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We Survive on Thank-You Notes
Ten days ago, I was scammed out of $5,000. It’s a long story that I don’t feel like recounting, but the upshot is that I found an apartment on Craigslist that I just loved. Alas, it was scammers who placed the ad, who had keys to a vacant apartment, and got three months advance rent out of me before I discovered I’d been had. It was humiliating, and I’m back to square one in the apartment hunt.
Yesterday, I shared with a friend the details of the scam — and updated him on the end of my fifth marriage. My friend, who is sometimes hard on me but also very loving, remarked, “You always somehow land on your feet, Hugo. Watching you is like taking a master class in white privilege.”
I was indignant, but I got the point. I made a point in return:
All things considered, I am a sinner more sinning than sinned against. The scam artists who took my rent money may have adjusted that calculation, but if you ask my former wives or my former colleagues at the college, they’ll tell you that most of the suffering I have encountered in this life has been self-inflicted. As they say in A.A., I am the architect of my own adversity.
When you’re a certain kind of white man from a certain kind of background, then your fall from grace is entirely your own fault. I accept that. What stings is to be told that my comeback, if you can call it that, is not a consequence of my sweat but a function of my class, my color, and sex. To certain folks who have marinated overlong in academic theory, I must take the blame for my failings, but I do not get to claim any credit for my redemption. One finds that rather unfair, but I suppose it is unfairness familiar to both the Woke left and the Evangelical right.
When people ask how I have rebuilt my life again and again, my first answer is that I don’t have permission to do otherwise. When my children were born, I was presented with an obligation I could not shirk. I don’t get to go. Suicide is not an option. It is always a consideration, of course, and I dream of it often, but… I don’t have permission. So since I don’t get to leave on my own terms, I need to do the next right thing, and then the next right thing after that. (I grieve that some people — better folks than I will ever be — do come to believe they have permission, or are so mad for a moment they forget that permission is required. I cannot judge them.)
I also give credit to others. Time and again, I have been helped by friends and acquaintances. It’s how I’ve gotten almost all my writing gigs. It’s how I’ve gotten every job I’ve had since I resigned from the college. It’s not that people have lavished me with gifts. It’s that when they can, where it is possible, they have opened a door — or told me of a door that might open if I knock.
Do people do that because I’m a white man? Maybe. Do they do it out of pity? Perhaps. Do they do it because they are thinking of my children? Almost certainly.
I have been saved again by the kindness of acquaintances for all those reasons, but there’s another one as well: I have always understood the economy of small kindnesses. I come from a social class in which writing thank-you notes was an absolute must: If it moves, thank it. If you ate dinner with it, acknowledge it. If its son is in town and looking for a job, take him to lunch and give him the best counsel you have. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. If someone seems troubled, ask. If they post a cryptic and worrying Facebook status, pick up on it and ask if they’d like to talk. Take people to coffee. Invite people to lunch, and listen to what they say. Don’t ask for anything other than friendship. If you make people feel truly seen, then they will help you in your hour of need if they can.
If you think of it like a quid pro quo, you will ruin it.
I was raised to believe that good manners meant making other people feel comfortable. Nothing makes people feel more comfortable than being seen. I want to be seen and liked for who I am. I want it more than money, I want it more than sex, I want it more than praise — and I am fond of all of those things! But as the saying goes, you need to give away whatever it is you most want to receive.
At the same time, good manners are not meant to be purely transactional. Kindnesses are not a bank into which you make deposits in the expectations of a future withdrawal. We perform manners because manners are an identity, not a tool. They are blood and bone, not pen and paper.
I have sent a lot of notes and texts and direct messages in my day to people going through a hard time. One of the best tools I know to get myself out of my not-infrequent panics is to write to friends to check in.I have thanked a great many people for a great many things, and I am haunted by the certainty that I have left some very generous folks unthanked and unacknowledged.
And of course, time and again, just when the wolf is at the door and things are really desperate, someone does the same for me. Someone knows someone who knows someone who just might… a call gets put in to so-and-so… and once again, I’m rebuilding. Once again, I’m starting over.
It was only late in life that I realized that this habit of “thanking everything that moves” was not universal. I assumed everyone’s parents raised them to understand the importance of small kindnesses and social niceties, and the fact that some people didn’t act as if they understood this was evidence that not everyone minded their mamas. I have come to see that the culture of “thank-you notes” and little encouragements has a class element to it.
Did my family know, when they taught me how to shake hands, write a sincere note, and make polite conversation with both the homeless and the haughty, that they were equipping me with survival skills as useful as teaching me to hunt, fish, or drive a nail? Perhaps, in the dim recesses of memory, they knew that when a gentleman is down on his luck, his wit, his work ethic, and some small degree of winsomeness will save him. I have been a pariah and a pauper, but I have never been unloved and unrooted for. To the extent that I was raised to see people and make sure they felt seen without judgment, then my raising was what ensured my survival.
You’re never so low as to not be able to be encouraging to someone also in desperate straits. You’re never so poor as to not make a little deposit in the Credit Union of Kindnesses. I want my children to learn math and history, but I care far more that they know how to make other people feel seen. I want that for my children because kindness is its own reward — but also, as I know so very well, kindness is how we survive.