The Four Things That Matter Most, Part IV: Thank you
I thank my God every time I remember you,
because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. —Philippians 1:3–5
The Catholic priest was at the cemetery reciting the committal service graveside for a member of his parish. It’s a very brief service, about two minutes long. He spoke the ancient words: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors.”
Family members dropped a handful of earth on top of the coffin, said their final farewells, drifted one by one back to their cars, and left the cemetery. After a while, only the widower and the priest were left graveside.
After a few minutes the priest said, “Joe, the service is over. Let’s go.” Joe said, “You don’t understand. I loved my wife.” The priest said, “I know you did, Joe, but it’s cold out here. Let’s go.” Joe said, “No. I loved my wife.” “Yes, of course,” the minister said, “but it’s time to go.” The man said, “You don’t understand. I loved my wife. Once, I almost told her.”
Hospice Care physician Ira Byock has been working with the dying and their families for 40 years. He says that in that long career, he’s learned that there are four things we need to say to each other before it’s too late. These are The Four Things That Matter Most: “I love you.” “I forgive you.” “Please forgive me.” And “Thank you.”
Do you have any unfinished business? Finish it now. Think of the people who are most important to you: husband, wife, parent, child, brother, sister, best friend. These relationships are the work of your life. You may think your work is investment banking or teaching school or practicing law, but your core relationships too are the work of your life.
My friend Jim is my tennis partner and my mentor. Jim finishes things. Jim is 88 years old but looks 70; he played tennis till he was 85. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 1951 with a degree in chemical engineering. Then he went to work at Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan, and stayed there for 40 years.
In the 1950's the Japanese invented a plastic bag with a zipper. It was a crafty invention, very useful to the Japanese consumer who packs lunches for her children every morning, but the Japanese scientists could never figure out how to manufacture those zippers cheaply enough so that the consumer would buy them. The fastest and most economical rate they could achieve was 30 feet a minute, which made the product too expensive.
So the Japanese sold the technology and the patents to Dow Chemical. On Jim’s watch at Dow, by the 1970's, one of Jim’s scientists eventually found a way to manufacture Ziploc bags at 300 feet per minute. At that rate and cost, the consumer would purchase the product. Jim and his team made billions for Dow; Dow rewarded Jim richly.
When he was 50-something, Jim was a candidate for the position of Chief Executive at Dow, partly because of his wizardry with the Ziploc bags, but they gave the job to someone else, so he quit and put his family on his sailboat and sailed to Cape Horn and back. “I have finished my race,” he said, “and now I rest from my labors.”
Jim was married to Marge for 63 years; she died in September. Marge and Jim winter at Ocean Reef in Florida, so there was a memorial service there for Marge in January. Week after next, I will lead a second memorial service so that her neighbors in Michigan, where I spend August, can pay their tribute too. And then we will lay her ashes to rest in the columbarium.
In his Christmas letter last December, Jim notified his friends of Marjorie’s death and told us all that the last thing he and Marge would say to each other before they fell asleep was “I am so lucky to be married to you.” Every single night. Every night till the last of all their nights together.
Jim finishes things. “I am so lucky to be married to you.” “Thank you.”
Perhaps you have noticed that I like to preach from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. A LOT. It’s one of my favorite books of the Bible, probably because the Church at Philippi was Paul’s favorite church.
Perhaps the most charitable thing you could say about the tightly-wound Apostle Paul is that he was “high maintenance.” His relationships with many of the churches he founded were fraught and cantankerous, but he seems to have enjoyed a relatively effortless relationship with the Philippians, and so this letter is a joy to read.
As the years go by, I find that the scripture verses in the entire Bible that I consult and repeat more often than any other come from the passage I read a moment ago. Paul writes to his friends at Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.”
I repeat those words a lot, because people are so kind and generous to Kathy and me that we write a lot of thank-you notes. I sign off with that phrase. So I’ll take care of business right now, before it’s too late: “I thank my God every time I remember you, for your sharing in the Gospel from the first day until now.”
“Thank you” is one of the four things that matter most because gratitude is more than a feeling, right? You hear it all time: “She has an attitude of gratitude.” That’s good, but gratitude is more than an attitude, more than an emotion, more than a feeling. Gratitude is a virtue.
In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has Viola say,
“I hate ingratitude more in a man
Than lying vainness, babbling drunkenness,
Or any taint of vice whose strong corruption
Inhabits our frail blood.”
Whoa, could that guy throw some shade or what!? Viola does not fancy a thankless bloke. Ingratitude is worse than lying vainness or babbling drunkenness. If all you ever learned from Shakespeare was how to insult people that would be enough.
The Roman philosopher Cicero said that gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the mother of all virtues. Without gratitude, no virtue of any kind.
