The Power of Unexpected Gratitude

If you’ve watched comedian Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s The Tonight Show, pen in hand at his desk with notecards, theme music tinkling in the background, you’re familiar with how he expresses gratitude for some of the least expected happenings.

“Thank you, ants around my kitchen sink, for allowing every day to start with murder,” he writes.

Barack and Michelle Obama, on separate occasions, were among those who joined in writing playful thank-you notes with Fallon.

“Thank you, Barack,” wrote Michelle shortly before Donald Trump took office, “for proving you’re not a lame duck but my very own silver fox.”

The wacky thank-you note segments became such a hit, Fallon and his writers produced books of them. When you squeeze the second book, it launches Fallon’s thank-you theme music to add to the comedy.

Interesting in this year of polarizing politics that Parade declared 2017 the “year of being kind” and claims gratitude is proven to boost happiness and well-being. The Sunday newspaper supplement challenged its readers to write 52 thank-you notes—one a week to a different person for a year. There’s also a book by John Kralik called 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life. Whoa!

These days thank-you notes are still rare, though. They’re either overlooked or sent as perfunctory emails and texts. A handwritten thank you? Unlikely. Yet even the nearest post office sells thank-you cards to nudge grateful expressions.

You’ve probably heard and read—in the pages of this magazine, in fact—that writing letters is a healthy pastime. You can step it up a bit and create out-of-the-blue thank yous to amplify letter-writing for both sender and receiver.

Long ago, I started thinking about those I wanted to thank in writing for their kind-heartedness. I knew I’d better hop to it because some of these folks seemed to be aging faster than I was. Among them, teachers, former bosses, a couple who took me in as a teenager for a few crucial months so I could finish high school before heading off to college. Unfortunately, I discovered obituaries in my searches for some. That gave me incentive to begin this creative exercise without further procrastination.

First I wrote to those who had been there for me after my Mom died and my Dad was unable to care for me. I had turned to this couple, fingers crossed, hoping I could find a spot among their eight kids. In my thank you—which I’d expressed face-to-face numerous times, but never in writing—I knew I had to sidestep effusive and disingenuous. Waiting 25 years made that a lot easier. Still, I wanted to convey what a pivotal role they played in my ability to move forward in life.

When one of their daughters told me my thank-you note was still on their fireplace mantel several months later, I knew that creating unexpected kindness would become more than a pastime.

I received a forwarded email a decade ago about my newspaper boss from the early 1980s who was blue and disoriented after moving into an assisted-living facility. Joe’s 82nd birthday was just a few weeks off and those who received this update were urged to send him birthday cards. Although it had been nearly 30 years since I’d seen him, I included some heartfelt words.

“You may not be aware of it, but you taught me a great deal in a very short time. Your support for my work gave me a lot more confidence in my abilities. Whenever I think of the ideal newspaper, I always envision a vibrant newsroom with you, Joe, at its helm,” I wrote.

Joe and I struck up a correspondence after that and I started sending him goofy Christmas and birthday presents to evoke a smile.

“It’s nice to know you’re out there and think such kind thoughts about me,” he wrote.

Joe and the couple who rescued me as a teenager are gone now. It’s gratifying to know I had a chance to thank them in writing for how important they were.

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 1990s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.

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