My wife writes the best thank-you notes. They make people cry. People save them. She gets thank-you notes for her thank-you notes.
I don’t have her talent.
As a kid, writing thank-you notes felt like a chore. I wrote them out of fear, which, at its root, was greed. I was afraid if I didn’t write them, I wouldn’t get anything else ever again: “Thank you for giving me the first of three digitally remastered Star Wars VHS tapes, still available at Target until the end of the year.”
I also wrote thank-you notes out of duty. I thanked people for stuff I didn’t even like: “Thank you for the socks, Tia Yeya, and for the sweater. You never know when it will get cold here in Florida.”
My thank-you notes as a kid reveal my struggle—even now, as an adult—to choose and communicate gratitude. And I find that greed and duty still make it difficult for me to live with a grateful heart.
Greed: The Gratitude Drift
We fixate on what we want but don’t have. Stuff. Toys. Relationships. Achievements. Skills. And this desire drives us. But this drive, if left unchecked, can drive gratitude away. Have you ever seen this happen?
My family and I recently moved to a wonderful blue house. When we moved in, we couldn’t believe that we got to live in a house like ours. We have a beautiful yard, room for our kids, and room for my books (yes, I’m a huge nerd). We felt so grateful.
And then it happened. I walked around the neighborhood one morning and saw new construction. And I don’t know what hit me. I started thinking about living in a new house, an even bigger house, an even awesomer house. And by the time I ended my walk, my new blue house looked less than wonderful. I didn’t feel grateful anymore.
We daily drift away from gratitude as new wants dangle in front of us and distract us. How will you resist the drift away from gratitude?
Duty: The Dishonest “Thank You”
I wonder sometimes if people can tell when my “thank you” is hollow. I try not to oversell my fake gratitude. I try not to be dishonest. But often I find myself expressing gratitude before I’ve had a chance to find it or feel it. The obligation crowds out my authenticity. Has this ever happened to you?
I especially struggle with this around the holidays. In my family, we open gifts together and everyone immediately communicates their gratitude. And my family is really generous with gifts.
I, however, am really difficult to shop for. I don’t even know what to tell people to get me when they ask me what I want. Which means sometimes I get gifts I’m not crazy about. I still remember the year I got a pocket watch, complete with a chain. (This was before hipsters were a thing.) I didn’t know what to say, and my failure to communicate gratitude hurt my family’s feelings.
How do you communicate gratitude for a gift you don’t like? How do you grow your ability to feel grateful?
The Gratitude List
I have a buddy who’s in a recovery group for some pretty serious addiction. He’s been working through the 12 Steps and making a lot of progress. And becoming more thankful is one of the practices that has helped him move away from his addictive behavior.
He taught me his super-simple strategy: the Gratitude List.
Here’s how it works.
Set aside 10 minutes every day for a week.
Grab a journal/paper and a pen.
Write the numbers 1-10 down the left side of the page.
List things that you’re grateful for today.
Challenge yourself to think of new things every day.
Take time each day to look over your lists from the previous day.
Even as I write this, it feels too simple. I want to give you some secret Jedi trick to obliterate your gratitude killers. I don’t want to give you something simple.
But I now know from experience that keeping a Gratitude List is harder than you think it will be. It’s so easy to forget a day. It’s easy to get stumped and feel like you’re reaching.
I have found that simple spiritual disciplines are most often the most powerful tools we can use as we seek spiritual transformation. Jesus’ teaching was frequently simple on the surface but profound in application.
The Gratitude List has been helpful to me. God has worked in me as I’ve worked on my lists. My heart has grown three sizes. And I’m more grateful than ever before.
Would you consider trying a Gratitude List this week?
Steve Tamayo serves as the Associate Director of Strategy for LaFe, InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship, and as a Digital Media Specialist for InterVarsity's Multiethnic Initiatives. He’s married to Amy and together they have four children and lots of adventures. You can find him on Twitter at @yostevetamayo.