DIY Tuesday: The serendipitous thank you

An Inspirational Quote to Whet the Whistle

“The basic philosophical problems are presented to us by living, not by books or by the educational system. [Three cheers!–AT] The notion that only those who have studied philosophy at a university can philosophize is on par with the notion that only those who have made an academic study of literature can read a classic novel…. In this book I have tried to show how life itself hurled fundamental problems of philosophy in my face…” (462). [And hurray for life hurling philosophy in our face!]

–Brian Magee, Confessions of a Philosopher

The Serendipitous Coinage of the Word ‘Serendipity’

Horace Walpole, the politician, writer of the first Gothic novel, and man of letters in whose house I once stayed and studied, coined the word ‘serendipity.’ According to the OED, “he had formed it upon the title of the fairy-tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, the heroes of which ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of’.”

I’ve misled you, haven’t I? The serendipity I refer to is not serendipitous in its coinage but in the fact that I happened, much to my surprise, to be studying in Strawberry Hill when I discovered that Walpole coined the term. Que sorpresa!

(Walpole’s Gothic tale The Castle of Otranto I remember being remarkably dull. Nobody I know has read it. There’s a ghost in it, I think. The thin fiction is certainly not in the same league as Bronte’s Villette, which happens to be damn good. )

And Now How About That Thank You?

Emily Dickenson advises us to “[t]ell the truth but tell it slant.” Slant is what we want. A serendipitous thank you should be brief, clear, and direct. It should pop with surprise, coming out of left field or, if you prefer, totally out of the blue. It could be sent to a near stranger or a dear friend or, indeed, to both at once. Bear in mind that the note only works when it thanks the recipient for some unique quality, characteristic, or virtue.

A Recent Example: Voila!

Dear John,

Two lessons have stayed with me since the conversation we had a few weeks ago. One was the importance of dwelling in the silence; I hadn’t fully felt the weight of silence, not completely, before this but have practiced it with, have painfully felt it with others since. The other was the Buddhist lesson that I hadn’t fully grasped (and one, sadly, that I’m violating here): it is that all meetings are also and at once separations. This thought should bring us joy, not eat us up with expectations, anticipations, and, as life coarsens, with regrets. Every meeting is complete and entire unto itself, and that is all.

Thank you, then, for clarifying these lessons for me. There’s no need to reply.



Choice Words of Caution

1. Keep the note simple, brief (!), clear, and direct. Avoid garrulity and cliche.

2. Keep the focus on him or her and on what you learned from him or her. Avoid solipsism.

3. On the one hand, make it a habit. On the other hand, keep it fresh. This is not a contradiction.