We’ve been sharing thoughts on gratitude this month. Today we’re exploring “What happens when ‘thank you’ becomes not just our continuous prayer but also our way of life?” I wish I could share with you my experiences as someone who has mastered thank you as my way of life, but I haven’t. Not even close.
I have been practicing gratitude more intentionally for the last few years. My partner Jamie introduced me to a gratitude game—one in which I remind myself how truly blessed my life is at those moments of frustration and annoyance—those times when I am feeling particularly un-blessed, ungrateful. It is a very good game, a good practice. I’d like to say I’m really good at it now, but I’m not. I guess that’s why they call it a practice. I know that’s one of the reasons I come to church. Being here, with all of you, helps me practice being my best self.
Our exploration of gratitude, though, has me thinking about the role of “thank you” in my life. When Meister Eckhart said, “If you can only manage one prayer in your life, and it is ‘thank you,’ it will suffice,” exactly WHO are you saying thank you to? Because it’s a prayer, I’m assuming he meant God. That makes sense when you are saying thank you for some great cosmic miracle—the incredible beauty of nature or the birth of a child. Thanking God doesn’t work for everyone, though, particularly the atheists among us.
Today, then, I want to talk about the more mundane, the quotidian events for which we are grateful. Take, for example, an omelet. I’m not talking about just any omelet, but the most amazing veggie omelet I had the other morning at Café Cubano. Hmm. I can taste it now—mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, garlic. This is an omelet to savor, which I was doing quite vocally. My dining partner also enjoyed his omelet, but he took his gratitude one step further, stopping the passing waiter to say, “Please tell the cook that this is one of the best omelets in Charlottesville.” I imagine the ensuing conversation between the waiter and cook, who might well have been grumbling about having to work on Thanksgiving morning, but who was cooking with great care and delicious results. At the very least, I imagine the compliment elicited a smile.
I can imagine her reaction because I’ve had it myself. When someone thanks me for doing something, especially for something I love to do, it reminds ME to be grateful. I think of the time a student said to me, “Ms. Philips, thank you for teaching us.” Really, a middle schooler said that. As you might imagine, this is one amazing kid, so my only response could be, “Thank you, it is an honor to teach you.” Which it really was. But his gratitude, and more especially his taking the time to share it with me, makes me want to be an even better teacher.
The same is true for the work I do in this church. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve filled a few roles in this church—serving on the board of trustees and a few other things. For the most part, these have not been thankless tasks. I’ve been stopped short after a meeting, a class, or a service—when one of you has come up to me and said thank you. I’ve especially appreciated those thank you’s that come at difficult times—when we’ve had to do the messy and hard work of being in community. The thing that I like most about those expressions of gratitude for what I do, though, is that they remind me how grateful I am. It truly is a gift to be able learn and grow within the embrace of this community.
“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.”—these words resonate deeply for me, because I know them to be true. (Pam Phillips)
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Thich Nhat Hanh – yes, another Tich Nhat Hanh reference, and I thought I’d get it in real early this time – tells the story of walking through the community in France where he lives and seeing a beautiful smile on a little boy who was also walking there. “You have a beautiful smile,” the monk said to the boy. “Thank you,” the boy said to the monk. But reflecting on it later, Tich Nhat Hanh decided that the little boy shouldn’t have said, “thank you.” He should have said, “you’re welcome.” Because the smile had been a gift to him.
You know those visual tricks where the foreground and the background have been so designed that if you focus on one you see one thing and if you focus on the other you see something else? There’s the two faces looking at each other and a candle stick or a goblet in between them. There’s the old hawk-nosed woman with a headscarf who’s a vital young woman in a fur wrap if you change your focus.
What if giving and receiving were like this, too? What if gratitude and generosity were really the same thing with the difference being merely a difference in focus?
I want to take what might seem an odd tack here, but bear with me. Okay?
Over the years I’ve heard people complain about God. Oh boy have I heard people complain about God. Lots of the folks who find their way to Unitarian Universalist churches – not all, of course, but quite a large number – have some serious issues with the religious tradition in which they were raised.
And one of the things that a lot of these folks have a problem with is the idea that God – if there were such a thing – would require people to be good because they were afraid of being punished if they were bad. That kind of God – the one that “puts the fear of God into you” – just doesn’t make sense to these folks. And being good out of fear of what’ll happen to you if you’re bad just doesn’t seem right.
