Chesterton on gratitude

Friday, November 30, 2018 - Updated: 9:54 am

By David Mills

Our hostess for the weekend told our children to stop saying “Thank you.” She sounded annoyed. “You can say it when you leave,” she said, “but not while you’re here.” My wife had known her nearly all her life, so I couldn’t say anything.

But, boy, I wanted to. I thought: “What’s wrong with her? Why discourage gratitude? The world doesn’t have nearly enough of it.” I wanted my kids to say “thank you” a lot, and I didn’t appreciate someone making them feel bad for saying it.

Some people are weird about gratitude. They either don’t like to be thanked or they don’t like to thank others, or both. At least we Americans have Thanksgiving, and that’s something. No one else has an official day to give thanks.

Christians have more, though. We know the deepest reason to be grateful and who to be grateful for.

King David captured this in one of his prayers. “All things are thine: and we have given thee what we received of thy hand.” In other words: “You created everything and we only give you back what you already gave us. We’re in your debt. We owe you for everything we have. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

His feeling of gratitude brought the great writer G.K. Chesterton to Christ, and it brought him into the Catholic Church. From his childhood, he had felt grateful for the world and his good fortune in being able to live in it.

As a young man, he got at this in a short poem called “Evening.” It’s not a very good poem, but it makes the point: “Here dies another day / During which I have had eyes, ears, hands / And the great world round me; / And with tomorrow begins another. / Why am I allowed two?” One day on earth gives such a blessing, asking for another seems kind of piggy.

Having no particular religious beliefs, he felt frustrated that he couldn’t thank anyone for those days on earth. “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom,” he wrote in a book called “Orthodoxy.”

“Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets,” he pointed out. “Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

That feeling of gratitude drove him to look for God. He found the God who shows himself to us in Jesus Christ. I think his sense of gratitude pushed him further, until he finally found the church. And that gave him a lot more to be thankful for, like the Mass.

And by the way, being thankful is good for us in practical ways. A psychiatrist writing in the magazine Psychology Today explained that modern science shows this. Neel Burton wrote that research has “linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning and specialness.”

What would be the take-away from this? Chesterton felt deeply thankful to God for everything. We should feel like that as well, of course. We should also feel thankful for every particular thing we’ve been given. We should look harder at all the things around us and thank God for more of them than we do now. I go through life mostly clueless about this, but I’m trying to do better.

There’s the blue sky on a day that’s not too hot and not too cold, the kind neighbor, the friends you can hang out with, the teachers who taught you to read, the farmers who grow the food you eat, your priest, the homily he gave (even if he’s not very good at preaching), modern plumbing, the saints, the unknown saints, the birds at the feeder, your great-grandparents, your sight, your taste, your touch and the miraculous feet you put in your socks.

As Chesterton said: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Giving thanks should be a way of living. As Chesterton also said: “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Mills and his family are members of St. Joseph Parish in Coraopolis.

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