My father had a persistent twitch in his right shoulder. He said it was a lasting reaction to bombs exploding around the battlefield mess hall which, as a Master Sergeant, he ran during World War II. Drafted shortly after arriving in the United States as an immigrant from Italy, my father never talked much about his eight years in the U.S. Army. In fact, none of the adult males in my family, all of whom served in the military, spoke much about their service.
Still, my extended family understood that our relatives had fought to end the Nazi Holocaust. My mother — a first generation daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants — stressed how important my father’s and uncle’s sacrifices were. We were all very grateful for their service.
It’s a formula now, at airports, on television shows, at public gatherings and events, to single out military personnel and say “thank you for your service.” I understand that the military returnees during the Vietnam War were often not thanked or even treated well by a large segment of the public. That was a mistake. So I realize that, in part, our focus today on saying “thank you for your service” to men and women whose job is to stand in harm’s way for others, is a correction.
Those who risk life and limb to serve their country are deserving of recognition, but limiting our public thanks to those who serve in the military, and to “first responders” such as police, firefighters, and emergency personnel, is also a mistake. Many other people who provide vital services often go unnoticed, unthanked, and taken for granted. I am thinking of the unnamed workers and everyday people without whom our country would be much less hospitable, habitable, pleasant, or safe.
This summer at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan, founder Michael Moore commented from the stage one evening: “Whenever I meet a teacher, I always say ‘Thank you for your service.’” He’s right to do so. Teachers are a logical choice to add to our “thank you” list, along with nurses and counselors and others in the helping professions. But that’s not everyone we should thank.
When I go to Lori to get my hair cut — feeling weighed down by partisan politics, constant bad news, and mundane but seemingly endless tasks — why do I leave feeling lighter, and not just because I have slightly less hair? It’s because Lori listens well, asks how I’m feeling, and gives me her perspective on things. Thank you for your service.
When I recently came back from a stressful trip and pulled the rental car into the parking garage, the attendant who directed us to the designated spot had a twinkle in his eye and an impish smile. I smiled back, which seemed to surprise him, but his lovely smile brought some light into that dark garage. When we arrived at our city’s airport, Jama, the parking lot shuttle driver, reached for my bag and said with a big smile, “How ya doin?” He didn’t know me, but his actions lifted up some of my emotional weight, too. Thank you for your service.
There is an older man who bags our groceries at the local supermarket. He’s been there for years and may have some kind of cognitive difficulty. But he knows the regular shoppers and often welcomes them by name, making some small-talk and wishing each customer a good day. The senior citizens who work as greeters at Walmart are often the butt of jokes among nearly-retired people. If you fail to save for retirement, they say, this might be your fate. But I’m glad the greeters are there. They often help us find what we’ve come for, and put a human face on an otherwise crass, over-stimulating, unpleasant, or just mundane errand. Maybe they aren’t paid enough and they do it out of need. But they brighten the experience nevertheless. Thank you for your service.
When hurricanes and other disasters strike, do you notice that there are people soon afterward who voluntarily pick up debris, cook and serve food, clear trees, and generally try to make the locale a bit more habitable? How about when you come back from the hospital, hear a knock, and find someone from church or family or neighborhood standing there with a casserole? Hopefully, you don’t feel as terrible as you thought you would. Thank you for your service.
When the woman at our local Mexican restaurant greets her grumpy, harried patrons rushing to get a quick lunch, her satisfaction at providing a truly delicious meal shines out. When I speak with a therapist about my despair over the state of the world and she honestly answers that her training did not equip her for this, I feel better because of her honesty and solidarity. Thank you for your service.
We all can join in service to others and to our country in its state of crisis. Of course, none of this by itself will save democracy, keep our civilization on an even keel, return the environment to a healthful condition, restore truth to public life, reunite migrant children with their parents, or bring justice to sexual abuse survivors. I know it won’t be enough to save us.
Yet, how we behave and serve each other can break down hate and indifference, which is no small thing. And I believe that the little bits of grace – especially if we are able to see them and be thankful — will enable us to chip away at society’s biggest problems.