CHICAGO: It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so let me suggest that you do something you may never have done before on this occasion: Give thanks.
Not the kind that involves idly contemplating your good fortune. Not the kind that involves joining with family and friends around a groaning table to declare how lucky you all are. Not the kind that involves complimenting the hostess on the pumpkin pie.
No, the kind that involves explicitly thanking someone who has done something valuable for you — particularly the kind of thing you can never repay.
Some years ago, on some occasion that caused me to reflect on how I got to where I am, I started thinking about some of the people who made some crucial contribution along the way. It was a pleasurable exercise. What was not so pleasurable was what hit me next: that I had never fully expressed the gratitude I felt.
One college classmate started me in my eventual trade when she grew weary of my complaints about the student newspaper, which she helped produce, and said, ”Why don’t you join it and make it better?” I resisted, but in the end I accepted her challenge. A fateful step, it eventually made me into a college journalist and diverted me from my path to law school.
That small encounter seemed inconsequential at the time. But had it not happened, where would I be today? Not where I am, for sure. I found her address, reminded her of the conversation, updated her on my life and thanked her for what she had done.
She obviously had long forgotten the conversation. But she was also obviously pleased. ”In my darker days, I wonder if I have ever made a difference in anyone’s life,” she wrote. ”Thanks for letting me know I affected yours in a positive way.”
There was another classmate and student journalist who, when I was a struggling freelancer right out of college, invited me to write for the magazine where he was an editor. The offer came at a time when my prospects looked dim and I was thinking maybe law school was not such a terrible option. I wrote the piece; he used it; and other editors noticed. Soon I was getting published regularly, which eventually led to an actual writing job.
Twenty-five years later, I sent him a letter telling him how important his help had been. He wrote back cheerfully to say he doubted he deserved so much credit. ”But hell, if that’s what you want to think, I’m not gonna stop you,” he said.
I suspect some recipients were skeptical when they heard from me out of the blue. It would be natural to suspect I was buttering them up before, after a brief interval, asking for a favor. Maybe after a while, when that request failed to materialize, they got some pleasure from realizing that the gratitude was sincere.
One letter I almost didn’t get to write. I had largely forgotten a journalist whose recurring non-credit college seminar on political thought had been a formative experience for me. But a mutual friend mentioned to me that he had a terminal illness. That was the prompting to do what I should have done long before. And I hope being reminded of his contribution was a small comfort as he approached the end.
We all like to think we reached our goals because of our talent, determination and exemplary character. But none of us succeeds at anything without help. It’s easy to forget a lot of what we owe to others. It’s also easy to forget that our lives might be very different except for them.
My suggestion, then, is that you take a few minutes over this holiday to remember some of the people who helped, educated or inspired you when you were younger. Then sit down and handwrite a letter letting one of them know. I am willing to bet that if you do, you will never regret it — and if you don’t, you will.
I warn you that once you start on this path, you will inevitably think of additional benefactors and more letters you need to write. That, by the way, is one of the benefits you will reap from this practice. When you do, you don’t need to thank me.
Chapman is a Chicago Tribune columnist. He blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve-chapman.