A friend pays off a man's mortgage, saves his house from a fire, and pulls him out of the way of a speeding car. You know the punch line:
"But what have you done for me lately?"
Some people have a short attention span when it comes to being grateful.
I never knew I was one of them until World War II. I had finished one year of college and part of an extra wartime term, when I was called up for military service.
A friend of a friend of my faraway family was a senior citizen who played the merry-eyed aunt, inviting students for lunch after church. I felt comfortable enough with her to telephone with the news from selective service.
I remember vividly the gist of our conversation.
"What are you going to do?" she inquired after a few friendly words.
My voice must have been tense: "I have to take a lot of special exams to get full credit for the term."
"Oh, how nice of them to let you take them," she said, patting my hand over the phone.
Light bulb over vacant head. I glimpsed the idea of appreciation replacing angst. A burden became a benefit. Gratitude improved my attitude.
Now, in taking exams, I didn't have myself to contend with as well as the subject matter. Not that I totally stopped worrying and learned to love the essay questions. But I could be tested on how well I had done my homework instead of on my blood pressure.
"How nice of them." My friend of a friend's few words have returned to me often since then. There's no question of "What has she done for me lately?"
She was steeped in the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, but she left it to me to put two and two together. I think of her when I read Mrs. Eddy's words:
"Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more. Gratitude is much more than a verbal expression of thanks. Action expresses more gratitude than speech" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 3).
And there is the example of Jesus, giving thanks to God before receiving what he asked for the raising of Lazarus confident that God always heard his prayers (see John 11:41).
In a less theological vein, I smile with a pragmatist who says he likes prayers that are instantly answered. One is a prayer to be grateful, which is granted in the very praying of it.
I enjoy the echo in the 18th-century phrasing of a classic hymn:
A grateful heart a garden is,
Where there is always room
For every lovely, Godlike grace
To come to perfect bloom.
(Ethel Wasgatt Dennis)
When I sang those words so often as a child, it didn't occur to me that they were another way of saying gratitude nurtures while its absence is a blight. I didn't know what Samuel Johnson was loftily writing a bit later in the 18th century: "Gratitude is a fruit of great cultivation; you do not find it among gross people."
Today, I know that gratitude is perceived and cultivated around the globe by the Center for World Thanksgiving at Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas. In its international forums and other activities, the center acts on the idea that thanksgiving "creates a universal bond that transcends differences throughout the world." Among the array of references on its website (www.thanksgiving.org) are these words from John F. Kennedy:
"As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them."
As gratitude lives in action, so does prayer. To join in, I don't have to be president or be drafted or be faced with special exams. Mrs. Eddy makes it not necessarily easy, but so simple: "The habitual struggle to be always good is unceasing prayer" (pg. 4).