The Big Thank You

Here’s a Thanksgiving essay of mine that appeared in Newsday:

Brody: Ready, set, Thank You!

November 22, 2011 by BOB BRODY /

I never thanked my 10th-grade English teacher for getting me interested in literature. I also never thanked my first boss for hiring me for my first job out of college. Nor have I gone back to thank my first girlfriend for granting me, at age 12, my first romantic kiss.

With Thanksgiving here, of course, we’re all on board with the tradition of expressing gratitude. We may clasp our hands in prayer and offer words of thanks to God. We may each take a turn at the dinner table to reveal the reasons why we’re so thankful this year, praising our families, friends and colleagues while acknowledging appreciation for our health, our jobs and just being alive.

But seldom do any of us engage in directly thanking each other — the act of singling out a person expressly to say “Thank you, you made a difference in my life,” complete with a detail or two about exactly why.

As in: Thank you for being my wife and the mother of our children, and especially for making our family your top priority.

As in: Thank you for being my friend, particularly for taking me out to lunch in 2007 because you knew I felt low and listening to me complain about my job for an hour.

We instinctively recognize gratitude to be a force for good. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers cited gratitude as an important virtue. Studies at the universities of Utah and Michigan show it’s healthy both to show and to receive gratitude — the heart and brain appear to function more harmoniously.

Yet all too many of us have limited our use of the words “thank you.” We mistakenly assume all the people we care most about already know full well that we appreciate everything they’ve done. We suffer from a gratitude deficit.

As it happens, last Thanksgiving I launched a personal project to correct the record once and for all. I vowed to personally thank, at least once a week for the next year, someone to whom I felt I owed gratitude.

To start small, I approached my favorite doorman to thank him for taking such good care of our family over the decades. He placed his hand near his heart and thanked me right back for being among his favorite tenants. We hugged each other right there in the lobby.

More ambitiously, I called a former boss of mine to thank her for all her guidance over the years, but especially for refusing to hold a grudge against me after she gave me a big raise and I responded — with egregious ingratitude — “I thought we could do better.” Unable to get her on the line, I left her a voice mail, but never heard back. I’m convinced she dismissed my well-intentioned overture as a misguided prank.

But quickly my little plan to acknowledge everyone deserving of thanks ran out of gas. Life intervened — job, family, television, sleep; you know the drill — and suddenly I lacked enough time to follow through. And so even though I got around to thanking some more people — my Uncle Leonard, my pal Al, my colleague Brian — many more figures in my life, major and minor alike, wound up decidedly unthanked.

Today, however, I hereby renew my pledge. I’m going to track down all those special someones to deliver my special thank-yous. Once again my purpose is simply to do right by people who have meant the most to me — and yes, to clear my conscience over my previous failure to do so. After all, sometimes by going back, we can better move ahead.

Suppose everyone on the planet made a similar promise: a commitment to give people a heartfelt, highly specific thank-you. Parents and teachers would thus be duly honored. Friends and colleagues would feel forever connected. So would grandparents, coaches, customers and, for that matter, former girlfriends and boyfriends. This simple gesture — saying thank you, you matter to me — would promote a needed sense of belonging, a welcome spirit of unity.

And so I propose a public-service campaign. We could recruit celebrity spokespeople talented at expressing gratitude — Steven Spielberg comes to mind; his “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” are strong in depicting gratitude. Enlist Miss Manners to issue guidelines about following the right etiquette. Stage thank-you free-for-alls in communities nationwide. Hold contests to determine who is thanked the most and who has thanked the best. We could call it all The Big Thank You.

Just imagine the ripple effect that would result. Think of how much it could mean to those doing the thanking and those getting thanked. With all that thanking going on, maybe we would learn to treat each other better, behaving more kindly and generously, than we do now.

Let’s try to make every day of the year feel like Thanksgiving.

Bob Brody, a public-relations executive and essayist in Forest Hills, blogs at letterstomykids.org.

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