When my wife was a teenager, her stepmother one day advised her that if she didn’t have anything nice to say to someone, she could instead try saying, thank you. Not long thereafter, my wife directed some teenage angst at her stepmom, who got red in the face and responded, “Thank you!” before exiting the room.
At Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of the many flavors of gratitude and the interesting power of the words thank you. These words come up with kind of an unusual frequency in our household, and it’s not because we don’t have anything nice to say to each other.
A major contributor to the rise of thank yous in our home is the fact that my wife and I have been trying for the past few years to teach them to our six year old daughter. She’s at an age when saying thank you is not yet natural. It’s a behavior to be memorized and executed habitually so that your parents don’t get fussy. On Halloween I had to keep reminding her, “There are just two things you need to remember to say – ‘trick or treat’ and ‘thank you.’”
I catch myself sometimes flashing a sheepish look at generous adults as I prompt her with, “What do you say, Sabina?” Later I might tell her, “I don’t want to have to keep reminding you to say thank you.” But that’s not really the way I want to teach her the specialness of these words. I don’t want her to say thank you out of guilt. I don’t want her to say it just because it’s polite. I don’t want her to learn that a steady stream of thank yous is the way to avoid any disruption to the process of gift unwrapping or trick-or-treating.
I want her to say it because she feels it.
When thank you issues from your heart because you feel gratitude, the last thing on your mind is what effect it might have on the other person. It seems a misuse of these words to hope to get something – even better rapport – in return for saying them. On the other hand, it seems silly to reserve them just for special occasions, unless you recognize that your day is full of them.
Sometimes a more calculated use of thank you can still feel earnest, such as when you encounter difficulties. Maybe it doesn’t arise spontaneously when things don’t go the way you want them to. Perhaps thank you is the last sentiment on your mind when, for instance, you find out you’re going to miss a day of your vacation because of a booking error. Instead, maybe you’re thinking, this sucks.
But, the smooth flow of life proceeds by some fairly binary rules. There’s acceptance and resistance, yes and no. Whether we think, this sucks, or, this isn’t what I wanted, or, this isn’t fair, or simply, no, we resist the reality of things, we generate struggle, friction, and conflict. I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow ourselves to think and feel these things (because, of course, that would be saying no on another level). But, this attitude is the equivalent of paddling against the current. What if we just get back into the flow and utilize the trajectory of life, but gently steer toward a happy outcome?
When, on the other hand, we think, yes, or, I’m game, or, let’s see where this leads me, or, I’m open, or… thank you, something very different happens. Not just in our internal experience; the world actually responds differently to us. If you look an obstacle in the face and say, thank you, you deflate its power to bully you. You state your anticipation of an outcome you’ll be grateful for. This Thanksgiving, why not try saying thank you not just for the good stuff, but for the challenges, too.
Thank you – for everything,
Peter and Briana Borten and everyone at The Dragontree