Page 2 of the syllabus began: "Write a letter of gratitude to someone you never adequately thanked."
It seemed a curious assignment for graduate-level work, especially for the amount of credit it was worth. No reading, no research, nothing more than our own emotions and experiences. There were a few requirements for the letter, but all in all, the assignment was simple: Give thanks.
The letters weren't going to be shared with the class. They would be submitted directly to the professor along with a reflection on the process of writing, its connection to course material, and its personal impact on you. It was your choice if you wanted to actually mail the letter.
"Don't just do this assignment for the grade," the professor said as she explained the criteria of the assignment. "Make it count."
As she spoke, you could feel the mood of the room change. True thanksgiving invites us to a place of vulnerability and deep reflection. Who would you thank if given the chance? Who are the people — family, friends, mentors, strangers, estranged acquaintances — you never adequately thanked for the impact they had on your life?
These questions are anything but trivial. They require deep reflection, yet the people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude often come to mind quickly. Sometimes, we might wonder why a particular person comes to mind; other times, we know the deep love and gratitude we have for an individual and feel compelled to put that gratitude into gracious words or actions. Still other times we might resist giving thanks to someone for gifts because of a past experience of hurt or challenge. Whatever the case, the act and process of thanksgiving reveals to us that vulnerability lies at the heart of gratitude.
My own mind went to an experience of great growth in my life and the mentor who guided me through it. At the time we worked together, I was anything but thankful for the experience. I felt challenged and stretched, pushed and invited to vulnerability. It was only after the fact that gratitude began to sprout in my consciousness as the gifts of our time together began to become apparent in my life. Years later, as I sat listening to my professor explain the task at hand, I knew who I needed to write to.
There is a certain give-and-take to gratitude. I give thanks because I have received a gift. And while the gifts we receive are many and varied, the more we practice thanksgiving, the more we find that part and parcel to the gifts we receive is the gift of gratitude itself.
Gratitude is a gift that invites us deeper into relationship. "When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver," Br. David Steindl-Rast writes in his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. That admission of dependence is key to practicing gratitude. When we find thanksgiving difficult, it is often because we don't want to admit or acknowledge that the gifts we possess are not solely ours; they come from the example and offerings of others, are rooted in the heart of God, and must be offered, in turn, to others.
Understanding gratitude as a graced gift invites us to relinquish control and to trust in God. As gifted and beloved of God, we discover we are being called to flourish not through passive acceptance, but active embrace of the giftedness of our lives. This embrace allows us to freely embrace who we are, to celebrate the giftedness of others without feeling threatened, and to stand in awe of beauty in the world. It makes life about more than just us and, thus, makes the life we lead an opportunity for flourishing.
We flourish because, in gratitude, we are free — free to be ourselves and free to engage the world with love. This does not rule out suffering or pain, but it does change our perspective on these experiences and allows us to work in and with them. The darkness and difficulty that pervade our lives and society these days can grate on our very being. Though we are worn down and weary, grated nerves require a grateful heart. Gratitude does not guarantee perfect peace, but to be grateful and find reasons to give thanks can dispel the darkness in the moments we need hope most.
To be messengers of such hope is our call as people of faith. We must be prophets grounded in gratitude, not blind to lived realities of pain and desolation but pointing to the God-moments in our midst and giving thanks to the One who dwells with us and among us. If we are able to do this, the darkness will not be so dark. Despair will not prevail. Instead, the light of thanksgiving will ignite our lives and shine in the world.
When we honestly answer the question for what and whom we give thanks, we begin that ignition. Our lives, we find, are bigger than our selves or our own self-interest. We are gifted with communities and relationships that call us to more. Those communities and relationships are strengthened by bonds of mutual gratitude. Whenever we are able to stop and appreciate the gifts they cultivate in us, we strengthen the whole. This requires intentionally setting time and space aside to name, acknowledge, feel and pray with the gratitude that we experience. It means being and constantly becoming vulnerable.
As I finished my letter for class, I found myself writing with tears in my eyes. Each line was a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifts given and the one who gave them. I gave thanks not only for my mentor and the lessons I had learned, but also for the very ability to give thanks. Years later, beyond all else, that is the lesson I still carry with me.
This life is too precious not to give thanks, so, whatever you do, make it count.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]