My parents find it terribly weird when I thank them. Whether it is a delicious meal that my mother has cooked, or income tax returns that my father has helped me file, my immediate response is to say ‘Thank You’ for their helping make my life more comfortable. I am often amused or annoyed that they are unable to receive a simple expression of gratitude with the ease I expect them to.
I am told that articulating appreciation in explicit terms is not part of our culture. Really? What does that even mean? Apparently, people do what they are supposed to do for each other, and there is no need to make a big deal. My parents’ explanation for this belief is that the English language imposed on us by the British colonizers came up with the expression ‘Thank You’ for a rather utilitarian purpose. It offers an easy way for people to escape the responsibility of reciprocity.
According to my parents, saying ‘Thank You’ does not require any effort, or indicate any deep appreciation for the thoughtfulness and care shown by others. It is an expression that is thrown around almost like small change, without people really meaning what they say.
Initially, this line of thinking sounded a bit outrageous to me. You see, they sent me to an English medium school, where the whole experience of kindergarten was geared towards teaching the art of politeness. At my government-aided Roman Catholic school in Mumbai, ‘Thank You’, ‘Sorry’, ‘Please’, ‘Excuse Me’ were called golden words, and students were encouraged to use them frequently in formal and informal contexts.
I was learning not only two different languages at home and at school but also two different sets of cultural expectations. Hindi does have ‘Dhanyavaad’, and it had ‘Shukriya’ as well until some pundits decided that the latter was meant to be categorized strictly as Urdu. However, these words tend to be used more often in written communication and formal situations rather than in everyday conversation.
My parents believe in doing rather than saying. I believe in both. This realization led me to think about why it might be difficult for my parents to receive acknowledgement and gratitude, even offers of help and support, when they find it quite easy to be givers. If they are unwell, they are reluctant to take a break from work or simply have a day of rest. It appears as though depending on someone else makes them feel guilty. It is wonderful to be able to things on one’s own but I think self-care is also quite important if one does not want to burn out. What is so unsettling about receiving?
My hunch is that they operate from the belief that their role requires them to nurture and provide, not ask or seek. Now it is almost impossible to fulfill one’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual needs without being supported by others. Receiving can sometimes feel like being in a subservient position, waiting for the other to act in a way that can be beneficial or satisfying to oneself. Those who self-identify as givers can have trouble accepting this kind of vulnerability because it means recognizing that one gives because one wants to receive in future.
Is seeking support really such a bad thing? Are human beings not called ‘social animals’ because we can thrive only through interdependence? I have found that learning to receive has opened me up to the abundance of the universe, and helped me perceive how every beautiful thing that happens in my life is made possible by the generosity of so many others. It has taught me to request support when I need it, and to see how reciprocity is not always about giving back to someone that I received from; it can also be about paying it forward. I cannot give back to my teachers the wisdom they gave me but I can pass it on as a legacy to my students.
That said, it occurs to me that I need to be reflective about my own behaviour. Is it possible that different people receive differently? Perhaps there are some who enjoy approval and even praise but do not indicate so openly because they do not want to appear needy. They might say that they do not care but may cherish all the positive attention secretly. Is it possible that the appreciation I express towards my parents comes from my own deep-seated urge to be complimented and fussed over? Perhaps I give what I want to receive. Now that cannot be ruled out.
Life is complicated, isn’t it? I guess it would be easier if we decided to be less judgemental about others, and kept our focus on being the best version of ourselves in a way that honours our strengths, needs, interests and capabilities instead of being the perfectly cropped and filtered image that would earn ‘likes’ — on Facebook, and in real life. If we grew more comfortable in our own skins, we might find it easier to give as well as receive, for nothing is permanently ours anyway.
Chintan Girish Modi loves to write, travel and teach. He is usually found doing one or more of these for a living as well.