Two More Words that Can Change the World

Robert Woods, Former Institute Fellow

I was on my way out of the bank one day when a kind elderly lady held the door open for me. I responded with my usual manner and said, "Thank You!" "What did you say?", she asked. Afraid that I may have offended her, I meekly responded, "Thank you?" "That's what I thought I heard." she replied, adding she had heard those words so seldom in recent days.

In a similar recent occasion, I was getting change from a cashier at the grocery store and thanked her for her great service. I thought she was going to cry. No one was behind me in the line so I asked her if everything was all right. She told me that it had been a very rough day and that my expression of appreciation struck a cord within her heart. She asked me if I knew why so many people seemed so inconsiderate these days. Little did she know she was asking a "public philosopher" who actually has theories about such things. I didn't bore her with all my views (for which I'm sure she was thankful) but I did share with her one point. We simply don't think enough about the importance of expressing gratitude. I personally believe that if we were more thoughtful, we all would be more thankful. Expressing genuine appreciation for the actions and words of others can become a habit that profoundly shapes the contours of our internal and external lives.

Believe it or not there is a direct relationship between thinking and thanking. A bit of etymological insight will confirm this view. According to John Ayto in his book Dictionary of Word Origins, our "notion of gratitude arose out of an earlier thoughtfulness." The word goes back ultimately to the prehistoric Germanic noun translated 'thank' which originally meant 'thought.' The sense 'thought' graduated via 'favorable thought, goodwill' to 'gratitude.' 'Thank you' first appeared in the 15th century, short for 'I thank you.'

Here is a little practical philosophical exercise. Get out a piece of paper and make three columns. At the top of the page on the first column write PEOPLE, on the next write THINGS, and on the last write PLACES. Now go through and write out all the people you know, things you have, and places you've been for which you are truly thankful. At some point in the next twenty-four hours, find a concrete way to express your appreciation concerning at least two of these entries.

Saying 'thank you' to someone will not create a more civil society overnight, and it probably won't make any immediate change in your corporate culture. However, getting into the habit of saying 'thank you' will begin right away to change you. Expressing gratitude for all the good in our lives opens us up to appreciate even more. And it inevitably invites more in.

Maybe this is what the great twentieth century civic poet W.H. Auden was getting at when he affirmed the goodness of life and wrote, "Bless what there is for being. For what else am I made for agreeing or disagreeing". I trust that, for the majority of us, when we look around us and reflect on the glory and mystery of existence itself, there is a great deal for which we can be grateful. Why not express that gratitude to others? Saying 'thank you' may not change the world but every genuine expression of appreciation will expand the soul of the giver and the receiver of this simple verbal and heartfelt expression.

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