Keep Giving Thanks, You Ungrateful Wretch
They’re so annoying. Give thanks in everything! the googoos say. Give thanks on Thanksgiving, that’s great, but you know what, we should give thanks all year round! Be thankful all the time, not just on Thanksgiving! Be a Thanksgiving person!
All that googoo cheerfulness makes me grumpy. Yet they’re not wrong. God has given us blessing upon blessing, and we don’t even see a lot of them. We’re more ungrateful than we realize, because we’re more blessed than we realize.
The googoos see the need. But they’re usually pretty useless at making it practical. Because it’s hard to keep giving thanks. A “thankful heart” isn’t enough. I have a painless way to do this at least once a day, perhaps two or three times.
Use the Grace, or Blessing, or Whatever You Call it
Use the grace, or blessing, or whatever you call it. The prayer you say at meals (or should), even in public. Or maybe especially in public, when it can witness to others.
My family and I use the classic form, with one addition: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty. Make us always mindful of the needs of others. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (The second sentence is the addition.)
When I pray it by myself, I tend to zip through it and sometimes say it almost as if it were one word. With real gratitude to God, but without being grateful for anything in particular. Except maybe the food, because it’s sitting in front of me.
First, Pay Attention
Here’s what I try to do. You can do this whatever kind of grace or blessing you say.
First, to say the grace quickly but with attention to each word. I try to remember the main thing I’m asking for (the Lord’s blessing) and of whom I’m asking it (the Lord). As I say “and these thy gifts,” I do two things. This express the truth that we have everything we have from God’s bounty.
I picture the food, which is the immediate reason I’m praying, as “about to receive” says. I don’t peek, because then I might get distracted. And I try to remember at least one of the gifts that brought me to enjoy this gift of food: a home to eat it in or a restaurant to go to, the family or friends I’m with, the money to pay for it, the people who grew it and prepared it and brought it to the grocery store, and if I’m out, the car to get to the place and the roads that lead to the place.
And other things, too, because seeing one thing to thank God for leads to seeing others. We get our food as a part of an amazing complex system, which comes to us as a gift. There’s no reason I in Pittsburgh should have fish and chips on Fridays, or guacamole or peanut butter or blueberries out of season. That I try to remember and give thanks for.
Second, I picture something else for which I’m thankful. Or someone. It may be the family or friends I’m with. It may be something or someone they remind me of. Being thankful for my friend Richard sitting across the table reminds me of my friends Mark or Rob or Wes, and they remind me of the man I don’t know well but whose company always cheers me and the woman whose goodness always moves me.
As with the first thing I do, thanking God for one thing leads me to thank him for other things. And more helpfully, to see how many things I’ve been given that I never before saw as gifts. We all have thousands of things for which we should thank God. Your big toe, for example. Like walking And hundreds of people we know personally to thank him for having brought into our lives.
Just thinking about my work, I can think of hundreds of gifts. Books and computers, the tools of my trade, which make me better at what I do. And heat so I can work without shivering. And light so I can work after dark. Editors bold enough to correct me and kind enough to encourage me. Readers who do the same. Writers who do what I tell them. And a wife who supports me in doing what I felt called to do.
And the more overtly pious gifts. A church we love. Good pastors. Ministries to support and join with. A beautiful building in which to worship. The forgiveness of sins and the life of the world to come.
I could keep going, but it’s a short prayer. And there’s a point at which my family or friends would wonder what’s wrong with me or the people in the restaurant would think I’m showing off how religious I am. And other things require my thanks. The point isn’t to think of a lot, but to think of something. Saying the grace this way can add just a couple seconds, when you get good at it.
The grace at meals gives me a way to thank God every day and a way to thank him for particular gifts. Not just a generic “Hey God, thanks for everything, you’re the best!” but a real and heart-opening thanks for this thing and that person. It helps me develop the habit of seeing the world around me as a gift and not as just the background or foundation I deserve. And it’s painless, if you’re already saying a grace.
David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. His previous article was Five Ways Not to Hate Each Other on Thanksgiving.