Why is it that we tend to clearly remember and may be influenced by something that happens when we are under stress?

We may never forget the comforting arm and gentle word when we wept, or the shove and harsh word. The cool touch on a feverish brow or cold sneer at misfortune. The encouraging or discouraging word when the future, or even just the next step, seemed out of reach. The pause to pay attention or to ignore. The willingness to come over and help, or to rush on by and abandon (think of the biblical "good Samaritan").

The memoir by J.D. Vance, "Hillbilly Elegy" (HarperCollins, 2016), eloquently describes those in the author's life who he will never forget, for better (grandparents, professors) or for worse (parents, townspeople).

When such things are said or done, especially in challenging times, we seriously remember — often for the rest of our lives. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we are more malleable then. Say what? Malleable ... like softened clay.

Although I am no ceramics expert, allow me to use a metaphor from working with clay. I'm not alone in this; many sacred scriptures reference pottery in similar ways. Most folks know that if you press your thumb into a block of stiff clay, the imprint is shallow and insignificant. But if you soften the clay and it becomes malleable, and then press in your thumb, the impression is deep and definitive.

In my experience working with folks in crisis, people are more impressionable when in crisis or distressed. You likely know this from your experience or observation. The stiffness of one's presumed, planned, orderly life is mashed down again and again in a multitude of ways. Solid certitudes become far less certain in the face of life's vulnerabilities, struggles and mysteries.

And then, when the clay of one's being is softer and more pliable, the impression happens ... for better or for worse.

Sometimes we cannot control the thumbprints that press in on our lives nor can we control the state of another person's clay. However, we can control our verbal and behavioral interactions, and specifically our impressions that we may make.

You may be the formal or informal teacher who says the right thing at the right time, or the receptive student. You may be the person for whom someone stopped to lend a hand at just the right time and circumstance. You may send a card or letter that makes the initial difference between hope and despair.

Perhaps it will be like the student who was taking a major test and asked his mother to pray for him; she shook her head and smiled, "I've never stopped praying for you."

Perhaps the day will come that you receive an email that begins, "You may not remember me, but I will never forget the positive impact you made in my life many years ago."

Since we are all made of clay, today is a good day to make a good impression.

Timothy J. Ledbetter, DMin, BCC serves as a Board Certified Chaplain helping persons in crisis effectively cope and find their hope in hospital and hospice settings and is a Tri-City Herald Spiritual Life contributor. He is married and delights in their children and grandchildren. He also enjoys camping and boating. email: timothyl@chaplaincyhealthcare.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.