This is the theme of Anthony Burgess’ fantastic 1961 novel A Clockwork Orange and the film adaptation Stanley Kubrick made ten years later. For those who aren’t familiar with them, the main character, Alex, is the leader of a teen gang who engage in petty crimes and “ultra-violence.” While in prison he is subjected to an extreme form of aversion therapy that makes him virtually incapable of any kind of negative behavior. The prison chaplain reflects that this makes Alex’s apparent newfound goodness nothing more than a mechanistic response, like a clockwork orange that would look like the delicious fruit but would in reality be nothing more than a machine. The book is, among other things, a meditation on the question of whether one is truly good if she or he is only good out of a fear of what will happen if they’re bad.
My only problem with this critique of God is that I don’t believe that this is really what God is all about. Oh, for sure, there are people who’ll tell you that this is what God is like. There are even churches that’ll teach this, but I don’t believe that this is what the idea of God is all about.
My reading – and I know that I’m not alone in this – is that, far from doing good out of fear of punishment, we’re supposed to look at the world we live in, to recognize all of the miraculously beautiful things that surround us – from sunsets, to smiling children who say “thank you,” to really great omelets, to great music in church on Sunday morning – and that we’re to respond to all of these gifts by giving gifts of our own. It is our response to an awareness of how truly blessed we are – not a fear of how punished we might be – that is supposed to generate our goodness, our own giving.
From you I receive, to you I give . . . Giving and receiving intertwined. Gift and gratitude inseparable.
Like Pam, my gratitude practice is spotty at best. Still, if I were to wait until I had perfected this practice before moving on to the next, well, then I don’t expect that I’d be moving on any time soon. Yet the question comes up for many of us – what comes next? After gratitude, then what? Because it seems clear that if all we do is sit around and feel grateful for all the good things in our lives and in the world that that’d be a pretty dangerous practice. After all, can’t you imagine that a continual focus on the all the good things in your life might well just lead to a sort of pride? A sense of entitlement? Of “more grateful than thou?” (Come on, we know ourselves here; let’s be honest – it’s possible, right?)
That’s probably why pretty much all of the religious traditions I know anything about say that the remedy to such a take-over by pride is to respond to gratitude with generosity. “Wow! I’ve been given so much! What can I give in return? How can I share from my bounty?”
I’m jumping the gun a bit on our upcoming pledge campaign, I know, but I really can’t help myself because this is what I think those things are all about. Oh, I’m sure we’ll be talking about numbers and needs – how much money the church needs to keep doing this and that – but I really don’t think that that’s why we should engage in a pledge drive each year. If that were our real motivation then we’d be no different than NPR – “you know you listen so why not chip in?”
But just like everything else we do here I think that this, too, should be part of the tools and tips for spiritual practice that we offer our members. The real question isn’t “how much has the cost of copier paper gone up in recent years?” or “how badly do we need increases in staffing or space?” but, “how grateful am I for what TJMC has brought into my life? How grateful am I for these people and these experiences?”
The same is true of the Leadership Development Committee’s survey that they gave out last week and that’s in the Order of Service again this week. It’s not really about “we have these holes in our leadership roster and need people to fill them.” It’s really about offering each of us a myriad of opportunities to find ways to move our gratitude into generosity.
From you I receive, to you I give . . . Giving and receiving intertwined. Gift and gratitude inseparable. “Thank you” and “you’re welcome” as mirror images.
Actually, this reminds me of something that one of my friends in Germany said tome. She was always astounded that we, here, would respond to someone saying “thank you” with the words “you’re welcome.” In German, the response to “Danke” is “Bitte” which, I’ve been told, really means “please.” So really the mirror might be “thank you” and “please” – a different feel.
And the really cool thing is that when our response to a gift – the “thank you,” an act of receiving – is “please” – an invitation – then we magnify the spiritual benefits of our gratitude. Some of the most grateful people are those who give much, whether they themselves have much. Generosity increases gratitude.
And, of course, if we practice rightly, gratitude increases generosity. From you I receive to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.
The truth is that we can’t have one without the other. Gratitude without generosity begets pride; generosity without gratitude begets paternalism. But the two of them together? That’s the key to creating the Beloved Community we dream about.Print this post