Being Thankful in a Thankless World

Rev. Josh Pawelek

In her meditation, “Saying Grace,” the Rev. Kathleen McTigue reminds us “wise women and men from every [faith] tradition teach that gratitude is at the heart of the spiritual life because it leads us to all the rest.”[1] This rings true to me. Pausing before a meal—even a brief pause—to be mindful of how the food actually arrived on the plate can lead us back through all those people who had some hand in getting it to the plate: the cashiers, the shelf-stockers, the grocery store managers, the truck drivers, the loaders, the processors, the pickers, the planters, the slaughterhouse workers—and then beyond the people, back further to soil, water, sun—and then further still to the insight that “everything hinges on everything else,” that we are fundamentally dependent, that we do not exist apart from a reality greater than ourselves. I think Rev. McTigue is right. A pause—even a brief pause—to express our gratitude can lead us to “all the rest.” Perhaps most importantly it can instill in us the desire to give back in some way, to live not simply as recipients of the earth’s abundance, but as people who actively engage the wider world, people who work for justice and peace, people who work for healing and repair, people who work to sustain the earth and all its creatures. Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of participation, commitment, action. Indeed, the final words of Rev. McTigue’s prayer of gratitude are that we may be strong for the work of our world.[2]

Similarly, in a 2007 article in the Unitarian Universalist World Magazine entitled “The Heart of our Faith,” the Rev. Galen Guengerich writes that where the central discipline of Judaism is obeying God’s commandments, and the central discipline of Christianity is loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself, and the central discipline of Islam is submitting to the will of God, the central discipline of Unitarian Universalism ought to be gratitude.[3] He says a discipline of gratitude—that is, integrating into our lives daily rituals that enable us to recognize and name the things for which we are grateful—inevitably “reminds us how utterly dependent we are on the people and the world around us for everything that matters.” And from this recognition of dependence flows what he calls an “ethic of gratitude” which “demands that we nurture the world that nurtures us in return.”[4] Heart-felt gratitude ought to yield some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

Our ministry theme for October is gratitude. It’s an obvious theme for this time of year. The thanksgiving season is beginning. Farmers are bringing in the final harvest here in New England and throughout the planet’s more northern reaches. Harvest festivals and thanksgiving celebrations are common in many parts of the northern hemisphere at this time of year. Being a father of elementary school students I can anticipate assignments related to gratitude and thanksgiving. My boys will create adorable, little booklets about the things for which they are thankful. They will trace their hands to make turkeys. And many ministers preach sermons on gratitude at this time of year. I become a bit squeamish when it’s my turn to preach that sermon since there are only so many ways to name the importance of gratitude in our lives. Yet we keep preaching it. I’ve yet to find a colleague in any faith tradition who thinks gratitude is overrated.

So this is the message I want you to take with you today: a discipline of gratitude—finding some way to regularly call forth a feeling of gratitude for all that is good in our lives—reminds us of our dependence on a reality larger than ourselves and ought to inspire us to give back to our communities and to the world in some sustained way. While I’m convinced no controversy surrounds this message; and while I’m utterly confident that you already know this, that gratitude is a no-brainer, that we should be grateful for all the blessings of our lives, the fact remains: gratitude is never as simple as it sounds. We don’t always come to it easily. We can’t just make ourselves feel a certain way. For most of us, gratitude takes practice.

Most of you are parents. Some of you are actively parenting. Others have raised their children into adulthood. I suspect most of you who are parents—and even those of you who aren’t parents but who have been around children in that elementary school age range—have had the experience of doing something nice for a child—taking them to a movie, buying some toy they’ve asked for, taking them to their favorite restaurant—something slightly out of the ordinary and very nice—only to then watch the child behave like a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon. When it happens, you the parent can’t imagine this is the child you’ve been raising. It’s mystifying. You didn’t teach them to act like this. You didn’t model this behavior for them. You’ve spoken clearly to them, many times, about appropriate behavior, especially in public places. You try to shut it down with your own polite reasoning, but it doesn’t work. The child escalates. You begin to get angry. The next words out of your mouth—your tone bordering on sarcastic—are some version of “a little thanks would be nice,” or “How about ‘thank you’?” Does this ring a bell? I can’t recall my parents ever saying this to me, but I remember being a selfish, impulsive, entitled little demon and I’m positive my ears heard some version of those words. “A little thanks would be nice.”

I suspect there are exceptions to this rule, but I’m pretty sure we aren’t born grateful. We may be born with the capacity to feel gratitude, but expressing it doesn’t come naturally. The phrase “thank you” doesn’t roll off our tongues once we’ve learned rudimentary speech, at least not as quickly as “I want,” “gimme” and “mine.” Of course children are more complex than their selfish impulses. Most children seem inherently trusting, loving, joyful, filled with awe, creative and truthful in the sense that they don’t naturally censor themselves. But “thank you” is not one of their inclinations. Not at first. They need to be taught.

