There are some days when I’ve just about had it. Recently, when baby-sitting a friend’s two preschoolers for the day, I realized how much one can forget in the six short years since both of my girls have been out of diapers. On that day, the three-year-old got into the paints when I wasn’t looking. I discovered him sitting on top of the kitchen table, making interesting designs on his clothes, and took one look at him and decided he was too far gone to interfere with now. I just gave him some paper and figured at least this would keep him busy for a while. And it did. It kept him so busy he didn’t realize when he had to pee. My table got the worst of it. He peed all over a chair later that day, too. I spent the entire day walking behind the four kids and cleaning up after them.
Some of us have jobs that make us feel that way, too. If we work at a place where morale is lower than a double-jointed limbo dancer, everybody is grumpy. Nobody wants to be there. And nobody seems to notice anything good that we do. The problem, whether at our jobs or at home, is not necessarily that the work we do is miserable, or that the job is too hard. It’s that nobody appreciates our efforts. Attention only comes our way when there’s a problem.
Living that kind of life, with no positive feedback, can be like living a slow death. Even when we have chosen a life we desperately want—a career we feel proud of, a family we’re raising that we love, a business we’re starting—that inner sense of motivation, satisfaction or drive only takes you so far. We are social beings, and we need positive human interaction.
I think that’s what poisons so many marriages, and causes employers to lose the best people. These bad feelings, even if they don’t stem from huge issues, can start to add up as, brick by brick, we build up walls between us. Soon there doesn’t seem anything left to hold us together.
How can we stop this impending death? My grandfather, after every meal, would always smile and thank my grandmother. “Mother,” he would say, “that was wonderful,” whether it was or not. It seems quaint now, and maybe even a little sexist, but I think that meant something to her. He was acknowledging the effort and the love that she put into that meal. When we don’t acknowledge that love, too often it flickers out.
Much as we may know this kind of appreciation is vital, though, when we’re feeling unappreciated, it’s really hard to appreciate anybody else. We’re each waiting for the other person to thank us, before it even occurs to us to acknowledge them. It’s strange how we’re often the most critical with those we’re the closest to. We can be kind to strangers, but are we kind to those who really matter? When we’re not, we cause bitterness to escalate, even if it doesn’t stem from anything huge. Even so, bit by bit, we build up walls between us until there doesn’t seem anything left to hold us together.
I know many of us are tired. After that day with four kids, I certainly was. But think about those around you. Why not break through that wall today, before it becomes too high to climb over? Take my advice: whether you’re at home or at work, stop reading, smile at the person nearest you, and say thank you for something. You’ll be tearing down bricks, and that’s ever so much better than piling them up.
This is a reprinted column from May 9, 2006.