My father-in-law, Jasper, was not known to be disclosing about feelings or reflections, so it came as a surprise when he asked me a question two weeks before his death at 91 years old. In doing so, he showed a side of himself that inadvertently showed a side of me. That was 12 years ago this month, and my husband, David, and I have been talking about the conversation I had with his father ever since.
In January 2009, Jasper was then the oldest man living in his rural village in North Carolina. He was not dying or even ill when we sat together companionably in the sunroom of his home. Without preamble he asked me, “Dona, why do you think God has me living so long?”
I did not answer, thinking the question was rhetorical or a springboard to talk about what he was thinking. I was wrong.
“Dona, why have I lived so long?”
A question which he expected me to have an answer. But who can ever know such a thing? I sent up a quick silent prayer that I might at least say something meaningful. But I was unprepared and therefore flustered by the significance of the moment. I stammered out something about his wife needing his companionship and presence because she loved him. Though true, I did not feel good about my answer.
After a pause, my father-in-law said, “I have a lot to be thankful for. I have been blessed. I just wish that I had been more thankful earlier in my life.”
It was then and only then that I had an answer to offer.
“Maybe God has been waiting for you to come to that realization; to be thankful to him for what He has given you throughout your life.”
That was our last conversation.
My father-in-law was a very responsible and accomplished man. If I can be forgiven for putting words in his mouth, he might say that he got caught up in the doings of business, family, civic responsibilities, and whatever else needed to be done to the extent that he neglected looking back and appreciating the gifts that came his way.
My neglect of gratitude was not so different from my father-in-law’s. As I wrote in an earlier post (I like the New Metastatic Me), I once acted as if I would live forever. Given that I was going to live forever, issues small and big needed to be dealt with urgently, intentionally, and continually until there was resolution. Too much chronic doing and too much worrying about what else needed to be done was set in motion by an unconscious attitude that things needed to go my way to make this long, long, long life I was destined for enjoyable and to my liking. A spirit of gratitude was being squeezed out of my life from a lack of reflection.
Why don’t we stop and be grateful before we face a life-threatening event (me) or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan (my father-n-law)?
What is Gratitude?
Harvard Medical School publishes a very layperson-accessible newsletter on current research in human health and wellbeing. In Praise of Gratitude, Harvard Health researchers noted that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity. More specifically and functionally, gratitude is:
Gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.
Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”
Drawing from that helpful description, my working definition of gratitude is:
The act of recognizing and reflecting on a gift one does not deserve.
And finally, the root word of gratitude is gratia (Latin) or grace. The Bible describes grace as the unmerited favor of God towards you and me.
The Practice of Gratitude
Gratitude is to be deliberately practiced and cultivated.
Within the Harvard Health article there are suggestions for the practice of gratitude. I recommend you read them. But within their list is an omission. Who should I be thanking when there is nobody to thank?
I can write my thank you notes to people who have blessed me or simply thank them in person but who do I thank for peace or joy or love? Who do I thank when I am “forest bathing” and the natural environment overwhelms me with its beauty?
I am thankful for the many who have blessed me and to them words of gratitude are owed but there are so many benefits I receive that are not people initiated. Who do I thank for the seasons’ beautiful effects on nature? Who do I directly thank for warm showers, the fresh beautiful faces of children, the convenience and comfort that my resources afford me, or family and friends that delight me? Unless there is a cosmic personally invested Creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness or gratitude loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning.
In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:18
Get out and look at the wonder of creation. Be in awe and praise the cosmic Creator whose penchant for beauty is beyond comparison. Take time to be present to notice what delights you and benefits you and then thank God for his provision of great and small things . It will begin to transform you into a more loving and generous person. It will bring you closer to the Almighty One that loves you and rejoices when you are thanking him for in thanking Him that we begin to paradoxically release our grip on the things of this world and begin to set our affections on transcendent things which in turn blesses everyone.
Thank you, dear readers and friends who have shown me extraordinary kindness and love in reading my posts, commenting, or reaching out with texts, letters, and calls.