I also suspect that even once a child learns to say “thank you,” we still haven’t taught them to recognize and name the feeling of gratitude when it rises in them. What we’ve actually taught them is how to be polite regardless of how they feel. That is, we might hear them say “thank you,” but it’s only because we’ve told them to, not because they actually feel it. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle and they’ve have had to grow up too fast. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful “for all that is our life,”[5] as the hymn says, until we’ve had the kinds of experiences that move us out of childhood, experiences that enable us to gain perspective on our lives, to view our lives from multiple angles, to compare our lives to other lives, to recognize how hard life can be at times, to recognize that it means something when someone else does something nice for us unbidden, when someone else lends us a hand when we’re in need, when someone else supports us in our times of crisis and struggle, when someone else notices our good work. I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.

And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action. May we be strong for the work of our world.

But it still takes practice. I’ve given this sermon the title, “Being Thankful in a Thankless World.” I trust you all know I am not as cynical and hopeless about the world as this title suggests, but I do observe trends in our culture—behavioral trends—that drive a wedge between us and our capacity to feel gratitude. In doing my research for this sermon I was drawn to a blog post entitled “The Thankless World of the Conscientious Science Writer”[6] from Cynthia Closkey,[7] who who runs a web design firm called Big Big Design.[8] Closkey’s post led me to another post entitled “You’ve Got Mail, You Idiot,”[9] by an independent science writer named Christie Aschwanden,[10] who says that after twelve years of science writing she has learned the hard lesson that if you “tell readers that they’re wrong about something they know in their heart to be true … they will send you hate mail.” For example, she wrote an article stating that what determines whether cancer progresses is tumor biology, not a person’s attitude toward their cancer. She received a letter in response stating, “You are no scientist. You should not write. You are a foolish person.” Her article on climate change elicted this: “Get beyond your pathetic left-wing angst over the envirofacist lies.” An article contending that “taking a multivitamin won’t make you any healthier,” brought forth this gem: “You call yourself a ‘science writer’??!! Your article was all lies.”[11]

What Aschwanden is describing is not unique to her. It’s actually a widespread mode of social interaction in our nation. It’s the ‘gotcha” mentality, the red-state blue-state mentality, the liberal vs. conservative mentality. It’s road rage. It’s the phenomenon of negative political ads and this idea that a political debate can now be won not on the strength or veracity of a candidate’s arguments but simply by how frequently they interrupt their opponent, as if their belligerence and rudeness reveals some measure of their fitness for leadership. At the end of Thursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked a question submitted to her from a decorated war veteran, something along the lines of “aren’t you embarrassed by the volume of negative political ads? Why can’t the candidates refrain from tearing each other down and start to build the country up?” In their responses, both candidates thanked the veteran for his service and proceeded to tear each other down. I found it not only embarrassing, but infuriating.

I’m naming this particular kind of behavior because it has become so ubiquitous in politics, journalism, religion, and so many areas of public life. We can lean away from it and observe it and lament how common it has become—I can name it and critique it right here in this sermon—but it seems to be increasing. And I admit I get caught up in it from time to time. There is something seductive about it. I think it speaks to us at a pre-rational level. It grabs our emotions before we have time to think. It’s reptilian. It’s childish. It reminds me of my kids fighting in the back seat of the car over who touched who or who crossed over onto whose side. But for them it’s developmentally appropriate. For adults it’s not. In adults it invites us to close ranks, close down, lock in, box in, shut out, ignore, dismiss, interrupt and even, at times, attack. These are precisely the behaviors that prevent us from gaining perspective on our lives; from viewing our lives from multiple angles; from remembering how hard life can be at times; from remembering what it’s like to experience suffering and loss, and that there are far more important things at stake than belittling someone with whom we disagree—all of which we need in order to feel genuine gratitude.

That is, the contentious, polarizing, sound-bite craving, zinger-worshipping aspects of our culture lead us toward petty conflict and away from gratitude. I actually don’t believe we live in a thankless world, but in the midst of this cultural nastiness, gratitude takes practice. Gratitude requires discipline. It’s not the discipline of politeness, for while children need to learn please and thank you, our politeness is not an indication of how we actually feel. Perhaps this discipline of gratitude begins with saying grace, with finding ways to name all we’re thankful for. But I think gratitude arises ultimately from a discipline of deep self-reflection, a discipline of bearing witness to all that is our life and allowing ourselves to fully grasp our limits, our fragility, and our dependence on one another and the world around us. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us in turn to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others are indeed precious, sacred, holy. Grasping these things, I believe, leads us to the recognition that our lives and the lives of others, in the grand scheme of things, are unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts. Such recognitions make it possible for us to feel thankful in a thankless world.

Earlier we spoke together words from the poet Denise Levertov that capture for me the heart of this self-reflection I’m calling for. She says “an awe so quiet I don’t know where it began. A gratitude had begun to sing in me.”[12] As the thanksgiving season begins in New England, my prayer for each of us is that we may find ways to keep our hearts and minds above and beyond the fray; that we may find ways to reflect on all that is our lives; that we may experience awe in response to the gift of life; that gratitude—deep and abiding gratitude—may rise up in us like a song; and that we may be strengthened for the work of our world.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] McTigue, Kathleen, “Saying Grace,” Shine and Shadow: Meditations (Boston: Skinner House, 2011) p. 68.

[2] Ibid., p. 69.

[3] Guengerich, Galen, “The Heart of Our Faith,” UU World Magazine, Spring 2007. See: http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/11144.shtml.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Findlow, Bruce, “For All That is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #128.

[12] Levertov, Denise, “An Awe So Quiet,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #479.