The Bearable Silence of Gratitude
Don't expect thanks, nor to know your positive influence on others. So be it.
Posted Sep 03, 2020
One of the most mind-bending speeches I've ever heard was given at a high school honors society initiation ceremony many years ago.
I had not been expecting much. I was sitting at the back of the auditorium and hoping for something short.
The speaker, who was keynoting the event, began by saying that he should not have been standing in front of these students—except for the guidance he had received from a middle school teacher in the small rural town in which he grew up.
He had been a poor student with an even poorer sense of his academic abilities. But this teacher saw something in this hesitant and insecure boy, found a way to give him confidence, and introduced him to the life of the mind.
Fast forward many years, he was now a professor at a major university and had the honor of speaking before a group of bright-eyed high school students—two things that he could never have imagined happening unless this teacher had rewired his sense of self, changed his life.
He hoped that each of these already accomplished students would go out into the world and have similar powerful effects on others.
But this was not his key message.
Where was he heading, I wondered?
No, this was not his main point, he said with emphasis.
The thing was, as grateful as he felt for what the teacher had done, he had never had the opportunity to thank him. In fact, I seem to recall him saying that he didn’t even remember the teacher’s name. For all he knew, the teacher had long passed away.
But this was his key point:
That he never had the opportunity to thank his teacher had no bearing on whether he had indeed been helped by this man.
This took me a moment to think through. It seemed self-evident—but at once quite profound.
Furthermore, he suggested that this is the typical way things work.
We go about our lives having an impact on others. Often, we hope, the impact is positive; the people we encounter flourish in small or large ways because of something we said, something we did.
Know this, he said to these kids. You will influence people much, much more than you will ever know. You will learn a mere fraction of the details of this influence. Because, as way leads to way, few people you influence will find their way back to tell you about how you shaped their lives. And, yes, to thank you.
But the absence of these details and rarity of the thanks detract not a whit from the influence.
The tree falls in the forest; we don't hear it fall—but it is making a sound.
And so go out and make a positive influence on those around you, he said. And this will have to be enough, and it will be enough.
And, do you know, I don’t remember his name.
Emmons, R. A. (2007). THANKS! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.