When you were young did your mother sit you down after Christmas and tell you it was time to write thank you notes for your Christmas presents? Did you hate it when she did that? Me too.
It's not that I lacked gratitude. I was almost always genuinely pleased with what had come in the way of gifts and was certainly happy and thankful for them. But something about being sat down and made to write about my gratitude was really tough, and I resisted it with all my strength. Come to think of it, being made to express gratitude in any way was not something that filled my heart with joy ("Say thank you to Aunt Sarah." "Awwwww, Mom.")
Obviously this isn't confined to me. I watch kids being trained and realize that this is a universal dilemma. Nor is it confined to children. A friend of mine is a parish priest in a sizable and very active parish. The congregation enjoys liturgy and does it well. They participate enthusiastically in the Prayers of the People each week. Every anguish of the world, every pain of their friends, every political or social injustice is brought before God and named as the Prayer goes on. And then, just at the end, comes what my friend refers to as "the most embarrassing moment of the week" when the person leading the Prayer says: "And now let us give thanks for all God's goodness to us." And the church falls silent. Nothing is said. No one gives thanks. Hello???? Is anyone out there grateful?
This is on my mind at this particular time because, of course, this is the time of the year when thankfulness is required. This is the time when people have been particularly generous to us, sometimes astoundingly so. Do I feel grateful? You bet. This is a community that really does operate on faith. We have no endowment (yet - I'm working on that), we have no large capital funds. We charge less for people to stay in the Guesthouse than it costs us to house them. Where would we be if people weren't generous? Many, many people give to us, especially at this time of the year, in gratitude for what they have found here, and because of that we can be here in 2008 as well. Am I grateful for that? I sure am. So do I feel like sitting down and writing letters that express my gratitude? Now I have asked the really embarrassing question.
Where is my mother when I really need her? She would make me sit down and do this.
In fact, when I actually sit down and write to people and tell them of our gratitude for their generosity, I almost always have a wonderful time. I love letting my gratitude out. I am truly awed by the commitment of our friends to our ministry here, and telling them of that is often pure joy. As I write those letters I smile, I laugh, I get teary. When I'm done I feel great satisfaction. It really does feel right. Then the next day I have more notes to write and I have to call on my mother and force myself all over again to sit down and write.
Sigh. What is all this about? Why is there this resistance? What keeps my gratitude from bursting through at every minute? It could, but it doesn't. Why?
Regular readers of this column will I know that, like many writers, I use questions as a set-up. I ask a question like I just did, as though I didn't know the answer, and then I proceed to deliver the answer. It's a rhetorical device. But this week it was more than that. When I first thought about this dilemma earlier in the week and knew I wanted to write about it, I asked that question of myself. What is the reason for this resistance? And I had no answer. I didn't know. I couldn't tell what my solution was and I didn't know why I didn't know. All I knew was that there was this big resistance to letting my gratitude out on paper.
So I had to do the only thing I know how to do, and that's just to feel the resistance. Let it be there, don't judge it, don't try to push it away, let it have its voice, let it say what it needs to say.
This isn't always easy to do, but having practiced this for a number of years now, I know that it can often be enlightening, and so it happened this week. I listened, I sat, I attended. The answer came in the form of a feeling; a feeling that I don't want to be this vulnerable. It's too scary.
How interesting! I would never have thought of this in connection with this particular issue. But when I think of sitting down and writing of my gratitude I realize that I do have to make myself vulnerable. I, after all, am not in charge of this situation. These gifts came because someone else decided to be generous. I need to meet that generosity with gratitude - or rather, the gratitude is there, I just need to tell them of it. And to be honest about it, I need to write about my feeling of gratitude at a deeper level than I usually let myself think of it or feel it. To write what I really feel about how grateful we are and how important this is for us and the future of this place and how deeply I value the ways in which people care for us, all of this is difficult. I've already hinted at why this is so; it's hard to write this stuff because it's hard to let myself feel this stuff. This place isn't here because of me and my efforts, however skillful they may be. It's here because of God's goodness and because a lot of people care about us. I find it hard to feel - to really feel - that. At base I guess I'm like a lot of other guys: I am a lot better at loving than at letting myself be loved. And I'm a whole lot better at showing love than in writing someone about how it feels to be valued and loved.
I don't think I've come to the end of this yet. This is just the first level of what my resistance had to say. But it gives me a handle of why this whole thing is so troublesome. And ok, maybe this is such a difficult thing to do because something about it scares me. Well, I'm a big boy now, I can walk through that. And maybe having done this particular bit of work will help me the next time.
And I also think this ties in with what I was writing last week about being generous. Generosity and gratitude are both attitudes that come with practice. Making them part of my practice will be important. I have read from time to time of the real power that is turned loose in the lives of people who have learned to live gratefully, who have learned how to receive each moment with thanks. It rings true to me and I know at a deep level that it certainly is true. To practice it: ah, now, that is the thing.