page fourteen: to thank or not to thank
I have had a difficult relationship with Gratitude and saying Thank you in general. For starters, growing up in India, there was no expression like that in my mother tongue. I did not hear it at home or between friends of the family. It is not like we did not give or do things for one another, but there just was no expression of gratitude as such.
It was only when I started to go to elementary school and began to learn English that I learned, among other words and terms, the words,”Thank you.” I was taught that it is what you say when someone gives you something.
Suddenly, it was being repeated all the time. When guests came home and gave us a treat, mom would add softly, in the mother-tongue, “and what should you say now?” So gradually, it got into my head that it was one of those things you “should” do, like use a napkin to sneeze into in public (in those days it was a handkerchief), or speak softly to elders or not talk with your mouth full and…yes, say Thank you when it came to outsiders. And that was the key - “outsiders”; we do not thank insiders, people who belong to the inner circle - family members or close friends.
In fact, while I could get into trouble for not saying Thank you to outsiders, I could get into just as much trouble, if not more, for saying Thank you to insiders who were offended by the words. Friends and family believe you have a right to their generosity and that they enjoy the same right. Doing something for a dear one is not only an affirmation of closeness but a sacred duty.
Our children, raised in the US, speak the language of this country and follow the cultural norms of this side of the world. We spent hours on Thank you notes after birthdays and other gift receiving occasions and ingrained it into them. However, when we visit India and they automatically express their gratitude at various times, many family members have a hurt look upon their faces. When I explain that my children do it because they have been raised amidst only “outsiders,” their hurt turns to compassion. Phew!
Cultural differences are interesting and when you look deeply at them they tell you a lot. The Indian culture is seeped deeply in the idea of non-duality and oneness, which denies, even judges, individuality which is viewed as divisive. The words “Thank you” assume that you, who are separate from me, are doing something for me and so I have to thank you. Thus, saying Thank you affirms separation and is therefore frowned upon.
Further, there is a great emphasis on the role of Karma or Fate in the perception of events. Fate would not put me in your way if I was not meant to help you, thereby repaying my own old debts. So given that background, whatever I do for you or vice versa is a settling of past accounts for which Thank you or gratitude, is redundant. We square accounts, we move on. End of cycle.
Here in the US, there is a great focus on individuality and on freewill. Individuality or the freedom to be oneself, is the pride of this country, as is freewill, the choice to say Yes or No. So, in exercising the freedom to be yourself, if you chose to do something for me, I should be grateful since you always had the option to say No. I cannot take your participation for granted.
Having understood both points of view, the question for me has remained: when I say Thank you, am I affirming separation and duality or am I celebrating free will and individuality? Not wanting to pick one position and turn my back on the other, I have debated this question a long time.
Finally, some years back I decided it was not the words but where one came from, the spirit behind them, that made all the difference. When I choose to thank you, in a way that divides us, it does affirm separateness. But when I approach it in another way, everything changes: much like we say Namaste to one another in India. That greeting, to those who are not already familiar, both acknowledges separateness and affirms oneness, in meaning,” The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you.”
So, in saying Thank you from such a place, I thank our fate for having put each other where we are and I thank your free will for having chosen to help me. Or conversely, I thank you for the opportunity to be of service in any way on your journey. Thus, the Divine in me thanks the Divine in you.
A gratitude that comes from a perception of equality and oneness uplifts both giver and receiver. And when I do that, it fills the gap between us with love and joy, uniting us as one. And that I am indeed thankful for!