Gratitude, I read long ago, is the first spiritual impulse, a spontaneous “thank-you” to the universe. Jane Goodall reports that even chimpanzees dance with delight at the sight of a waterfall. Our ancestors in faith teach us in Scripture: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful” (Colossians 3:15); “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
I suspect that all of us treasure moments and memories that surprised us with impulsive joy. Such moments are gifts of grace, unearned and unsought. But life is also filled with quieter joys, subtler moments and glimpses we might miss unless we’re looking. Today I want to share the story of how I learned to look, and to encourage you to help your children look, too. I wish I had begun this practice when my own children were young, because simply by looking for blessings, we are blessed.
A memory from my last year of teaching: Sandwiched between gray snow and a mud-colored sky, I sat in the car and watched colleagues trudge by, heads bent against the March wind, shoulders hunched under the weight of books and papers. Downing the last of my coffee, I looked at the list on my lap:
- upside down cat, purring through meditation
- lamb and lentil soup
- softening silhouettes of tree branches
- first worms of spring
Only four. I needed one more, one more thing for which I’d been grateful over the past 24 hours. As I read through the list again, I was caught by the worms I’d seen on my morning walk, reminding me of Marilyn’s exuberant pronouncement: “I can’t wait till it’s spring, when there’ll be bats in the air and worms in the ground!”
Marilyn was an Animal Science major, finishing her degree back in 1969 while I was finishing mine in English. We shared a love of books and animals and fishing, and the first worms of spring always reawaken memories of those years. And suddenly I knew the last item:
5. the gift of friendship
I tucked the list into my briefcase and prepared to face the day.
I still have that small list, along with literally thousands of others from eleven years of keeping track. It’s quite a collection of memories.
During the eleven years I practiced intentional gratitude, I was never sure if my ongoing morning ritual “armed” me for the day or “opened” me to it, but I do know that it made a difference: I carried less resentment, less anger, even less fear. As e. e. cummings wrote, I found that “the eyes of my eyes were opened” once I began to scavenge the days for gratefulness, for what was good.
I’ll be honest here: left to my own devices, I probably would have given up the practice after a year or so and fallen back into grumpier ways. What kept me going for those eleven years was sharing my daily gratitude list with a colleague.
Every school day – literally every day; we never missed one – the two of us managed to find one another in the momentary lull before students arrived so we could share what was on our lists.
Our lists included everything from the color of dawn to matters of social justice, from our families or our cats to a great student essay, food and books and birds, kindness and the texture of a wool blanket – and if we could think of nothing else, we gave ourselves permission to start our list with “a place to live, work to do, food on the table….” Over time, we discovered that by having to look for “things for which to be grateful,” we became more attuned to beauty, to goodness, to possibilities, to hope. Instead of waiting for the next shoe to drop, we watched for the next blessing.
This, it seems to me, would be a lovely habit to instill in a child, this business of being on the lookout for “things for which to be grateful” – for blessings. At our Family Service on Sunday morning, we always ask everyone what they might like to thank God for, and the children always have answers: an uncle who got a job, their cat or dog, a chance to ride horses, Spiderman, their mom or dad, ice cream.
Children already have the impulse to be grateful. What if we cultivated it? What if we all shared gratitude lists at home, day by day, for eleven years – or a lifetime together?
How do you cultivate gratitude in your family?