(un)common courtesy: part two

While greeting cards haven’t quite yet faded to extinction, they are largely allocated to specific holidays and occasions.  Birthdays.  Bar Mitzvahs.  Christmas.  Thank-you cards are managing to hang in there, as well, making appearances after a shower, wedding or graduation.  But aren’t there plenty of reasons in daily life to express thanks and appreciation beyond such major special events?

Not so long ago, thank-you cards were sent to the host or hostess after a dinner party, or an evening of drinks and Cribbage.  Often, a conscientious host or hostess would even send cards to all guests who had attended, thanking them for coming and expressing how enjoyable the evening had been.  I’m not entirely certain whether it’s the card sending that’s fallen to disuse, or the dinner parties themselves; but I highly endorse the revival of both.

Thank-you cards were by no means limited to formal visits.  A neighbor’s sharing of her fresh eggs.   The lending of a book.  A timely ride to the store.  Any small kindness was grounds for written thanks.

A thank-you card or letter is personal.  It has permanence.  Whether delivered by postal service or by hand, a thank-you card is always received with pleasant surprise and genuine joy.  It can be displayed for a while on a counter top or kept on a bedside dresser, a reminder that someone’s kindness was noticed.  That they had made a difference.

I like to thank and appreciate people often.  In addition to thanking people face to face, I employ a variety of media  including voice mail, texts, emails, and social network messaging.  This is a wonderful use of the technology made available to us.  But I still hold to the idea that hand-written thanks communicates something different.  Something – more.  It’s as if a piece of the writer is captured in the written word.  When I see personal handwriting, I feel the person in it.

He took time to sit and pen this. 

She touched this paper. 

She formed these loops and lines with part of herself. 

He put his heart into this. 

This is special. 

It’s about more than social etiquette and showing appreciation, however.  Investing time and thought into expressing our thanks changes us, as well.

Late last year, a young friend of mine confessed that he’d been struggling with depression.  He just couldn’t seem to shake it, and he asked for my advice.  I suggested that he take the next 30 days and write a thank-you letter or card to one person every day.  Some of them, he could mail or deliver.  But some might even be written to people from the past with whom he’d fallen out of contact.  He seemed confused as to how this would in any way help him with his doldrums.  I explained that the task wasn’t so much aimed at those to whom the letters would be written, but rather at changing his own perspective.

He balked at first, certain that he did not even know that many people, much less people he could thank.  But I gently assured him that, if he put his mind to it, he could do it.  I encouraged him not to look at the 30 days as a whole, but to simply think about whom he might write to first.

A few days later, I spoke with him again.  He had taken my suggestion seriously.  And something had happened.

He explained with excitement how he had written the first one to someone, and that this had made him think of another person he wanted to write to.  In writing to the second person, he thought of another whole category of people he hadn’t really considered before then, of people he really would like to thank.  Somewhere in the process of thinking about thankfulness – he became more thankful.  And in spending the time to remember and write out all of the thank-worthy things people in his life had done for him, he no longer found himself feeling depressed.

Thankfulness begets more thankfulness.  A lack thereof turns us inward, leaving us focused on what seems wrong with our lives instead of what is right.

This is one of those things that I fear will be read with a sort of misty-eyed agreement, only to then be put on the shelf with other quaint novelties like hat tipping and ballroom dancing.  But some of you may just take the challenge to heart.

For you, I recommend that you set aside a time in the next few days to visit the card store.  Rather than browsing through the racks, hunting for cards whose sentiments might strike a chord, I suggest picking out a pack of stationery or blank thank-you cards and envelopes.  Choose a design that you feel represents something about yourself.  (And let me just say to the male audience – this isn’t just something for the ladies.  You really can find masculine cards.)  They don’t even have to be thank-you cards, per se, since you can make that clear inside.

Blank paper has a way of making us work.  It causes us to stop and think – what exactly is it that I’m thankful for here?  Whether expressed eloquently or starkly or in bumbling fashion, these thoughts are true.  They speak from the heart.  They are you.  And they will be received with warmth.

Additionally, having a set of thank-you cards handy is a visual reminder to use them.  You will find yourself thinking, Hmmm … who else can I thank?

Once you’ve started, you may find yourself surprised at how long that list becomes.

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