I’m not so sure about that; I’m not sure gratitude is more important than the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, but you see what the great sage means, right?
Do you know someone who thinks he’s earned the blessings he’s known? Do you know someone who thinks she deserves the good things in life? How do you find that person? Does the descriptor ‘Entitled’ spring to mind?
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker gave the commencement address at Bard College in 2012 when he was still Mayor of Newark. Cory Booker grew up in New Jersey in a home of wealth and privilege. His mother and his father were two of the first black executives at IBM. Stanford University undergraduate and Yale Law after that.
He told the Bard graduates, “My father used to scold me, “Boy don’t you walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base, boy.”
Mayor Booker went on: “I drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty that I did not dig. I eat lavishly from banquet tables prepared for me by my ancestors. I sit under the shade of trees that were planted and cultivated and cared for by those whom I will never know.”
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t hit a triple; I was born on third base. People who know that, people who know that they have received more than they can possibly ever repay, also know that they must return a portion of the good things they have been granted.
They know they are in debt to so many others in so many ways—to God for existence itself, to the fecundity and beauty of this land, to the founding fathers and mothers who dreamed the dream of liberty, to the volunteer militia-men who won independence, to the Union soldiers who crushed slavery, to the GI’s who took Normandy and Iwo Jima from fascists, to the pioneers who carved Chicago out of a swamp.
In a marketing class a while back at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, the professor divided his students into groups and asked the groups to create a public service campaign.
The student groups were to think of a serious need or problem on campus and create ads and posters and videos to address that problem as a public service to the university.
One group decided that the problem they wanted to address was that students at Appalachian State were reluctant to wear bike helmets when they were riding around town or campus. So this marketing group came up with a public service campaign called The Grateful Head. Get it? If you wear a bike helmet, your head will be grateful? Do you have a Grateful Head?
But of course it is not enough to know it or to feel it; you have to speak it. Silent gratitude is like silent love; it barely exists; it is weightless; it is diaphanous; it is impalpable. Like creation itself, gratitude leaps from nothingness into being when it is spoken into being.
Your core relationships are such stunning, unmerited privileges that they become the work of your life—the spouse who joined her little life to yours till death do you part even though you were marrying way, way, way up; the parents who loved you into loveliness and graced you into graciousness; the children you love so much it almost hurts, a love that is so vivid and so dense and so powerful yet so vulnerable it’s almost dangerous; the sister who understands you better than you understand yourself because she was there with you every step of the way from the very beginning as your character was being hammered out in the home you shared; the friend who loves you just the way you are and too much to stay that way. Finish the work of your life before it is too late.
Do you remember Leo Buscaglia? He died in 1998, but when he was teaching at the University of Southern California, his classes were the most popular at the university. He taught a class called Love 101, or something like that. They called him Dr. Love. One Sunday, probably in the 80’s, five of his books were on The New York Times bestseller list in the same issue.
Dr. Buscaglia would invite his students to write poetry and years ago in the 1970's a young woman wrote a poem for one of his classes. It's called "Things You Didn't Do."
Remember the time I borrowed your brand-new car, and I put a dent in it, and I thought you would shout at me,
But you didn't.
And remember that other time when I spilled a cup of hot black coffee into the lap of your brand-new Brooks Brothers suit which cost you two weeks’ pay, and I thought you’d lose your temper?
But you didn't.
And remember the time when I invited you to the beach for a picnic, and you said it would rain, and it did, and I thought you’d say, "I told you so,"
But you didn't.
And remember the time when I flirted with all the guys on the docks to make you jealous, and you were, and I thought you'd drop me,
But you didn't.
Oh yes, and remember the time when I invited you to the dance and I forgot to tell you the dance was formal, and you showed up in jeans? Well, I thought you'd walk away from me,
But you didn't.
There were so many things you didn't do, but you loved me, and you protected me. And there were so many things I wanted to do for you, and so many things I wanted to tell you about what you meant to me, when you returned from Vietnam...
But you didn't.
Time flies. Life is short. Take care of business.
Joseph Telushkin, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal (New York: William Morrow, 1996), 154. Adapted.
Ira Byock, The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book about Living (New York: Atria, 2014, first published 2004).
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act II, sc. 4, ll. 361ff.
Quoted by Robert A. Emmons, Thanks! How The New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), p. 15.
Quoted by Richard Pérez-Peña, “Commencement Speakers: Familiar Faces Offering Advice, Idealism and Humor,” The New York Times, June 17, 2012, p. 21. Slightly adapted.
Emmons, op. cit, p. 85.
Leo Buscaglia, Living, Loving, Learning (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1982), pp. 76-77.