We sometimes hear about the importance of gratitude and its benefits for our mental and spiritual health. And it seems like a really good idea. I, for one, could do more to be mindful of what I have in my life and truly appreciate it.
But is giving thanks always a good thing?
In the Latter-day Saint tradition, there is a cautionary tale about thanksgiving (with a lowercase “t”). A group of rather wealthy and well-established people get together once a week to offer gratitude to God. So far, so good. But when they repeat their prayer of thanksgiving, it’s quite jarring:
Holy God, we believe that [you have] separated us from our brethren; and we do not believe in the tradition of our brethren, which was handed down to them by the childishness of their fathers…
And we also thank [you] that [you have] elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our [brothers]…which lead their hearts to wander far from [you], our God. And again, we thank [you], O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen. (Alma 31:16-18)
As you can see, in this prayer there isn’t so much a sense of gratitude for what one has, but rather, gratitude for what others don’t have. It’s an extreme example of how something as simple as giving thanks can become exclusive, alienating, and dismissive of others.
So, what does an inclusive gratitude look like?
The Jewish poet Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) often wrote poems from the perspective of immigrants, the urban and rural poor, and prisoners of Nazi death camps. His short poem “Te Deum” is a master class in giving thanks:
Not because of victories
but for the common sunshine,
the largess of the spring.
Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
Here is a heart that sees the world as something beautiful and one’s honest work—no matter what—as something that has value in and of itself. Here there is no sense of scarcity; of being “blessed” with something that someone else doesn’t have.
This open-hearted way of seeing the world and our place in it allows us to find common ground and common good more easily. It’s a type of gratitude that can help us to connect with our classmates, our neighbors, and even our relatives in a time when it feels easier to pull away from others who don’t share our perspectives or beliefs.
And so, as we offer thanks—by ourselves, around a table, or at a house of worship—may our hearts stretch wide enough to make room for all of humanity.