Over the past several months, I’ve become aware of how much I say thank you on any given day. In many ways, it’s just second nature. I was raised to say please and thank you and you’re welcome and excuse me, to hold doors open for people, and to generally look for ways to be courteous. It’s ingrained in me to say thank you any time anyone does anything for me at all.
The odd part? I thank people just for doing what they themselves expect as a matter of course.
In a post today, Dave Hingsburger at Rolling Around in My Head talks about this phenomenon, noting that he thanks people for what they take for granted every day. They assume the right to pass through space without barriers. Dave thanks people for making it happen for him.
Like Dave, I don’t think that showing my appreciation of what people do for me is wrong, per se. Courtesy has its place, and exchanging thanks is way of saying, “I see you and I appreciate you.” But when there is no even exchange, and when people feel a little too much gratitude for basic things they should expect as human beings, there is a problem.
The question of saying thank you has been coming up a lot for me lately around the issue of space. When I first arrived in Santa Cruz, I spent a fair amount of time weaving around people on the sidewalk. In the rurals of New England, where I come from, people tend to give each other a wide berth. But oddly enough, here in mellow hippie crunchy Santa Cruz, it’s very different. Most people have a strangely aggressive sense of space. Perhaps it’s just the fight for space in an urban area, where people have to stake out their claims. I’m not sure. But I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had people practically dare me to get out of their way on the sidewalk or assume that I was going to walk right into the street to make room for them. Since I’ve started using a cane, I’ve become very sensitized to it.
The first few times it happened, I thought that the folks who passed a little too close to me just had a poor sense of where they were. But then it kept happening every day, to the point that it became statistically impossible that so many people had spatial orientation issues. There is a strange sort of game that people play around space, and for a while, I found myself saying thank you to people for making space for me — even when they were taking up more than their fair share of space and impinging on mine. While other people were expanding their sense of space, I was making it a virtue to get small and take up less. And then I was saying thank you for people letting me by.
After a couple of experiences in which people became actively hostile, I decided to take a different approach. I decided that I had to stop bobbing and weaving. I had to stake out my claim — just my claim, without challenging the claim of anyone else.
So now, when I walk down the street and I see people taking up the majority of the sidewalk, I don’t walk onto the street. I keep to my trajectory, I hold my head up, and I show that I expect them to get out of the way. They generally do. And no, I don’t thank them. They’ve done the right thing. They’ve taken up their space and no more. Things are as they should be.
I shouldn’t have to thank them any more than they should have to thank me. Of course, I have my own set of privileges. People thank me all the time for doing the right thing, and I need to start speaking back to that, too. If I shouldn’t have to be constantly thanking people for doing the right thing, other people shouldn’t have to constantly be thanking me either.
The issue comes up most often in my interactions with people on the street. There is almost always someone sitting on Pacific Avenue with a sign asking for spare change, and I’ll sometimes ask if I can get the person some food. The responses to these offers vary. Some people just say no and ask for money. I’ll usually give a few dollars.
Most of the time, though, people take me up on the offer. And most of the time, people are very thankful — thankful in a way that pains me. It’s not that people are wrong for saying thank you. It’s that the whole damned deal is wrong.
I recognize where some of it comes from. I’ve had times when I’ve felt so demeaned and so ignored that any kindness filled my soul with gratitude. It wasn’t so much a choice to feel that way as a moment of sheer relief that I didn’t have to have my defenses up for five minutes. When you’re in that position and someone comes along to do a kindness, it’s like manna falling from heaven. There’s a gratitude — not just for the person, but for whatever God or cosmic power or act of fate dropped that person into your path.
I watched this kind of gratitude and relief come over the face of another person yesterday. I was talking to a guy trying to get into rehab and a shelter. He looked so surprised — no, shocked — that I was being kind. It was as though he were looking at a mirage. When I asked him what he wanted to eat, he mumbled something about beggars not being allowed to be choosers.
When I assured him that, in fact, he could choose, he asked me for an egg salad sandwich. And as I was going to get it for him, he said, “You’re an angel.”
That’s when something broke in me. An angel? Just for getting a man an egg salad sandwich? No. I couldn’t let it pass. I said, “No, I’m really not.”
As tired as I am of thanking people for doing the right thing, I’m even more tired of having an excess of gratitude come at me for doing the right thing. I don’t mind being thanked as a courtesy, and I don’t mind expressions of gratitude to God and the universe for whatever good things come along, but I’m tired of getting kudos for treating people like human beings. The gratitude that comes my way says so much more about the world we live in than it says about me. It’s not that I’m an angel. It’s that the world we live in is exceptionally harsh and uncaring. You do the right thing — which is what we’re supposed to be doing in the first place — and it looks exceptional only by comparison.
No one should go hungry.
No one should be spat on.
No one should be harassed or assaulted.
No one should be ignored.
No one should have to thank someone profusely for space, or access, or bread, or kindness.
All of these things are a matter of justice, not a matter of charity.
So I need to stop constantly thanking people for doing what’s right. And I need to let people know that they have a God-given right to expect me to do right by them. I don’t need their thanks. I just need to do the right thing.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg