Remembering to Give Thanks
Several years ago, there was a successful businessman who reflected on his life and decided to write to all the people who had been influential in helping him become who he was.
His fourth grade teacher quickly came to mind because she always insisted that he and his classmates strive for excellence in every endeavor. She pounded it into her students, be it regarding homework, tests or class projects. So he sent her a thank-you note.
One day, a couple of months later, he received a reply from his former teacher. She apologized for not replying sooner, but after sixty years of teaching, she had moved in with her daughter, out of state, and so it had taken some time for the thank you note to get to her. She told him how thankful she was to have received his card and how it cheered her up to find out he had learned his lessons in excellence. She went on to say that after all those years of teaching, this was the first thank you note she had ever received, and how grateful she was that he had taken time to remember.
Earlier this year I was on vacation in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. In a store an older woman (I think she was a grandmother) was buying a toy for a young boy. The boy’s mother immediately asked the boy, “Now what do you say?” Saying thank you is a lesson that many of us learned early in life, yet for some reason, many of us get out of the habit.
That reminded me of a story I read about a wonderful elderly gentleman who would, from time to time, stop in an antique shop with one item or another that he wanted to see if it was good enough for them to sell. The couple who ran the store found the man delightful, with a twinkle in his eye and wonderful stories about how life used to be years ago. After he left, the couple acknowledged how much they appreciated his visits, and they resolved to tell him so the next time he came in. A few months later, it happened that the daughter of the man came in, introduced herself and explained who she was. The couple who ran the store told her about how much they had enjoyed her father’s visits over the years, and how grateful they were for his cheerful disposition. The daughter explained that her father had died recently, that he was kind of depressed, and that he would have enjoyed knowing how much the couple cared about him. In this case, it was now too late.
I read an article in a psychology magazine that focused on a technique used by many therapists to deal with people when they are feeling depressed. They ask their patients to keep what they call a “gratitude journal”—each and every day writing down five to ten things that they were thankful for. The idea behind the journal was that, the more people focused on the positive, things that they probably took for granted, their outlook would begin to change. If a person is grateful and is aware of reasons for which to give thanks, then there is less room for self-pity, resentment or bitterness.
The story of the ten lepers in today’s gospel is interesting, not just because only one in ten thought of giving thanks, but also due to the person’s identity. Jesus notes that he was a foreigner, specifically a Samaritan. The Samaritans were despised by the people of Israel for both religious and political reasons. How interesting, then, that the one they probably least expected to do the right thing is precisely the one who returns, full of gratitude and wanting to praise the God who had blessed him.
Stories like these make me want to analyze my own attitude: is it a pity-party for all the things that go wrong, or all the ways someone has it better or easier than I do—or an attitude of gratitude for blessings I probably overlook or take for granted? Maybe we all should start a gratitude journal.