The Lost Art of Gratitude
Every generation thinks the one coming after it is "spoiled." The folks of my father's generation, who went through the Great Depression, and in some cases lost whatever they had, thought my generation didn't know how to go without. Some call the Millennial Generation the "entitled generation," i.e. feeling deserving of what they want. Blame it on too much of a good thing, too much automation, or the basic decay of human character. We could all wear the label "dissatisfied and entitled" at our worst moments. We want what we want without delay.
My daughter brought home from kindergarten the announcement that her class was doing "gratefulness circles" and she directed each of us around the dinner table to name what we were grateful for. I have to admit, I had to search for a few embarrassing seconds. It didn't come automatically.
A recent report from researchers studying the effects of gratefulness in people's lives, not surprisingly, found those who were more grateful experienced less stress, less anger, and more satisfaction in life. Then why don't we practice gratefulness more often?
Why is it so difficult to simply say, "Thank you" and really mean it? Gratefulness implies a transaction between two people. But more and more, we have fewer and fewer relationships where we feel such a transaction is necessary. We are increasingly caught in the illusion we can live and act independently, make our own way, and we have no one to thank because we can take care of ourselves. Think of your daily activities. One could potentially go days, weeks, or months without any personal transactions, and sadly some do. Automated checkout's substitute for real people everywhere. The person is removed to a remote and obscure accounting office, where lists of transactions flicker across computer screens.
Gratefulness implies connections to a giver. Gratefulness circles, as my daughter engaged in at school, are a great start, but to simply say "I'm grateful for X" without addressing that thanks to anyone is simply a self-enrichment gimmick. It's not real.
If I say, "I'm grateful for my health, or my home, or a beautiful environment, or my job, or my family" I'm only half way there. Who am I thanking? Myself? The thought should be self-evidently ludicrous. And thanking good fortune or the universe defies the logic of the words, "thank you." Who's "you"? Gratitude by definition requires a recipient. If we cannot acknowledge a giver, our thanks are turned inward and our gratefulness is virtually meaningless. Some of the most beautiful words from my kids are, "Thank you, daddy," because it means they're getting it. They know how it works: giving and receiving and the acknowledgement.
Gratefulness is a most basic human sentiment and, as even the research indicates, it is one of our most healthy virtues. The beautiful thing is that gratitude breeds giving. Those who are most grateful are often also the most giving. Thus, the "circle of gratefulness" is complete.
But, you might say, what about people who have nothing to be grateful for? This question is understandable for people suffering crises and great loss. The surprising truth, however, is that these people are often the ones who most discover gratefulness in their lives, and many discover that they have no one to thank, least of all themselves, for their lives, but they thank God. How odd, eh? Yes, some curse God for their state in life, but many recognize whatever evil that has brought them to where they are is not from God, and rather that God is their only solace, and for that they are grateful.
To me, gratefulness has been one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and the reality of gratefulness is one reason I cannot conceive of a world without a personal God. A tacit acceptance of God as some impersonal "force" or internal "feeling" or "idea" is not enough because a force cannot give me anything or receive my thanks.
Gratefulness is embedded in our created-ness, and a personal relationship with our Creator is the core of faith and life. From the beginning, God has been The Giver and Source of all things by establishing creation with all its laws and wonders. And placing himself in the middle of his creation is his greatest gift of all. So the "you" of thanks is very near. Be grateful, yes, and give thanks.