My mother is a big greeting card person; it's unthinkable for her to let any nationally recognized occasion pass without sending every major relative a card. Growing up, I didn't mind this so much; all I was required to do was sign my name. What I hated though, was thank you notes. My mother forced the writing of thank you notes upon me like she forced me to eat overcooked broccoli.
Like many things that have been ruined for us in childhood, though, I took a good long break from thank you notes (and broccoli), and then eventually rediscovered them in my own way. (I learned to like broccoli when I learned the fine art of briefly steaming, rather than boiling it for a half hour).
It took involvement with non-profits as a fundraiser, grantwriter, and event organizer for me to finally see the value of thank you notes. They went from being something I was merely obligated to do to an enjoyable exercise in actual gratitude. I began to take pleasure in choosing the words and the card, imagining how the recipient might feel upon receiving it. And there was an unmistakable sense of satisfaction when I deposited the sealed envelopes into a mailbox. Like that was one thing out of my ambiguous, ambivalent day that I could honestly say was The Right Thing To Do, and I had done it. I could cross it off my list and feel complete.
While participating as a board member for one non-profit, my good friend Rob and I became The Gratitude Committee. Since we're both ridiculously philosophical, perfectionists when it comes to writing, and long-winded, the Gratitude Committee often spent many hours composing a simple thank you note. But it was fun. There was an exciting element in the collaborative nature of our projects. Sometimes we'd work on a note for a while and get stuck on one line. Maybe this seems silly to you, but there is definitely a tricky place in thanking a donor who you want to be able to ask for money again at some point. You want to let them know you're grateful, while also subtly preparing them to open their wallets again.
So we'd get stuck on this one line, and finally decide to leave it alone for a while, let it simmer in our subconscious minds. Then, the next day or whatever, one of us would have a breakthrough and elatedly call the other as though we were announcing having found the cure for the common cold.
I am no longer a member of the Gratitude Committee, and I tend to forget to write thank you notes, or I put it off for so long that it seems more insulting to send it at such a late date than to have never sent it at all.
But lately, I've been putting together a list of people I want to spend some time creatively thanking. So many people have done wonderful things for me lately, and it's very easy to just say "thanks" at the time then let these little miracles fade away. But when I really look at how people have sometimes saved my ass, or made my life easier or more pleasant in some way, I am stunned at myself that I could ever let such things go by without a concrete expression of gratitude.
There are many lessons in life that keep coming back to me because I'm such a slow learner. I forget so fast. One of those lessons is that gratitude is the right mode for just about any activity. It's the answer to many questions, and the antidote to much negativity. I tend to feel guilty when people give me things - gratitude is the alternative to that. Expressing gratitude means a cosmic balance has been struck and catapults me into a far more joyful and enlightened realm.
Writer Elisabeth Eliot says, "It is always possible to be thankful for what has been given instead of complaining about what hasn't been given. One or the other will become a habit of life." God knows I've too often fallen into the habit of complaining instead of being thankful.
I came across a vegan's blog today. She's recently become vegan because she has major problems with the global food market. I do too, but I don't think being vegan is the answer, at least not for me. Mulling over her blog this evening, I started drifting into my usual ambivalence about the efficacy of political solutions. The sense of futility inherent in awareness of being a member of a flagrantly corrupt system. You gotta eat. And unless you're producing all your own food yourself, someone somewhere - human or animal - probably suffered for your dinner.
So what do I do? Starve myself out of guilt? No. I offer gratitude to whatever life I'm consuming. Which is all life. Just life. And in this way I see that gratitude is the flipside of compassion, because if I can be grateful for another's sacrifice, the inevitable next step is to see that sacrifice is also asked of me. And I can be grateful for that too.