Essay / Misc.


Gratitude is free.

That’s not because it doesn’t cost anything for us to become more grateful people. It does cost us. Nor because we can idly expect it to be handed around by everyone. We can’t (or shouldn’t). No, it’s free because it’s unnecessary. We can’t demand it of each other. It’s superfluous, extraneous, gracious. Free.

Pause, and imagine demanded gratitude. If you’re like I am, you’ll balk at it. It settles poorly. We do train children to say “thank you,” yes, but after a certain point in a social education, demands like that one just sound despotic. “You’ll take this and thank me for it,” are the words of a bully. “Well, I can’t believe it! After all I’ve done for you..” are the words of an extortioner. A forced-out “thank you” fills me with pity. It all seems simply wrong, and it is. It’s mistaking gratitude for payment, thankfulness for exchange.

No, gratitude is free. It’s free, it’s unnecessary, like the creation of the world was. God didn’t make everything for a lack of anything. Rather, far from needing or depending on us, our God is blessed and full. Creation was the perfect, primal gift, an entirely superfluous outpouring of the love of the triune God. Out of his bounty, he gave us ourselves! And gratitude is just like that: bountiful.

I don’t think the similarity is coincidental. God shaped us to respond to his total gift in a way that imitated his giving: freely. We’re enabled to respond to him in the way that we have received from him. Our gratitude matches his gift.

This stands in direct opposition to some of my anxieties. When I receive gifts or praise from other people, I’m tempted to feel indebted. For some reason, I want to believe that their gifts aren’t really gifts, that they’re actually some kind of payment. I want to trade away love and freedom for the dictates of a relational economy. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. But that way of thinking about gratitude grates against gift-giving. Freely given things should be received in a way that expresses great freedom.

I wanted to see what gratitude really looked like, so I rummaged through my bookshelves before I wrote this, looking for expressions of it in the literature that I’ve loved. It was overwhelming. I ended up slumped on the floor between my easy chairs, surrounded by books of poetry and Marilynne Robinson’s novels, crying and laughing. I had known I could find gratitude in them, but I didn’t expect to see it shining out from almost every page of author after author who’s inspired me toward wonder, warmth, and joy. Gratitude, it turns out, formed the basis for some of the most sweeping, humble passages I cherish.

I learned something: free gratitude just produces poetry. It creates. It’s unnecessary like the creation of the world, yes, and it’s also fruitful like it. In that first perfect gift God acted freely, and his action was to create. Likewise, grateful people act freely, and their action is creative. They can’t help but describe their gifts, adorn their gifts, honor them, tell what they reveal about the giver, affirm their goodness or beauty or utility, or turn them into conduits for their joy and flourishing. Gifts express love and nourish love, and lovers often sing. Gratitude spills out, splendid, in creative, joyful beauty.

I don’t mean to say that it needs to spill out boisterously all the time. Sometimes gratitude leaves us speechless. We’re so filled with the realization of a gift that anything we think to say doesn’t match it. We’re hushed by the richness of a gift like an art-lover in front of a painting. We’re amazed by a gift’s pure simplicity and don’t want to clutter it up with description. Or, more simply, the things about the gift that we love are a little hidden, like when a relative gives you an ugly sweater or something you already own. In moments like those, it’s good to have a single simple sign we all can recognize. We say, “thank you.” It’s speech for when we’re speechless.

“Thank you” also means that gratitude can be fitted to any moment, even the shortest. It’s very good we have a way to fit it anywhere, a phrase that only takes a second, because gratitude, when we have it, is simply bigger than our circumstances. It’s more important to us than the train we’re catching or the boat we’re boarding, so it’s a relief that we can express it even while we’re jumping on. Gratitude is so big and so grand that we’d be poorer if we couldn’t make it small. We should be able to fit it anywhere, and glory be! we can.

It makes us Godlike because it matches his creation. It fills us up because we’re made to be like him. I want to see the world, to love it, and to deck it out with loveliness. I want, like my God, to act beautifully and without compulsion. I want to be characterized by deep, free, and fruitful thankfulness.

We’ve made a holiday of thankfulness, and modeled it after people who really knew how to be grateful. Thanksgiving was founded with a feast. Those people did something simple: they took the gifts God gave and, through those gifts, multiplied their joy in front of him. They saw that their food meant more than fuel, that God had graced it himself and given it them, and they treated it like an end, like something that was worthy of love. Now, each year, we repeat it.

Remember: repetition can do opposite things. It can drain a repeated thing of meaning, or it can gather more meaning into it.  Pop art’s pretty good at using repetition to drain a thing of its meaning. Psalm 136, on the other hand, is an example of its gathering.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;

And on.  This isn’t even half the psalm. By the end, as we say “for his steadfast love endures forever,” I’ll want to sing, it will have gathered so much meaning into itself.

Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving. It comes every year, good ones and bad. Repeating, repeating, repeating. Let’s not let it drain its richness. Instead, let’s treat it like the psalm, gather meaning up. Gratitude is simply too important and its causes too plentiful for us to let its reminder become rote. Let’s try again to see the world anew, to love it, and to dress it up with joy. Let’s take time to remember past feasts of gratitude and add this year’s to them. Let’s grow our gratitude with food and songs and laughter and talk and sighs, and let’s give our thanks to the God of heaven, whose steadfast love forever endures.



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