Friday, January 25, 2013

Two highly underrated words

I was chatting with a buddy earlier, and she happened to thank me for something in our relationship that meant a lot to her. "Although 'thank you' seems so trite," she said. 

What followed was a discussion that took me straight back to the late 1960s and early 70s. "Thank you," I told her, "is highly underrated." I'm a big believer in "thank you." 

It encourages.
It validates.
It helps the one who receives it AND it helps the one who says it and truly means it.

When I was a child, our family would go grocery shopping once a week in "town" - which was a small town of no more than 5,000 people. Everyone knew everyone else - or at least the family they came from. 

I loved going to town. There were two places I wanted to go every time. The first was my great-uncle's shoe repair shop, where I felt accepted and wanted every time I walked over the threshold. I'd burst in through the door and the tiny bell over the entrance would ring in glad abandon, wildly flailing back and forth on its spring-loaded tether. I would sidle past the counter and venture immediately to the back room, where Uncle John was busy behind a heavy-duty sewing machine, amid the smell of cured leather and shoe polish, and where he "held court" with the men who had accompanied their wives to town so they could do the grocery shopping. Yet (unless he was sharpening skates, which took a great deal of concentration to get the edge just right) he'd stop whatever he was doing to greet me with a warm hug and introduce me as his niece. I'd wander about the shop, watch him sew leather on the machine, re-heel shoes and boots, or just go out behind the counter and tidy a bit so I could listen to the men talk. Many times he forgot I was there, minding the store front while he and the other men joked and laughed about this or that thing. It was an atmosphere of total acceptance. 

These expressions of love and caring stay suspended on
our wall all year round. Yes, they are Christmas cards.

The other place was the grocery store. Not the store itself, mind you. Just the little glassed-in passageway inside the entrance and exit doors. 

Back then, people still got their groceries in heavy-duty brown paper bags (with no handles), before the days of automatic sliding doors. Customers would get and pay for their groceries, fill their arms as full as they could with the chock-full paper bags, and head for the door. Some of them could barely see over the top of the bag's contents, especially the older widows who lived in little apartments scattered throughout town, some in the nursing home and some not. Anyway, I stationed myself by the exit door so that when I saw them coming, I'd be able to hold the door open for them. 

I did this so that I could hear the one thing I heard in no other place on earth: "Thank you."  Not perfunctory, polite thank yous, I mean to say, but expressions of gratitude spoken from the heart. I lapped it up and soaked it into my heart like fresh, clear water to a parched throat on a hot summer's day, knowing I'd have to live on that for a week. It saved my sanity - it was something to which I looked forward and on which I looked back when all I got from everyone else was either criticism or indifference when I tried to do something nice. Criticism if I didn't do it exactly as they would have done it  ... and indifference if I did. 

As a result of those experiences, I have always believed firmly in the power of acceptance and of gratitude. These two commodities are in short supply, it seems, and yet they cost absolutely nothing. Since they cost nothing in monetary terms, many people think that they are worth nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Acceptance says, "Thank you for being you."  This is a lost art in some circles where rewards are linked to performance and where, if someone isn't talented in this or that way, he or she is made to feel like a second-class citizen. Acceptance opens the mind and quells criticism. It strengthens self-esteem and engenders confidence. It sends the message that it's okay that this person exists, that this person is special, unique, worth knowing. There is no feeling in the world quite like feeling wanted, loved, appreciated - not for what you can do for someone, but for who you ARE. 

Gratitude says, "Thank you for doing (or saying) what you did (or said)." How many of our psychologist's offices are clogged with people who never got a word of thanks from their parents, teachers, or other authority figures in their lives, who always feel like whatever they do is never "good enough?" How many spouses leave, how many children run away, how many workers reach burnout, how many pastors and church leaders leave the ministry because the people they cared most about never bothered to verbally show their appreciation?  All this heartache, all for the lack of two sincere words. It's tragic. 

It doesn't take long. It only takes a few seconds, perhaps a few minutes. 

I've seen "Thank you" actually save a life. I've known it to restore sanity to chaos, to give purpose and meaning to people, to dispel loneliness and despair, to inspire people to do even better, to encourage people that they're not alone, that who they are and what they think, say and do are important, that they've not gone unnoticed, that they make a difference to the world, even just to one person and most likely to many more (remember the movie, "It's a Wonderful Life"?), by just being there. 

Perhaps there is someone in your life who needs to hear those words. I know that there are so many in mine.

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