Cultivating Gratitude

Eddi van W./Flickr

By Sue Careless

Weather in November can be bleak in the Northern Hemisphere, but this is the month in which Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Canadians celebrated Thanksgiving six weeks earlier in the warm, golden glow of early October.

As Christians we know we need always to give thanks, but it can be hard when one considers current levels of household debt. This year the average American household has a total debt of more than $90,000, which includes households that live debt-free. The average household with debt owes more than $130,000, with $15,762 of that from credit cards alone, the consumer finance website NerdWallet reports.

All this can be discouraging, but St Paul, who experienced great suffering in his life, provides us with a model of contentment:

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. (Phil. 4:11-14, RSV)

Here are a couple of exercises that will encourage you to be grateful for what you do have and appreciate the kindness that has been extended to you.

First: On a sheet or two of paper (or your smartphone) list every room in your house or apartment. If you have a balcony, front or back porch, garden or garage, include them. Then walk around your property with your sheets on a clipboard and examine every space carefully. List for each room or area the items that were gifts to you or found objects that cost you nothing.

They may have been wedding gifts or birthday presents, or freebies left on the curbside. Include items crafted by relatives or friends, or plants grown by others from seed or bulbs, now flourishing as houseplants or garden blooms. Do you have art that has been painted or drawn or sculpted by others and then given to you as a gift? If you are a parent of young children, have people loaned or given you toys, baby clothes, or children’s books? Do you have clothes, jewelry, furniture, computer or sound equipment that has been given to you either new or secondhand? List them. You should include items you have received as an inheritance or bequest or items you have bought with money from an inheritance.

Estimate what each item is worth. For wedding gifts from decades ago, you might want to use their current replacement value. This is more art than science.

Your grand total may surprise you. It could be in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. This is not a figure you need to share with others outside your immediate family: others may not be as fortunate as you and you don’t want to incite jealously or provoke envy.

On the other hand, it could be helpful to someone else to learn how grateful you are for a specific item like Aunt Bessie’s old sofa, because it saved you nearly a thousand dollars that you could not afford and arrived just when your other couch collapsed. That God provided in the way he did could be an encouragement to someone else.

Second: Now create a separate list. This is for free services or other kindness people have shown you in the past year.

Do you have a neighbor who loans you a newspaper or magazine regularly? Does a relative loan you camping or sports equipment? Count free piano tuning or bike repairs by a relative or friend. Does someone give you or your children free tutoring? Do you receive occasional tickets to the theatre or sporting events? Are you invited to a friend’s cottage each summer for a weekend? Does a relative offer free babysitting or a friend eldercare? Have friends loaned you healthcare equipment? Have you been given free accommodation when traveling? Do you enjoy free room and/or board with family?

As I write this, one of my adult sons is loaning me his car while he travels abroad for two months. His car, unlike mine, has winter tires so I have just saved about $800 on winter tires. A neighbor is allowing us to store our summer car in his garage for free for these two months, a parking arrangement might normally cost $300 in Toronto. This same remarkable neighbor has loaned us his weekly copies of The Economist for more than 20 years and tunes our piano for free. We know we are truly blessed to have such an exceptional friend living nearby.

May these two exercises encourage you not only to appreciate what God has done for you through others but also encourage you to be more generous to others with your time, talents, and possessions.

Of course, we cannot put a price tag on the most priceless experiences in our lives: the smile of a child, the hug of a loved one, the reassurance of a friend and, as our Prayer Book reminds us, “our spiritual mercies in Christ Jesus.”

We can pray with the Welsh poet and Anglican priest George Herbert (1593-1633):

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more—a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart whose very pulse may be
Thy praise.

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