A note of thanks

I’m sorry to report that the thank-you note seems to be a dying art.

As this past week drew to a close, I was looking ahead to plans for the weekend and realized that it wouldn’t be long before any thank-you note sent for Christmas gifts would certainly be considered late. With respect to such social deadlines, of course, being a law student theoretically has its perks: presumably, everyone realizes that I am almost always hopelessly buried under work and thus they should be understanding (nay, gratified!) if I send a Christmas thank-you even as late as June.

But I can’t realistically maintain these self-excusing delusions for too long without growing disgusted with my own procrastination.

So, naturally, I betook myself to my local stationer.

When I approached the service counter with my request, I’m not sure who was more incredulous: me (that I should need to explain the concept of a blank thank-you note to a stationery clerk) or the clerk (that I should ask for something so strange). I mean, who does that anymore? he must have been thinking to himself.

Who, indeed?

It’s true that in a busy, busy world—especially one filled with so much speedy, speedy technology—it would be much easier just to send an e-mail (a word we apparently don’t even hyphenate anymore, by the way, but I stubbornly persist) or, better yet, an e-card. I received some lovely e-cards over Christmas, complete with photo montages and personal messages written by friends, and I valued them as much as I value the friends who sent them.

But somehow, it’s not quite the same.

When I began writing this post, I was fairly sure that I would end up discussing the importance of showing thanks to those who have shown kindness to us, and this is certainly important. Gratitude is one of those feelings that lets us know that we’re human, and expressing thanks to others reminds them that they’re loved.

Here, though, I’d prefer to focus on the form of thanks—the physical, handwritten note—rather than the sentiment it contains. If we recognize the sentiment as important and meaningful, then I would think that we’d want to send the note in a form that best captures the sentiment.

There’s something about an e-card that’s too much like an e-mail. I don’t know about you, but last year I sent 2,606 e-mails, and 2,825 the year before! In my case, that only averages out to 7.4 e-mails per day, but I’m sure some of you send many more. And the crucial detail here is that we clearly don’t spend much time on any individual e-mail. If we did, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else! For example, if I spent even five minutes on every e-mail I sent last year, that would be almost 220 hours of my year (9 complete days).

And that doesn’t even include reading time.

The sheer volume of e-mails we all send and receive every day makes them 1) not special, 2) not memorable, and 3) not welcome. An e-card is so similar to an e-mail that I would worry it might be regarded in the same way. If the gift given to me was special, memorable, and welcome, then I’d like my thanks to be the same.

This is why the handwritten thank-you note is perfect.

First off, there’s the vitality of it—for both the writer and the reader. As the writer, your hand holds the pen and fills the card with your words. Your tongue seals the envelope; you walk to place it in the mail. You send it into the world. It travels. It crosses physical distance. It arrives at its destination. As the reader, your hand pulls the card out of the mailbox, and your fingers tear it open. You hear the paper rip. Your eyes see the handwriting, an expression of another’s self. Perhaps, on the paper, you even catch the faint scent of another place.

It is real.

And in addition to all of that—the sight and sound and smell and touch of the handwritten note—there comes the realization that this communication represents that most precious of gifts, time.

Of course, the whole business takes time. That’s the whole point. You cared enough about someone to select and send a gift, or to plan a meal, or to make a visit, or to say a kind word… and that person cares about you enough to find•take•make•give that time back to you in the form of a little, handwritten note.

What could be more nice?

I can already anticipate the objections, though. That’s just unrealistic! No one has the time for that kind of thing anymore. You don’t ride a horse to work or light your house with gas lamps; get with it! Besides, using all that paper is wasteful anyway, and it’s not like you can rely on the mail.

It may be the case that this kind of thing is not done much anymore. But I’m inclined to believe that this is because we don’t find•take•make•give the time, not because we don’t have it. As far as I can tell, our days have included 24 hours since we started keeping time. Without discussing the merits of the postal system or conservation fanaticism, I will say that such statements strike me primarily as excuses. As for horses and gas lamps, it’s true that we’ve made a great deal of progress in the last century.

But that doesn’t mean we should be so proud or so busy as to consider ourselves above the nice things of our past.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few notes to write.

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