Gratitude — a Risky Business

November is the month of Thanksgiving. We’ve exorcised our Halloween personas and we’re suspended between round, orange jack o’ lanterns and round, red Santas. Halloween universally permeates the various religions, but then in December we splinter off into our assorted winter celebrations – Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Advent/Christmas, etc., and, trumping them all, the secular holiday of mall mania.

But for just a brief breath of time – perhaps just for a moment as we sit suspended in time before a Thanksgiving feast – we are free of all of the religious differentiation long enough to be grateful.

But do we really “give thanks”? Or perhaps we just simply “appreciate.” My guess is that most of our Thanksgivings are really just Happy Meals writ large. We’re oh-so-glad for the good things we have. We’re happy to feast and to relax and to gather.

But all of that is different from giving thanks. To “give thanks,” to be genuinely grateful, implies a very risky attitude.

Thanksgiving implies that something was freely given to me, something that I did not earn and that I do not have an inherent right to. We say “thank you” for gifts, and for the thoughtfulness and generosity of someone who chooses to give.

And most of us have lived long enough to learn, painfully, that gifts don’t always remain. Guarantees are for vacuum cleaners and flat screen televisions. The best gifts in life – health, children, peace, community – don’t come with guarantees. We hope and pray that these gifts continue to be given.

If something is gift, it can be given or it can not be given. And this makes me very uncomfortable. There are any number of things I have been given that must not be taken away from me. Must not. They are mine. Mine, I tell you.

And when I get like that, I cannot be grateful. Not really. To give thanks for anything is to say to someone, somewhere, “You have given this to me. Thank you. You have been kind and generous.” This is a fearful thing. I don’t want to think about the possibility that the most precious things I have rely on someone else’s kindness and generosity. And so I clench my hands and hide them behind my back.

For many in our culture, gratitude has been replaced with a landscape of rights. If it is a right, an entitlement, an expectation, there’s no room for gratitude. And by golly, there will be hell to pay if I don’t get it, or if it’s taken away. I’m robbed. In fact, gratitude itself has become demeaning for many.

To live with your hands open, not clenched, means the gift rests there lightly. Today I was given many good things, but they are daily given and daily received. Genuine thanksgiving demands open hands, into which things can be placed, or not.

This feels perilous. It feels exposed. It makes me a beggar, waiting with empty hands for another’s blessing. To give thanks is not to rest secure in plenty or wallow in abundance; it is to wait in humility for the daily grace that provides all that really matters in life.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.


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