In Langston Hughes’s short story ‘Thank you, Ma’am’ (1958) a poor boy tries to steal a woman’s purse to buy some shoes. She catches him in the act and drags him off to her house, where – much to his surprise – she cooks him dinner and gives him the money he needs. The story ends with him standing on her doorstep after she’s said ‘good night’, wishing he could have said more than just ‘thank you’.
The queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June were co-ordinated and branded as a festival of thanks. There was an online thank you card for the public to sign, and the TV sketch of Paddington Bear having tea with the queen ended with Paddington saying: ‘Thank you – for everything.’
The official Paddington Bear Twitter account repeated the line on the evening of the queen’s death. Many of those standing in the five-mile queue to witness her lying in state have, when asked by journalists, expressed a desire – or need – to say ‘thank you’. The flowers, toy bears and marmalade sandwiches that have been left at Buckingham Palace and in surrounding parks are often accompanied by a message saying ‘thank you’.
This spirit of gratitude is a new phenomenon. Historically, it was far more important that a sovereign be viewed by their subjects as majestical and fearsome. People might have felt thankful for the monarch’s mercy, but not for their sense of duty. Other emotions might include pride, scorn, awe or resentment, depending on political persuasion and taste. And yet suddenly, perhaps only in the past year, gratitude has arisen as one of the dominant forms of affective bond between the public and the monarchy.
The royal family and its army of PR advisers are no fools, and we should assume they know what they’re doing. Public expressions of thanks had become commonplace before the jubilee because of Covid: the pandemic elicited various rituals of thanksgiving to NHS workers and other carers, from the pictures of rainbows that children placed in windows to the weekly doorstep clap. On the back of these new traditions, an annual Thank You Day was established to encourage people to hold neighbourhood get-togethers and share in a spirit of thankfulness. This year it was on 5 June, pegged to jubilee street parties, and amplified by celebrities and publicists.
The official sponsors of Thank You Day are largely drawn from bodies responsible for health and physical activity: the NHS, Sport England, the Football Association, St John Ambulance and so on. In the 21st century, gratitude is not merely a matter of good manners but something to be actively practised for your own wellbeing. The field of positive psychology, which seeks to understand the causes and conditions of positive emotions (and to combat negative ones), has for many years fed into an industry of self-help books, happiness gurus and wellness advice. And among the most common tips on offer, alongside spending time with nature and taking physical exercise, is to practise gratitude.
One piece of advice is to keep a ‘gratitude diary’ in which you list things you’re grateful for: family, health, good weather or whatever. Cynics may view this as just another self-help life-hack, but it can also be seen as a serious effort to wean people off consumerism and the constant status anxiety aggravated by social media. If you can focus on being grateful, you might spend less time looking at other people (or even other societies) and wishing you had what they have. Perhaps the deeper problem with such self-help tactics is not that they’re a scam or ineffective, but that they work by suppressing the rage and disappointment that makes them necessary in the first place.
It may be that saying thank you for things is now a component of health and happiness, a way of reminding yourself that things could always be worse. What’s weirder is the way the habit has reappeared in a period of national mourning. Thanksgiving services, which traditionally follow funerals, are opportunities to give thanks for somebody’s life, a means of converting loss into gratitude. Yet it’s not the departed who is thanked at such events, but whatever god or cosmic force mourners wish to credit for giving life in the first place. This is not the case in the thank yous now being expressed to the queen, which are aimed directly at her. As with the boy on the doorstep at the end of Hughes’s story, these thank yous seem too little, too late. The sorrow at her death seems tied up with regret that the queen was never adequately appreciated.
It doesn’t require a vast leap of psychoanalytic speculation to surmise that feelings may attach themselves to iconic public objects which are really about something or someone else altogether. Funerals can often be tied up with feelings of regret: lives not lived as they might have been, words not said when they could have been. The vast outpourings of public sentiment since 8 September are invariably connected to more intimate stories and sorrows. ‘She reminded me of my nan,’ the mourners say, and the image is of a selfless woman slogging through years of work for others because that’s her lot in life. This probably bears scant resemblance to the actual experiences of Elizabeth Windsor, but a great deal to those of many grandmothers over the past seventy years. It can be difficult to disentangle the patriarchal gender norms of the postwar era from the institutionalised generosity established during that time – the NHS and welfare state – which is also fading away in 2022. Were we sufficiently grateful? Is it too late?
In the deaths of Diana and Elizabeth, separated by a quarter century, two different matriarchal tragedies have been played out on the national stage, and become receptacles for a repressed rage: the woman who was never adequately loved, and the woman whose work was taken for granted. In both instances, it was men – an emotionally withdrawn father, an unfaithful husband, a disgraced son, a lying prime minister – who let them down and exploited their decency.
A more difficult but perhaps more honest emotional response to injustice is not gratitude to those who tolerate it but outrage. How much of what expresses itself in thank yous, marmalade sandwiches and clapping on doorsteps is really an avoidance of the fact that both in public and in private, as David Graeber put it, we have failed to take care of those who take care of us?