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Practicing gratitude

| Monday, March 4, 2019

It finally happened. After months and months, it finally clicked. For two years, each time our now three-year-old daughter was given something, whether it be a toy, candy, crayon, coloring book, tissue or whatever, either my wife or I would say the same phrase, “Felicity, what do you say?” “Thank you… (insert giver’s name here).” Finally, one day when she was given a chocolate chip cookie, she immediately said, without any prompting from anyone, in her sweet, angelic, yet slightly sassy voice, “Thank you, dada.” It was somewhat startling, if I’m honest. I didn’t expect it to just happen. The months of practicing with her finally bore fruit. Does she always remember to say “Thank you?” No, but more and more, she does. It’s a beautiful and privileged thing I have been able to witness as her father.

This experience has caused me to reflect on gratitude more broadly. Why is it important? Why have we spent precious time, energy and the often fleeting attention of a little girl trying to teach her this concept? Sure, it is about teaching her good manners, but if that is it, it would be merely for show and not have any substance.

What gratitude does is acknowledge there is something more. Gratitude in itself acknowledges a gift from something other than one’s self. When I say “Thank you” for the coffee my colleague so thoughtfully brought me, I am acknowledging some being outside of myself acting and understanding that whatever I have received is coming from them and that I appreciate it. Each time I do this, I am going outside of myself. I am orienting toward the other. My experience as a human is that my greatest temptation is to think about ‘me,’ ‘myself’ and ‘I,’ much more than ‘you’ and ‘we.’ Gratitude acknowledges the gift and dignity of something other than our own self. Thanking someone for coffee, though it might be trivial, but still is meaningful. What about when we think about the bigger stuff of life? The money that helped me to pay tuition at Notre Dame, the hours spent teaching me organic chemistry or the presence and laughter of a friend when my grandfather passed away. What about the gift of life itself? If you’re like me, and read the previous Campus Ministry column, you know I work in Campus Ministry and can see where I’m going — but stay with me, please. Gratitude removes us from the pilot seat, and places someone else there. It reminds us that while we are active and creative in this world, ultimately everything that we have is a gift. “Everything is grace,” preaches St. Therese of Lisieux. All we have is a result of gift of a God of love. We begin small, by teaching our daughter to say “thank you” for a cookie because that is what she can understand right now. We do that so that one day, not so far into the future, she will on her own accord say “thank you” to God for her life (and probably her stuffed animals, and little brother and maybe even mama and dada). We do it so she can understand that when we go to Mass each week, we are saying thanks to God in the Eucharist (which in Greek means “thanksgiving”).  

This experience of teaching our daughter to simply say “thank you” is also a reminder to me of the importance of actually practicing gratitude. It’s much simpler to say I’m going to practice math by doing problem sets, to practice piano for an hour each night, to practice free throws on the basketball court or rehearse for a theatrical performance. With gratitude, I find myself often just defaulting to having an attitude of gratitude.” But, what does that really mean? Without action, an attitude doesn’t really actually mean anything. We aren’t truly grateful if we never actually express our gratitude. And herein lies the homework (or at least some other task that you can use to procrastinate from your homework or studying tonight). If you desire to grow in relationship with God or to find a little more joy in your life, simply try this: At the end of each day, write down three things in your journal, planner, notebook, etc. you are grateful for. I have talked with a number of students lately who want to begin to know where God is present in their life, grow in relationship with God or go deeper in that relationship. I give them this task because it is simple, meaningful, personal, appropriate to any level of spiritual depth and achievable even in the midst of the chaotic schedules that all of you scholars attempt to maintain. I also urge actually writing it down because it brings a tangible piece to your gratitude and allows you to go back through the days and hopefully weeks and maybe months of gifts you are graced with. So while I know that with Lent coming up, most people are thinking of what they can fast from, or what they can offer up, I would invite you to join me and naming three things you’re grateful for each night and thank God for them. I’ll go ahead and start here: God, I’m grateful first, for the opportunity to work at Notre Dame with amazing students and colleagues. Second, the good health of myself, my wife and children. Third, and finally, the homemade strawberry ice cream I got to taste and the joy it brought to my taste buds.

Mike Urbaniak serves in Campus Ministry as the assistant director of pastoral care and can be reached at [email protected]. Learn more about Campus Ministry at CampusMinistry.nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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