The practice of “thank you”

By Donald Schell

I wanted to write about a practice of gratitude, a new daily routine that I’m hoping to make as habitual as flossing my teeth. No, more than wanted to, I guess I am beginning to write about it. I’ll get to the problem in a moment.

The practice is new for me. For the past two weeks each night after I set the alarm and just before putting my bedside light out, I’ve journaled a short litany of specific “thank you’s.” Literally I begin each night’s journal page – “thank you God for…” and then simply make a new list, thank you’s for eight or ten specific things I’ve experienced or done or seen that day. I’m looking to remember that my life is blest, that all life is blest.

My inspiration for the practice came from reading Robert Emmons’ research on gratitude. Emmons is a professor at University of California, Davis. U.C. Davis’s website tell us, “Dr. Emmons’ research is at the interface of personality psychology, the psychology of emotion and the psychology of religion. His primary interests are in the psychology of gratitude and the psychology of personal goals, and how each is related to positive psychological processes, including happiness, well-being, and personality integration.”

There’s no surprise in my interest – as a priest working with congregations and church leaders, especially clergy and church musicians – in this interface of personality, emotion, and religion. Even when I was a parish rector, and now, even more, as a teaching priest and liturgist, I’m trying to notice and understand community spiritual practices, the things we choose to do that shape our human and spiritual character.

Emmons, as a psychologist (along with some fascinating colleagues) is asking those big questions that contemporary neuro-psychology and primate studies struggle to answer –

– what is compassion?

– how does compassion become part of our human character?

– how does compassion relate to the violence and the competitive struggle of one against all that’s also in us?

– is compassion as natural to us as our violence, anger, and fear? and

– what can compassion teach us about common humanity and morals that might be deeper or more universal than particular human culture?

With too few in the church listening, these researchers are coming to new transformative understandings of the evolutionary bases of human character, communication, and community.

Whew! Did I really just dump all that in one paragraph? Bear with me – in much of my recent reading, I’ve been trying to catch up with a largely secular, often atheist or agnostic inquiry into human character that could be guiding, informing and even empowering our church’s wise and inspired emphasis on Christian formation. I’m hearing secular researchers asking powerful questions and giving arresting data of what they’re finding forms and nurtures people to become who we are most deeply, and, I guess I’m adding this part, who we’re meant to be.

Robert Emmons’ research on gratitude described an experiment in which he’d introduced a group to a simple practice that significantly changed participants’ experience of themselves and others’ experience of them.

Actually he had three study groups undertake distinct ten-week disciplines of journaling, none of the groups knowing what they other group had been asked to do.

– One group’s daily task was to write a single sentence giving thanks for five things that had happened to them or that they’d been able to do.

– Another group’s task was to write a one-sentence summary of five things that they’d experienced as hassles, things that they were displeased or troubled at.

– And the third group was simply asked to list five recent events that had some impact on them or had made some difference to them.

The group assigned to journal their gratitude reported that they were noticeably happier, more productive, and were sleeping better at night. Their measurable stress indicators (like blood pressure) went down. And they reported family and friends repeatedly asking them what had happened to them that they’d changed so much. Those recording hassles did not show the positive changes, and those in the neutral group showed some changes, but not nearly such big changes as the gratitude group.

I’m enjoying my first week of this new practice. I look forward to the few minutes’ writing before sleep. I think I may feel the small beginning of valuable shift in my spirit. All good. I was planning to reflect more on the practice, what it felt like, and what kinds of things I give thanks for, and then connect it to St. Paul’s repeated exhortation to us to “give thanks in all things.” I was thinking to tie that “all” to Paul’s longing to see Christ “all in all,” and the Gospel of John’s quoting Jesus saying, “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.”

But am I giving thanks in, for and with American celebrations of Osama Bin Laden’s death? The sense of blessing is hard to find there. It’s a victory celebration, something that feels like what “we” did beating “them,” maybe too much like football fans cheering “their” defeat of a rival team.

And then I read The New York Times‘ story of Javier Sicilia, the distinguished Mexican poet whose twenty-four year old son was one of seven university students in Cuernavaca randomly kidnapped and murdered by drug traffickers.

Javier Sicilia is a Catholic poet. His last poem, the poem he wrote as he put down poetry to take up activism to end the violence in Mexico says:

The world is not worthy of words

they have been suffocated from the inside

as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs…

the pain does not leave me

all that remains is a world

through the silence of the righteous,

only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

St. Paul, who admonished us to give thanks in all things, lived his life in a world as violent as ours, and with the bodies of crucified criminals hanging outside the gates of cities across the empire, a world where violence and death were more visible than in much of America.

And Jesus’ prophecy? Those words Desmond Tutu loves to quote so emphatically and yet so playfully, “he said, all people, ALL PEOPLE!”? Desmond Tutu knows the context well enough, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

As I clipped out the story of Javier Sicilia’s loss and his witness, I remembered reading that Dostoyevsky used to save newspaper stories of human violence to make certain that when he wrote his steady hope that in Christ the whole world and all humanity would sing a hymn of praise together his steady vision had to include the whole of human suffering, human grief, and the evil we do to one another.

Juan Francisco Sicilia is dead, a loss that his father will carry for the rest of his life.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, a death that some felt justice had demanded; others were simply relieved.

Javier Sicilia, you are in my prayers. My twenty-four year old son is still alive. Yours is gone and a poem won’t bring him back. I’m grateful for your witness.

Osama Bin Laden, I pray for your soul and the souls of the many who died in the Twin Towers, in a field in Pennsylvania, and for my cousin and all who died with him in the plane crashed into the Pentagon. And I pray for all who grieve those many deaths and the many more deaths that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Episcopal Café readers? I will continue my ‘thank you’ prayers in the evening. Perhaps you’d like to join me in this practice. I may give a progress report on my experience some months from now and would welcome hearing the voices of others who have been exploring the practice. For now, I want to acknowledge (and give thanks) for the context, the hunch, the intuition that makes thanks possible:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;

Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Tonight, before I write, I’ll pause to remember those two deaths and pray for the wisdom and simplicity to recall today and give thanks in all things.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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