Why Give Thanks?

November 19th, 2007

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Immunization.
The occupational hazard of Thanksgiving is giving thanks. It’s like Prayer Breakfasts – lots of food yet very little prayer. Is this bad? Be honest – what makes gratitude so special? Well, it might improve cardiovascular and immune functioning, save face, extend life and – get this – beat back the worst disease that humans face.

Let’s start with the worst disease and work backwards. Jesus entertained back-to-back conversations late in his life that underscored the goodness of gratitude. The first was with religious colleagues. The second was with a leper. Guess who got it right?

In the first exchange, Jesus had just finished painting a magnificent landscape of life in the kingdom.1 The disciples gush: "Give us more faith."2 Bulls eye, right? Wrong. If we look closely at the disciples’ demand, faith has become something like sipping sodas – and Jesus is their Cosmic Vending Machine. No one says thanks to a dispenser. After three years with the Savior, the disciples don’t realize that the privilege of following Christ has dulled to presumption. Enthusiasm has turned into gold-plated entitlement. "You don’t need more faith," said Jesus. "There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith. If you have a bare kernel of faith, say the size of a poppy seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, "Go jump in the lake," and it would do it."

Do it. Nike Jesus. Of course Christ doesn’t want us tossing trees in our neighbor’s pool. He wants followers who see faith as work and not a perk. Their presumptuous demand is reframed with a story about a humble servant merely doing what’s expected of him. "It’s the same with you. When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, "The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.""3

The best way to tell if we’ve pirouetted from privilege to presumption is to gauge the longitude and latitude of our gratitude. Gratitude shrinks when presumption swells. Presumption is the germ that carries the disease of pride. Pride, wrote C.S. Lewis, is the worst disease that humans face. "There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals is… Humility.4

Jesus’ second conversation is with a leper and this brings the lesson home. The leper is one of ten who ask Christ for mercy. Jesus tells them all to do something: "Go, show yourselves to the priests." They go and are all healed. Yet, only one came back, shouting his gratitude. "He kneeled at Jesus’ feet, so grateful. He couldn’t thank him enough – and he was a Samaritan. Jesus said, "Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?" Then he said to him, "Get up – on your way. Your faith has healed and saved you.""5

Saved him? From what? The leprosy of pride.

"I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder," wrote G.K. Chesterton. Abraham Lincoln said that by forty we have the face we deserve. Ungrateful people get grouchy faces, since the older we get, the harder it is to fill our hearts with wonder. Christmas can become crass and Thanksgiving nothing more than stuffing our faces with stuffing. Yada yada. Been there done that. Since nature abhors a vacuum, presumption plugs the crevices that wonder has vacated. Being thankful then becomes perfunctory.

Grateful people not only save face and ward off pride, they report higher levels of life satisfaction, greater energy and connections with other people.6 Gratitude might also improve an individual’s cardiovascular and immune functioning.7 It might help us live longer lives. In a fascinating study, Catholic nuns who expressed gratitude in their earlier years were found to live an average of up to ten years longer than their peers who were not as grateful. For those interested in this correlation between gratitude and growing old (and aging well), read Aging with Grace by Dr. David Snowdon.

Last, here’s a simple way to extend gratitude’s longitude and latitude: after the Thanksgiving prayer, add another element. My wife Kathy has a small clay cup that contains kernels of Indian corn. We pass it around every Thanksgiving and ask each person to take out two or three kernels. Then we ask everyone to replace the corn in the cup while sharing two or three things they are grateful for. One story of gratitude for every kernel. Some people find it corny (yes, pun intended). But it’s one way to save face while warding off the occupational hazard of Thanksgiving and the leprosy of pride.

Try it… and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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1 C.f. Luke 15-17:4
2 This story begins in Luke 17:5
3 Luke 17:7-10
4 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p.109
5 Luke 17:11-19
6 Emmons, R.A., and M. E. McCullough. "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: Experimental Studies of Gratitude and Subjective Well-being in Daily Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, (2003): 377-389
7 McCraty R., M. Atkinson, W. Tiller, G. Rein, and A.D. Watkins. "The Effects of Emotions on Short-term Power Spectrum Analysis of Heart Rate Variability." American Journal of Cardiology, 76, (1995): 1089-1093

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