I was having an e-mail exchange today with a psychology professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the subject of gratitude. As I was responding to her, I was commenting on why some people choose not to – or fail to, as the case may be – express their gratitude.
In my observation, many people have a real challenge with expressing their emotions – especially men. And that challenge is multiplied tenfold when expressing their emotions to strangers. I don’t know if this issue is getting worse or better over time on a societal level. But I find that so many of our issues in our relationships – whether they be interpersonal or international relationships – come down to communication.
Now, when people throw that phrase around with respect to relationships – “It’s all about communication” – I think that they’re often times just thinking about how well, or how craftily they’re communicating what they want to communicate in order to get the result that they want. But what is a bigger problem, I think, is what they’re not communicating at all – how they honestly feel about something or someone. Of course, in order to communicate something to someone else, you must first be consciously aware of it yourself. And that may be 70% of the problem for many people. But even those of us who are fairly self-aware often fail to communicate our feelings to others. Sometimes I wonder if, at least in the US, we’ve decided that expressions of love and gratitude, for example, are signs of weakness.
I’ve noticed this in my own relationships. I’ve always been pretty good about expressing my emotions to my wife. But I recently realized that I don’t express myself quite as well to many other people in my life.
My wife and I met another couple about three years ago who have become very dear friends of ours. And it has become a norm in that relationship to tell each other “I love you.” This was strange enough for me at first to tell another woman, who was not my wife, mother, or sister that I loved her. But it was stranger still to tell another man who was not my father that I loved him. It has since become very normal and comfortable for me. And it occurred to me as I was hanging out with a girlfriend with whom I’d been friends since 7th grade that I had never told her I loved her. What a stark contrast, I thought – and a tragedy, really – that I was telling someone I’d only known for three years how I honestly felt about them, but I wasn’t telling this woman who had been my dear friend for 25 years how I felt about her. It wasn’t because I didn’t feel just as strongly for her, but rather because I simply wasn’t acknowledging it, either to myself or to her. And if I was unable to tell this dear friend how I felt about her, you can bet that I wasn't telling too many strangers how I felt about them.
I wonder if our inability to show how we truly feel – again, especially for men -- is frequently because we’re afraid of how it will throw off the balance of power in a relationship. As though expressing feelings of love, gratitude, appreciation, or admiration makes us appear somehow weaker, more needy, more dependent. The irony, I find, is that some of the strongest people I know – or have ever seen – are the ones who are willing to stand naked in front of a crowd and expose their weaknesses without shrinking back or feeling ashamed. Gandhi is a great example. My friend from 7th grade, and my wife are two others.
It’s as though they’ve decide that having weaknesses does not make you weak. Anyone can build a wall around themselves and try to hide who they really are or what they really feel. But, as Pink Floyd wrote so brilliantly in words and music back in the 70’s, it doesn’t take much to “tear down the wall,” exposing those weaknesses, and destroying the person. The truly strong person is the person who can expose their weaknesses to the crowd, with no walls to protect them, and stand there head held high knowing that no other person is in a place to judge them. Denial of weakness is just another weakness. Acknowledgment is truth strength. As Ambrose Redmoon put it:
Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
Being true to how we really feel is more important. Telling others how we feel about them, as we would like to know how they feel about us, is more important. Acknowledging the service of others, so that we encourage more people to serve their fellow man, is more important. Living in the Now, in a state of connection with, and gratitude for our fellow man rather than in a state of isolation, loneliness, distrust, and conflict with our fellow man, is more important.
The pleasant surprise is that it is much easier to be strong and courageous enough to share your gratitude than you might first expect. And it gets easier each time you do it. Facing fear makes fear go away. I have never met anyone who didn’t want to be thanked or told that they were loved. It was my inability to say it that was the true weakness. I am much stronger now, and getting stronger each day.