What is so hard about saying those two ordinary-as-anything words? Nothing. Unless we have just received a compliment. And honestly, you’d think someone was about to accuse us of the First Deadly Sin given how fast we don’t accept the compliment. Here are the most common ways we do that:
‘It was nothing.’
‘Don't be so stupid.’
‘Don’t let’s go on about this.’
‘You don’t really know me.’
‘My wife (husband, mother, boss) wouldn’t agree with you.’
‘Oh, for god’s sake.’
These responses are small acts of violence. If I say something I appreciate about you, something you’ve done or thought or said, and you respond in one of those ways, you have denigrated me – my perception, my thinking, my integrity, my intentions. And not only does the joy I was feeling in appreciating you vanish; my full heart shrivels. It has registered assault.
Amazingly, so does ‘Thanks’. ‘Thanks’ is clipped, curt and dismissive.
And it is no better when we do the converse. If I say something lovely about what you have just done, and you say, ‘Well, I don’t disagree,’ you have missed the whole point. My comment was not intended as an opening to an objective collaborative assessment of how you just did the thing you did. It was a much more complex and delicate thing than that. It was a gift of my heart to your heart. It was an intimate thing, a sweet thing, a moment.
Exaggeration? I don’t think so. The fact is, it takes courage to say what we appreciate in each other, and it takes courage to receive it. It takes a certain grace, actually. It takes absorption. And nothing less than the full-throated trust of the giver is at stake. When we do not say ‘Thank you’, we say instead, ‘I do not honour you, I do not trust you, and you cannot trust me; I am not a safe place for you; go away.’
It is no wonder we give and receive such little appreciation in our lives. We can fail to say ‘thank you’ only just so many times. Soon the giver thinks twice before complimenting us again, and decides not to.
When you think about it, the lore about raising children is smart on this issue. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, we tell our children. And if I had to teach one, I would teach ‘Thank you’. We can do ‘please’ with tone and a smile. But ‘Thank you’ needs the words.
At a grander level, when we think about doing Good in the world – producing dignity and meaning and equality and confidence and just about every other important human state – saying ‘Thank you’ is one simple but lasting way to do it.
This, remember, is not the ‘Thank you’ we offer after favours or courtesies. That is entirely different. This is ‘Thank you’ after appreciation, after recognition.
It is a big thing.
You have to read this:
‘The elephant’s trunk is six feet long and one foot thick and contains sixty thousand muscles. Elephants can use their trunks to uproot trees, stack timber, or carefully place huge logs in position when recruited to build bridges. An elephant can curl its trunk round a pencil and draw characters on letter-size paper. With the two muscular extensions at the tip, it can remove a thorn, pick up a pin or a dime, uncork a bottle, slide the bolt off a cage door and hide it on a ledge, or grip a cup so firmly, without breaking it, that only another elephant can pull it away. The tip is sensitive enough for a blindfolded elephant to ascertain the shape and texture of objects. In the wild, elephants use their trunks to pull up clumps of grass and tap them against their knees to knock off the dirt, to shake coconuts out of palm trees, and to powder their bodies with dust. They use their trunks to probe the ground as they walk, avoiding pit traps, and to dig wells and siphon water from them. Elephants can walk underwater on the beds of deep rivers or swim like submarines for miles, using their trunks as snorkels. They communicate through their trunks by trumpeting, humming, roaring, piping, purring, rumbling, and making a crumpling-metal sound by rapping the trunk against the ground. The trunk is lined with chemoreceptors that allow the elephant to smell a python hidden in the grass or food a mile away.
I am completely transported by that. I don’t know what else to say.
Maybe marvelling is enough.
What Will People Think?
Not about an idea or an election or a variety of onion.
This answerless question, this threat of certain censure and family shame would emerge, apparently, from something you might do or wear, or how your hair looked that day, or your closets, or how long the kiss might last on the doorstep.
‘What will people think?’
My Damocles. Still. As they say: when the elephant is tied long enough to the tree, you can remove the rope. He won’t leave.
But today I felt the faintest freedom. For a second. I realised that I will never know what people will think of me if I… (if they even do think anything of me at all, which is laughably unlikely: who can be bothered to have an opinion about me? Who ever did?)
Also, whatever I think they’ll think of me is not what they’ll think. Even if they tell me what they think, it is not really what they think. Because it’s only part of it, and because what they say enters what I think and changes its shape altogether.
I can’t ever know.
So I need to silence the question. Now. But I’ve been caring about it more than just about anything else on earth for just about my whole life. I’m 75. I’m not sure when ‘What will they think?’ stopped being a floater and actually blinded me, but I was young, still in perfectly-stiffened organdie most likely, scratching my way to oohs and aahs from my friends’ mothers and my mother’s friends.
So killing this question is a monolithic lift. And almost certainly futile. But you have to start some place. This is as good as any, I guess:
What will people think? I can never know.
What a relief.