I want to live in a world without thank-you cards. I send them. I receive them (and notice, with furrowed brow, when I do not). I realize how important it is to say “thank you.” I learned that when I was two. I taught my girls to say the “magic words” whenever anyone proffered a lollipop or a simple glass of water. I know—totally—that gratitude is the key to happiness and joy, the only kind of life worth living. So why am I damning thank-you cards?
I’m against “gratitude” that keeps track of debts. I tire of listening to people who are angry, bitter and resentful because some gift has not been appreciated or acknowledged. A friend was telling last week of a man who volunteered for twenty years at a charity, came in every week and worked, and then one day he left without a word. Why? His gift had not been properly acknowledged. This same neediness takes root in my heart; I know it well. I get grumpy when no one notices that I actually cleaned the garage!, no one appreciates what I am sure was an amazing homily.
In those grumpy moments I realize how selfish my “gifts” really are.
In his book, The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber examines a kind of giving which is not really virtuous at all, but merely an act that creates an obligation. It’s a “gift” that places me “above” you and requires some kind of payment, even if that payment is an expression of gratitude. Graeber recounts “the words of an actual hunter-gatherer, an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat [for him]. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: ” ‘Up in our country we are human!’ said the hunter. ‘And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.’
“The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and similar statements about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began ‘comparing power with power, measuring, calculating’ and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.”
All right, I’m not really against thank-you cards. That’s a lovely social convention. But as I get a little older (can I say that now that I’m 55?) what I want are moments of true gratitude, where I give my gifts just because. Where I don’t have to wait till the barista comes to the cash register before I drop my dollar in the tip jar. Where I’m simply thankful for wind-blown trees and rainwater puddles, the darkness of evening and the sun of morning, black coffee and red wine—the gifts that grace everyone, for which we can only be thankful to God.