Thank yous, I love yous, and our limited time

I loved Jen’s post today about both the importance and challenge of saying thank you to the people who touch us in our lives. The essay brought to mind for me a cascade of thoughts and of other writing that I’ve liked in the past. The point that really resonated with me was that we forget to thank those whose impact on our lives might not be as obvious – we just don’t think of it, and then the opportunity is gone. She was not speaking of our best friends, but of those strangers or acquaintances whose lives have somehow touched ours, often in much more meaningful and long-lasting ways than they probably ever imagined.

Of course my mind started cartwheeling through who these people might be for me. The kind friend of my father’s who I had lunch with my sophomore year at Princeton, asking professional advice. He had had the career I (thought at the time I) wanted, and his counsel was firm: don’t go into chemistry just to get a job at McKinsey. Major in what you love. He was right, of course: I majored in English, I loved it, I spent ten years in management consulting and … look where I am now. It is also the wonderfully kind teacher at Exeter whose support and encouragement made me consider, for the first time, that I might have something real to say. It is also my first yoga teacher, whose inspiration was enough to light my practice on fire; that fire may flicker and wane, but it has not and will not go out. It is also the midwife who, firmly but gently, diagnosed my post partum depression and changed the trajectory of the early weeks of my motherhood experience.

I could go on, of course. It is a good exercise, I think, to think through who those people are for each of us. I actually think, too, that those we hold dearest can never be told enough how much we care about them. I think often of Peggy Noonan’s wonderful editorial after 9/11, about the last phone calls made and messages left by those who perished in the attacks. The column asserts something I believe deeply: expressing how we feel frequently doesn’t cheapen the words, but allows them to sink into the object of our affection’s very marrow. Her line that I love is this:

We’re all lucky to be here today and able to say what deserves saying, and if you say it a lot, it won’t make it common and so unheard, but known and absorbed.

Hanging over both Jen and Peggy’s columns is, of course, the specter of the fact that someday we won’t be able to thank those who matter to us (near or far). In each case, the words are haunted by the fact that we can’t know when that day will come, that day when we can no longer say “thank you, you mean a lot to me.” It is tragic to me how often I hear of people rushing to a deathbed to share how they feel, or, worse, hear about regret at not having been able to express those feelings in time. It seems obvious that we ought to work harder to thank people, to let those who we love know it, as we go along.

As we travel the arc of our lives, whose shape – graceful and long or abrupt and short – we cannot know, it would behoove us to be grateful, thoughtful, and communicative. Easier said than done, of course. Like cleaning up as you go along while cooking dinner, this is instinctive for some, learned for others, and impossible for a few.

Without that vague threat that someday we won’t be able to do so, would any of us express anything at all? Is this just another way that death defines life? This article by Todd May in the New York Times addresses this in a thoughtful, elegant way. His claim that it is the very fact of death that both animates and delineates our lives has been stuck in my head. I’ve been turning it over like a stone, looking at the argument from both sides, finding myself rubbing its smoothness, agreeing with its truth. He describes humans “forward-looking creatures” who see the meaning of everything we do in the “light” of the future. And then, of course, death is there in every moment, dampening that light and giving it shape. This seems like an unresolvable tension: without death our lives are formless, but it is also the fact that is hardest to reconcile with our essentially prospective natures. This conundrum lies at the heart of living, says May, and I agree with him.

His closing lines say it better than I can:

But it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit. Death takes away from us no more than it has conferred: lives whose significance lies in the fact they are not always with us. Our happiness lies in being able to inhabit that fact.

3 thoughts on “Thank yous, I love yous, and our limited time”

  1. I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, for whatever reasons (hormones?). I was thinking about your "What don't you do" post (and might write something about that soon) and one of the things I kept coming up with is that I don't thank people enough. I get embarrassed/self conscious. Isn't that ridiculous? A lot of the "what don't you do" things I have come up sort of meld with self-improvement/self-criticism (as in, "what I SHOULD do"). Anyway, this was one of them. Stay tuned.

  2. Hi Lindsey. Thanks for continuing the thread here. I am envious of your ability to keep up with the New York Times. I openly admit that it is one of the things I miss most about pre-parenthood, and I'm hoping soon to be able to jump back into the folds.
    We have to keep asking ourselves these big questions while at the same time enjoying the "little" things (which often aren't so little, really). I'm glad to have found you.

  3. DO you ever think, or do you ever find, that people are just so scared to give themselves away and open up that they don't say anything at all? They don't say thank you and they certainly don't tell you truthfully how they feel about you. Even our closest friends don't take time for those words. Don't push past the first thoughts and feelings of the uncomfortable.

    I have to say, as someone who more often than not spills her emotions, it is a lonely place when those around you seem reserved, behind ten foot walls. And yet, it is also a gift, I should say…to be able to be so free. But there is always room for more freedom, more gratitude, more open, honest communication. more more more….

    (too early in the morning and i lost my coherent train of thought along the way….) 🙂

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