Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Joy of Thanks

It's one of the less explicable facts of life that people seem to find the writing of thank you notes a tedious task. The labor in fact became a classic scene where people would tediously write out thank you cards until their hands hurt, classic until Hallmark et al provided us with prefabricated sentiment. (I mock, although you can still find and give suitable prefab greetings.) Both the tedium and the conception of thanks as an onerous task confuse me, though, because giving thanks is such a natural and beautiful thing.

Indeed, saying thank you is one of the first acts of manners which we learn. We learn it rather quickly, too, it seems, since in my experience children are very polite. Perhaps giving thanks is so easily learned because it feels so cutting to take without acknowledgement. Consider how awkward it feels to receive faceless charity. How much more do we long to thank someone who directed his life toward yours, even for a moment, and didn't stop to ask for anything. To strip the personal from the act of giving is quite obviously to dehumanize the act. Thanks also seems most appropriate at the personal level. Can one person feel gratitude toward a nation, however great the contribution? To whom does the state-welfare recipient give thanks: the beneficence of mankind? And for each man's pennies of sacrifice? No, it seems gift and thanks are most natural, thoughtfully given and lovingly received, at the individual level.

On the other hand, giving thanks is joyous, plain and simply, because all thanks are a form of praise. Religious services praise and thank God, secular festivals praise traditions and the bounty they bring, and personal thanks express gratitude for personal virtues such as charity, courage, and prudence. Yet too often it is this third, personal sphere which we neglect. We may sing our heart out at mass, march as proud patriots, but still fail to give thoughtful thanks to people we know. This is not exceptional in a busy world, but it doesn't simply coarsen relationships but deprives us of their joys.

I have found that reflecting closely on the person and our unique relationship always delights me and makes me grateful for their unique contribution to my life. Often I don't realize what they or their gift meant to me, or once meant or should mean, until I pause to give them thanks. Sometimes the thanks is a quick one on Facebook, other times it's a long email or card or even a gift, but I find more and more that that ingratitude is merely inconsideration, and that most of my thoughts find their happy end in a sense of joyful gratitude.

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