Gratitude and Its Expression 1

The topic of this series was prompted by a question from a congregant, who asked me to explore gratitude and
“how to handle or act on gratitude we have for people we don't know, such as our doctors' teachers or our teachers' teachers. Is there something we should do? Perhaps all we can do is pay it forward? Or simply accept this as a result of or proof of the interconnected web?”
What a wonderful topic and great questions.

Marriage has taught me that there are two sentences of two words each – four words in all – that are tremendously valuable tools for sustaining relationships. In fact, whether it’s one’s spouse or partner -- or a friend, a co-worker, a boss, an employee – or a store clerk – any relationship that I would like to go well or would like to sustain, these four words in two sentences are powerful help for relationships.

The words are “thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Let people know that you see the good, the helpful, in what they do. That needs to be said – and I know you know that – I know that – but I don’t say thank you enough. I’m reminding myself as much, or maybe more, as I’m reminding you.

Also let people know you accept responsibility. Apologize, as they say, early and often.

Give the credit and take the blame – you know, unless your lawyer advises otherwise. If you’re in a mess involving lawyers, that’s a different game. For the day-to-day business of getting along with people, “take the blame and give the credit” is a good rule of thumb. You, I thank. Me, a culpa. There are times when a more objective assessment of deservingness of praise or blame is called for, but those times are a lot rarer than we tend to think.

“Thank you,” and “I’m sorry” tell the other person you appreciate them, and you regret whatever part you had in straining the relationship. Those words say, "I care about this relationship."

Later on, I'll address the topic of forgiveness and apologizing. For now, let's look at gratitude.

Expressing thanks to specific people in our lives happens to be helpful for maintaining the relationship, and it helps them feel affirmed and appreciated. But expressing gratitude also has a function independent of facilitating specific relationships. If you’re feeling grateful for a beautiful day, you don’t have to be grateful to a person. You can just be appreciating the blue sky, the bright sun, and the fresh air.

In some circles this is controversial. There is a line of thought according to which gratitude must be directed toward some person or person-like entity – some being with intentions – and when you say thank you, you are thanking them for making the choice they did, when they could have chosen otherwise. On this traditional line of thought, it makes no sense to thank water for flowing because the water couldn’t have chosen otherwise. But what you can do is thank God for making water and rivers and the principles of physics. Gratitude for what people do is expressed to the people, and pretty much everything else is, on this line of thought, gratitude for the person-like entity who made things be that way. “I thank you god for most this amazing day,” as e.e. cummings said.

Suppose you say, “Thank you, universe," or, "Thank you, reality.” Does the “you” in “thank you” indicate that something vaguely person-like is receiving the gratitude? Is the universe, or reality, being anthropormorphized? Perhaps so, a little bit. But in a harmless -- indeed, helpful -- way.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
Next: Part 2
Photo by the author

No comments:

Post a Comment