be honored to come there, you acted honored to have me as your guest. So before I even stepped foot on your soil, I saw the way you treat people, the way you treat strangers, no matter what our religion, color, political preference or status in life. I felt the love.
u A servant’s heart. I came directly from another speaking event, with no time to stop for even a bathroom break on the way. I arrived after the event had already started, dragging heavy boxes, feeling frazzled and limping because my feet already hurt. I didn’t even make it to the front door before people were offering to help, grabbing my things, opening the door for me. You didn’t know who I was, you just stepped up to serve. Because that’s what you do. You serve, no matter who I am.
u Happy people. I was engulfed in a sea of happy people – networking, eating together, sharing gifts and talents – in an atmosphere charged with energy – an energy that immediately gave me a shot of adrenaline. It was immediately obvious that you love each other that you value each other, and that you enjoy life with a contagious passion. Because that’s who you are.
u Sharp dressers. Why is it that some people assume that because you live in small town you’re addicted to floral print dresses? (Not that there’s anything wrong with floral.) Being a girly girl, I notice hair and makeup and jewelry and a kicking pair of shoes. So while it may seem petty to even bring it up (I didn’t claim to be a saint), you were some of the best-dressed women (and men) I have ever seen. You should have graced the cover of a magazine – not only for your outside beauty, but for the beauty on the inside. So don’t let anybody say you are behind the times. I would actually say you are above the times, with a beauty that transgresses the fashion of the day.
u You were professional. Not just as a choice, but it is obviously ingrained in you. You take pride in your work and your accomplishments. I teach people to be confident in their businesses. You embody that which I teach.
u You are joyful. You love to laugh. You obviously know that life is short and you value the day. You choose happiness, even in the face of hardship. Because we all know that happiness is not something we wait for, but something we choose.
u Pride in each other. You were proud of your town and of each other. I could see it by the way you looked at each other. When one achieves, you all achieve. It is a beautiful example of unity.
u You aren’t quitters. I could tell by the jut of your chin and the way that you walk, that you don’t give up. Just like the granite upon which your county is built, you have a solid foundation and a history of persistence.
Notice that I did not say one thing about your buildings, your companies or how much money your town makes – because to me, those aren’t reflections of your town. You are the reflection of your town. Towns, organizations, communities, are made up of people, built around people. Not the ones on statues and tombstones, but the ones who sit in the local diner, who ride in the parade, who heal and who teach, who sit in the classrooms and the church pews and who sit at dining room tables staring at the empty seat of their soldier who is out serving this country and protecting the freedom of all – even those who would turn right around and judge them. People make the difference. And last time I checked, no one hung an “out of business” sign on you. (And, by the way, I pity the fool who tries to hang that sign on the women of Mane Street Hair Designs in Lancaster. You will not come out alive – though you will come out with good hair.)
So that’s what I saw when I came to Lancaster. And while your heart may be heavy and your pride may be wounded, may I share these thoughts to encourage you and help you get back on your feet again.
1. Perhaps there could be a hidden blessing in all of this. For maybe it has forced you to examine who you really are. Maybe it was just the thing you needed to regroup and refuel the pride and passion for who you are and where you live. And maybe, just maybe, you will come out of this even stronger for having experienced this. For it’s never the obstacle that truly takes us down, but what we choose to do with it. Take it and make it a good thing.
2. And even more important, let us not forget that nobody can take our spirit unless we let them. It’s simply not theirs to take. And never will be. A spirit is something you possess, you choose, you create. It’s not that others kill our spirit, it’s that we choose to let them.
3. And, lastly, nobody writes your story but you. What I found in Lancaster was actually no surprise to me. Because I learned a long time ago the toxic result of forming stereotypes about people based on the color of their skin, where they live, what they do for a living or what they believe in. I learned better. I learned not to write someone’s story for them. We live in a day where we claim tolerance, equality and freedom. Yet if any of you is sitting in your home summing up someone you have never met, or a group of people, because of what they believe, or you think they believe, because of where they live, or what they have or don’t have, or how much they know, then shame on you. For some who preach tolerance are actually the most guilty.
So there’s my story on Lancaster. Here’s what I couldn’t find the words to say while I was there. May you receive it with the love and grace with which it was intended. But then let it go. Because that’s just my story, not yours. You are not who I say you are. And you are not who “they” say you are. You are who you say you are. So pick up the pen and write the next chapter.
Kelly Swanson is a motivational speaker.