Necessity of Gratitude
As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.
—President John F. Kennedy
Over the past few months, more and more people have mentioned to me how important they think teaching and practicing gratitude is, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and wondering what has changed or broken down in our communities that the response to gratitude often is surprise. I found the above quote while doing some Googling on the matter, and I think there’s an answer to be found in President Kennedy’s words. What if we were to live by our words of gratitude and be changed by the experiences we are thankful for? That really got me thinking about my own spiritual discipline of gratitude.
When I was younger, I wanted to donate my hair to Locks of Love but didn’t. Then, every time I began growing my hair out, I’d start to hate it and would cut it off before it was long enough to donate. Clearly, my desire wasn’t strong enough to overcome my hatred of having long hair. Then, I was sitting in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) one night after my girls were born. The NICU at 2 a.m. is a quiet place, and in all honesty, one of the safest places my children will ever sleep. I felt a lot of things sitting there at night, but mostly I felt gratitude. The next day while I was in the NICU, a doctor who was doing rounds with the residents stopped by one of my children’s incubators and went over her chart with them. I will never forget sitting and hearing the doctor teach. He started by asking if they knew that President Kennedy had a child that died shortly after childbirth. They all said “no,” and I also didn’t know this. He explained how devastating it was to the Kennedy family and to those who loved them. It was a big deal. He then pointed to my daughter and said that she was the same gestational age and suffering from the same condition as the Kennedy baby, yet my daughter would live a long and happy life because of the advances made in science in such a short period of time. I will never forget listening to that and feeling the sadness and gratitude that washed over me. In the NICU, I decided the least I could do was grow my hair out and hate it so I could donate it to Locks of Love. Last month, I sent my hair away with a note about how grateful I am for all those who love and care for children with cancer, who fight for them, and who study long and hard to help them. It was a small way of turning my gratitude into action and having my life changed for a little while because of a story about President Kennedy. (I also dropped some coins into my Blue Box out of gratitude that my hair is once again short!)
Perhaps the issue that we are facing is not a lack of gratitude but a lack of embodied gratitude. Thankfulness, when we really stop and pay attention to what we are grateful for, can be transformative. We often toss around the word “thanks” without much thought … I know that I say it often without remembering at the end of the day what I actually was thankful for. What if we really did pay attention to what we are thankful for, and then tried to do similar things for others? Are you thankful that a driver let you over on the highway? (I know I always am.) Then, remember that the next time someone else wants over! (I’m preaching to myself on this one.) Are you thankful that someone put in extra effort to make something special? Then, find a way to do that for someone else or for another event. Putting coins (or slips of paper) in our Blue Boxes is one way to remember, to embody thankfulness, to ensure that the good thing that happened will create a blessing elsewhere. But I challenge you to find ways when you give thanks to embody the gratitude and to give to others what has been given to you. I think maybe this is the way to grow gratitude in our day – to really live a life of thanks built on the foundation of the good things that have come our way.