“He knows he’s good at it, there’s no need to tell him.” Well, maybe he doesn’t know, maybe he doubts himself, maybe there is a need to tell him. “She knows we all appreciate her – that we couldn’t do it without her, why state the obvious?” Because maybe it’s not obvious to her, that’s why. We ought to express the obvious. We ought not to assume that others know how much we think of them. We ought to speak up, spit it out, even if it feels a bit awkward. When someone is doing a good job, being a great friend, quietly doing the right thing, remember to take a moment to tell them. It can be a lonely place, that place of just getting on with it. It’s easy to laud the big achievements and to celebrate them, but it can be harder to call out the ordinary, the everyday, simple, plodding acts that require so much ongoing emotional stamina. Living a good life does not always look glorious or glamorous. Many of the best-lived lives will gain no public recognition or acknowledgment. To steal a line from the title of Alan Bennett’s last diary compilation, aren’t we all just, ‘keeping on keeping on’?
We even have a phrase for those roles that come without credit, praise, recognition, acclaim: ‘thankless tasks’, we call them. Yet if we know someone is doing a thankless task, perhaps we should be the one to begin to notice, thank them, say they are doing a great job. Sometimes the thankless task can masquerade as the easy option – like staying at home, remaining in a local community, just keeping going, and wondering to yourself, ‘Is this all?’. Seamus Heaney wrote a tribute to his brother, Hugh, who lived such a life.
‘Keeping Going’, by Seamus Heaney (last verse)
“My dear brother, you have good stamina.
You stay on where it happens. Your big tractor
Pulls up at the Diamond, you wave at people,
You shout and laugh about the revs, you keep
old roads open by driving on the new ones.
You called the piper’s sporrans whitewash brushes
And then dressed up and marched us through the kitchen,
But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes,
In the milking parlour, holding yourself up
Between two cows until your turn goes past,
Then coming to in the smell of dung again
And wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?
Then rubbing your eyes and seeing our old brush
Up on the byre door, and keeping going.”
We shouldn’t assume that people who look as though they have it ‘all together’ really do; that people who live a simple life and seek no credit wouldn’t be warmed if a little credit were to come their way. Maybe when you’ve shuffled off, it will be talked about: those tasks done quietly, in the background, keeping the whole show on the road. People do notice such roles, but what use is it thanking you after you have gone? Speak up.
‘Going Without Saying’, by Bernard O’Donoghue
(in memory of Joe Flynn)
“It is a great pity we don’t know
When the dead are going to die
So that, over a companionable
Drink, we could tell them
How much we liked them.
Happy the man who, dying, can
Place his hand on his heart and say:
‘At least I didn’t neglect to tell
The thrush how beautifully she sings.’”