Give thanks to the Lord,
for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Every year just before or after New Year’s Day my husband and I plan a special date. We go out to lunch or dinner and sit together for some time compiling a gratitude list for the year that is about to end. We have been doing this for more than a decade. Typically we end up with a list of seventy to eighty items for which we are grateful.
We don’t do this because it is expected of us. We don’t do this to impress anyone. We write a year-end gratitude list because this simple tradition does something powerful and wonderful in us. In fact, it is such a gift to us to write these lists that we look forward to this particular date probably more than any other date we have all year long.
Expressing gratitude is a simple thing to do. It is also a powerful thing to do. Whether we are saying “thank you” to God or to others, gratitude changes something inside us. Receiving the good gifts we are being given each day is an act of humility. It opens our eyes and our hearts to receive what we are being given.
For many years I found it very difficult to receive compliments or affirmations. I dismissed anything positive that might be said to me. I would avoid eye contact and wave people and their kind words away. At some point, however, I decided to actively change the way I responded to peoples’ gifts of words to me. I started making an effort to stop myself from dismissing comments or from looking away. Instead, I began to look the person in the eye as they offered me a compliment or affirmation and to respond with two simple words: “Thank you.” I decided that I didn’t have to believe them or even enjoy the experience. It was my job to look them in the eyes and say “Thank you”.
As I put this into practice I began to notice a couple of things happening to me. The first thing I noticed was that I was beginning to take in the gifts that others were offering me. I was beginning to feel differently about myself. It was not what we sometimes fear. I did not develop an over-inflated ego. Instead, I began to develop an awareness that I was seen and heard and valued—that I was loved.
The second thing I noticed was that the people who were offering me compliments or affirmations wanted to give me a gift. They wanted to offer me a blessing. I began to see these people more clearly whether they were strangers or close friends. As I received what they were giving me, I was able to see them and their kindness and beauty more clearly.
Both of these things changed me deeply. I became more present, more engaged, more available, more connected with others. I became more aware of being loved and valued and more capable of loving and valuing others. That is a lot to receive from the simple act of saying thank you.
But there is more. Expressing gratitude also leads to the experience of joy. Joy is often a direct outcome of expressions of gratitude. It is no wonder my husband and I look forward to our end-of-the-year-date.
But what about when life is difficult? What about those times when we are afraid or anxious or filled with grief? What role does expressing gratitude have then? I have found that it is helpful to express gratitude even in the middle of life’s most difficult times. I am not saying that expressing gratitude is all we need to express at these times. Nor am I saying that expressing gratitude is some kind of magic cure-all in times when things are difficult. But expressing gratitude in the midst of life’s difficulties is like letting a beam of light into a dark room. It helps us see that even in the hard times, we are being given gifts, we are being helped, we are loved. And that is a lot to see.
Seventeen days after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I pulled an unused journal off my shelf and started to write prayers of gratitude. Already I could see that I was being given more gifts than I could keep track of. Gifts of support and love. Gifts of new perspectives. Gifts of deeper honesty and humility. Gifts of unexpected peace.
Gratitude sometimes begins with noticing things we don’t always notice. The breath we draw. The body we rely on. The taste and texture of the food we eat. Each helper that comes into our lives in our times of need. The particular gifts they each bring. The places where our hearts are softening and becoming tender and open. The tears and the laughter we experience and share. The sacredness of it all. The presence of God in us, with us, in others around us.
Many of us unknowingly look away from the gifts being given to us, much like I once looked away when people offered me a compliment or an affirmation. This turning away from a gift is often the result of secretly believing that we do not deserve what we are being given. The gift we are being given does not match our internal sense of ourselves as unworthy to receive good gifts. But receiving good gifts is not about deserving something. Does an infant deserve our love and care? Of course. Even though an infant cannot do anything to earn this love? Of course. So when and how do we grow out of deserving love and care? We do not. We are valued. We are loved. Always.
When you don’t know what to do…express gratitude.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. Make a gratitude list, acknowledging the gifts you have been given in this time of difficulty.
2. What thoughts and feelings do you have as you look at this list?