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The Great Thank-You Note Project

THERE comes a time in every young life when a man must clear his throat, glance casually over his shoulder to confirm that no one is looking, and admit that his mother was right.

After many years, I have confirmed that my mother was right about several things, chief among them the issue of thank-you notes. Throughout boyhood, my mother would hound me to write a note of thanks after every gift or favor I received. She would begin on the afternoon of Christmas Day or the morning after my birthday, and would harass me until the letters were posted.

My thank-you notes were written out of duty and with a concise style that would have wowed Hemingway: "Dear Grandma, Thank you for the gift of socks. Love, Tom." My thinking was along the lines of: "I got socks. If I write a letter pretending to be happy about this gift, I only will encourage further giving of socks." I thought that only toys and baseball cards warranted the labor-intensive act of writing a letter, and as soon as my mother thought me old enough to write them without supervision, I abandoned the practice altogether.

Now it is Thanksgiving, and much is written about the value of giving thanks, which is great, and about the things we have to be thankful for, which are many. My concern is not with whether or not we are thankful, or what we're thankful for, but how we go about the whole process of thanking.

The physical act of writing has gone out of favor because it needlessly takes up time that could be used for writing in our planners or sending e-mails. It makes so much more sense to just tell those we are grateful for that we appreciate them, or to dash off a quick e-mail. Writing a note is not '90s and therefore silly. But what my mother knew all along is that writing thank-you notes is the only way to go. Receiving a handwritten letter is infinitely more rewarding than listening to a brief speech of gratitude or opening up an electronic mailbox. It shows that some effort was exerted, that someone is so grateful that they set aside time for you. Thank-you notes are purely classy, as many unpopular things are these days, and they are due for a comeback.

Alone with your pen and paper, you're more likely to actually compose than you would be with a blinking computer screen in front of you. Those few extra moments of thought encourage honesty and sincerity, which always are in style, and encourage you to go beyond the bare minimum of gratitude. The time consumed by writing causes you to pick and choose, to write only to those who are especially deserving of thanks. In making that decision, it's likely you'll learn very much about who is important to you.

There is something rewarding about having time spent on you. Written thanks last longer as well, since recipients are more likely to forget an oral thank-you or to delete an electronic missive. People are hesitant to throw out letters, especially when they play the starring role in them.

That's why I'm starting the Great American Thank-You Note Project. I chose the grandiose title because it seems that big titles or difficult application processes assure success to any initiative at the University. The Project is very simple: Just write thank-you notes to those people who have made your life better. It can be someone who did something truly amazing for you, or it can be someone whose small contributions have added up to something very significant in your life.

The Project is aiming small in its inaugural year. Participants are encouraged to send off only a few - no more than, say, 12 - letters, to keep comfortably within the bounds of sincerity. But think about the effects. Twelve people will receive from you a sincere, heartfelt, physical reminder of their importance, something that's hard to forget and impossible to erase. And they don't have to feel like a response is necessary. There's no "Reply To" button on a letter. It's implied that the recipient has done more than enough already. And who knows, maybe the person you send your letter to will stop to think, and will compose a letter to another person who has changed his or her life.

The ways in which we give thanks speak volumes about how thankful we are. If we mean it, if we're truly thankful, then we'll be willing to spare those few extra moments to really show it. We'll haul out the stationery, spring for the extra stamps, uncap our favorite pens, and sit down for some real honest thanksgiving.

I'm looking forward to it. Of course I'll start by thanking my mother for inspiring the Great American Thank-You Note Project. I'll write to my friends, and I can guess that receiving an actual note from me might reinforce how serious I am, much more so than a casual, spoken thank-you.

To give thanks is a lovely thing, and it helps us realize how much we have to be thankful for. Please join me this year in making sure that those who matter know just how much they matter. The best way to start is by writing it down, and making sure we write it all down.

(Tom Bednar is a Cavalier Daily Opinion editor.)


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