In observation of Thanksgiving Day, I thought I'd re-post this with minor revisions...
My daughter brought home from kindergarten the announcement that her class was doing "gratefulness circles" and she thought she'd reproduce the idea around our dinner table by directing each of us 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. My parents could be right. Maybe my generation really is spoiled.
But 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.
A recent report from researchers studying the effects of gratefulness should give us pause. The study found, not surprisingly, that 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? Possibly the most basic reason is that gratefulness implies a transaction between two people, but we don't feel we really owe anyone our thanks. We have fewer and fewer relationships in which such a transaction where giving, receiving, and thanking is necessary. We are caught in the illusion that we don't need anyone else, we can make our own way, so we have no one to thank. 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 someone 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 giver and 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 we're connecting and creating bonds. They're getting it: 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. This is the real "circle of gratefulness."
But, you might say, what about people who have nothing to be grateful for? This is a legitimate question 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. They have gained a great wisdom: the ultimate failure of self-reliance and the need to rely on another, and the inadequacy of possessions to fulfill us compared to the sufficiency of God. Yes, some curse God for their state in life and fall into despair and resentment, but many recognize whatever evil that has brought them to where they are is not from God, and rather that God is their only lasting 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. And a tacit acceptance of God as some impersonal "force" or internal "feeling" or "idea" is not enough simply 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. Then let's take the next step, and give thanks.
I started writing these posts thinking of them as interruptions of grace in the ordinary and mundane events of life.