Thanksgiving is, I’m sorry to say, my least favorite holiday. I don’t eat turkey, dislike mashed potatoes, choke on stuffing, and think cranberry “sauce” is nothing more than tart, gelatinous, can-shaped caca. Add in the fun of arguing with a few libertarian relatives, and… well, it’s hard to remember what the holiday is about in the first place: pilgrims playing nice with Native Americans before they gave them all manner of diseases. Yay America!
But the thanks! It’s really all about expressing gratitude, I hear people say. It’s true – the passing of the green bean casserole is symbolic: you give, I thank you; I give, you thank me. This is the time of year for life assessment, for tallying blessings, for being appreciative. (Considering the actual history of Thanksgiving, cloaking the day in that kind of charitable symbolism is… well, on a scale of one to ten, it’s Pollyanna).
Of course we should express thanks every day, including on Thanksgiving. There’s a great deal for which we should be thankful. Saying “thank you” can be cathartic. It makes both giver and receiver warm and tingly. The beautiful thing about giving thanks is that it has many forms, some unspoken.
But – and hear me out – is there such a thing as too much thanks? Or, rephrased another way: does receiving a kindness ever feel like emotional debt that can never be repaid?
Consider an exchange I had with a friend several years ago over a birthday present. I bought her lunch to thank her for said gift. In turn, she felt she needed to reciprocate by buying me lunch the next time, along with a thank-you note. Then it was my turn again. Then? You guessed it. It went back and forth like that until we realized the ridiculousness of what we were doing.
“This is appreciation madness!” we cried.
“Don’t you dare send me a thank-you note for a thank-you note,” my friend said. She knows me well; the thank-you note for the thank-you note was sitting on the counter at home with a stamp on it.
It’s the reason I love giving gifts but not receiving them. Giving is joyful, but I can’t comprehend that it works the same for my loved ones when they give something to me. Instead, I’m embarrassed and effusive. I tend to vomit appreciation, unsure whether I can ever repay the kindness. This aversion is the main reason I didn’t have a wedding shower and can never have a baby shower if I have children. The idea of my people gathered all in one place, watching me open gifts – well, if the image in my head is making me squeamish, then reality can only be worse. The same for compliments – they feel impossible to accept. What’s more, what can I say in turn that won’t sound like hollow mimicry? The only recourse for the rising anxiety is to go overboard with the appreciation.
How do I stop this vicious cycle of reciprocity? (You’re overthinking this, I can hear you say. You’re right; it’s what I do. Picture Woody Allen and George Costanza navigating the processes at the DMV, and you will have an accurate representation of the workings of my mind.) Being overly thankful is a disease, and I’m not quite sure what I did to contract it. Perhaps it’s the perception that whatever is being bestowed on me is unearned; perhaps it comes from a strong sense of fairness, that I shouldn’t keep something all to myself; perhaps I just don’t want to feel indebted to anyone. Buried more deeply than that is a guilt that I can’t give back in equal measure what was given to me. Even deeper: that there is a rule saying I have to.
Emotionally, “thank you” often doesn’t feel like enough. Rationally, I know that saying “thank you” is part of a gracious social exchange that ensures order among chaos and shows kindness for our fellow human beings. Most importantly, I know that “thank you” is a complete sentence. Saying it once is enough.
Thank you for reading. It’s appreciated. Your thank-you card is in the mail.