Recently, I’ve vacillated between a self-doubt that catches in my chest and forces me into a tight ball in the top right corner of my bed, and a gratitude that consumes me in unexpected ways. Perhaps the two are related — faced with a litany of opportunities, feelings of inadequacy, of uncertainty, stem from the impossibility of doing all things fully. But in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to focus on articulating thanks.
This past Tuesday, I gathered friends for the third year running to celebrate a pre-Thanksgiving “everything but the bird” dinner. Each time I opened the door to let in another group of guests, I felt this forceful sense of gratitude. I deeply wanted to see these people at my doorstep, their cheeks rosy from the cold, their glasses fogged from the sudden change in temperature. Though we went through double recipes of stuffing, mac and cheese and pumpkin muffins, I neglected to corral everyone into a circle and make them share what they were thankful for. As I washed the last dishes and swept cookie crumbs off the floor, I realized we’d missed this opportunity to give thanks. I wasn’t quite sad, but something felt unfinished.
Though sweet potatoes coming out of the oven were greeted with more enthusiasm than friends coming in through the door, the dinner wasn’t about the food, but about the people. Whil
e tacitly acknowledged by everyone there, we didn’t take the moment to say it out loud. I said, “I’m so happy to see you!” I said, “Thank you for your help!” I said, “This is so lovely.” But I didn’t articulate the feeling of warmth with a more explicit expression of gratitude, and I wish that I/we had, and that we would say these things more often. It’s difficult to put gratitude — a feeling of security, luck, content, indebtedness, fulfillment — into words other than “thank you.” How can we truly give thanks?
This year, when I’ve felt these waves of gratitude as I walk down Chapel, I’ve responded with texts to a handful of people to let them know I love them. These are much more bursts of positive emotion than effective expressions of gratitude. I’m sure you, too, have read the studies showing people who feel lucky and thankful are happier than those who do not. Often, the subjects in these studies must keep gratitude journals. I, however, am a notoriously terrible journal-er — I have boxes of 90 percent-empty journals both at home and at school. But I do write thank you notes.
In fact, if you’re reading this column with your breakfast, I am probably at this very moment licking and stamping a small batch of envelopes. I won’t go as far as to say that writing thank you notes was a cornerstone of my upbringing, but the task was definitely up there. The last time I ordered stationery, I ordered 200 cards, because between gifts, interviews, small favors and weekend visits, I knew I’d get through them. I think I’ve used just under half in the past year.
The thank you note enables me to begin with a concrete object of thanks — thank you for the sweater, thank you for meeting with me, thank you for hosting me this past weekend — and then progresses to more thoughtful meditations on the giver, now the recipient of thanks. I remember to thank people for tangible things. Without a gift or event to prompt a thank you note, I struggle to articulate, sometimes even to direct, these waves of gratitude. In a thank you note, there’s room to make that attempt.
I wish I depended less on the tangible to articulate these intangibles. On the wall next to my bed, I’ve pinned up a thank you note from my best friend from high school that may actually be the best love letter anyone will ever write me. I don’t really remember the gift I gave her that year, but I think I wrote her a thank you note for her thank you note.
Caroline Sydney is a junior in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.