Finding Thanks

Simon Kuang, Staff writer

Walking through the Cal campus, I am occasionally greeted by laminated pages of letter-sized paper bearing the warm colors of autumn and cozy sans-serif reminders of the virtues of thankfulness. I read about studies that demonstrate how thankful people tend to be more satisfied with their lives than unthankful people; moreover, cultivating thankfulness renders us not only happier people, but better ones as well, better equipped to withstand the storms of life, and perhaps even the weeks of studying preceding finals season.

All of this strikes me as quite sensible, and I am heartened that UC Berkeley does this favor, however effective, for its students. Though thankfulness is extolled, never once is the act of giving thanks brought up. This is thoroughly bizarre, as the word “thankfulness” follows a morphological trend of describing someone who is either presently performing some activity or at all times prone to it. A person is “helpful” who helps much; a person is “prayerful” who prays much; a person is “mournful” who mourns much; etc. I cannot fathom that a person should be called “mournful” who does not actually do any mourning, but rather merits the adjective at some higher level of abstraction unconnected to its eponymous act. If I were told to be more helpful, I would not contemplate how to increase helpfulness in my character, but would rather find some concrete situation that could use helping and apply myself to it.

Why is it so hard to talk about giving thanks? Let us imagine how the phrase might be used. It certainly demands an indirect object, e.g. “I give thanks for creamer in my coffee.” And indeed “give thanks for” lends itself to a convenient formula for generating expressions of thankfulness: I need only to discover some matter of life that I am satisfied with, and I am eligible to give thanks for it.

But our language also compels us to deal with the “to” indirect object of “give thanks,” without which the underlying action “give” does not make sense. Furthermore, there is a reliable formula for translating indirect object expressions “give thanks to” to direct object expressions “thank”: instead of “I give thanks to cows for creamer in my coffee,” I can equivalently say “I thank cows for creamer in my coffee.” It is hard to sustain thankfulness without someone to thank.

It also seems kind of outlandish to be thanking cows for my creamer. Who knows if the cow intended its milk production for the sake of helping me enjoy coffee? I could perhaps venture to thank the farmer who has devoted his career to meeting people’s dairy needs, or perhaps some other person in the process who had some real investment in my enjoying my coffee. Gratitude is rich and intensely human, rooted in the intellect and intention of both the thanker and the thanked.

When I bite into a well-crafted loaf of bread, I am not so much tempted to thank the Sun responsible for growing the wheat, or the yeast that leavened it, but the baker who executed the baking and conceived its result. If I find the bread exceedingly delicious, I might consider writing a thank-you note to the baker; I would not in a million years address such a note to the Sun or the yeast. For a comfortable plane flight I thank not the engines but the pilot; for a reliable watch I thank not the springs but the watchmaker.

It makes all the difference to orient our thankfulness to the right object, and for this reason George Washington instituted a national day of thanksgiving (not to be confused with Lincoln’s holiday) to encourage gratitude toward God. Christians believe that God, who created and sustains all things, has endowed every part of creation with intrinsic purpose, and that in a more perfect world everything would have its energies directed toward some “highest good.” For humans, our highest good is to know God and to bring our whole existence in cooperation. All of the rest of creation has as its main purpose to assist this goal.

As God works all things according to his perfect (albeit sometimes confusing) will, we can cheerfully recognize his work as that of the hypothetical baker or the watchmaker who is not only doing a superb job, but is also wholly devoted to our good: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God deserves our thanks because he has conceived an excellent plan for all creation, and because he is timeless and his word is sure, his plan is, in the Christian confidence, as good as done.

One way in which thankfulness is virtuous and advances our highest good is if it is directed to God. Question 2 of the Heidelberg Catechism offers a three-part formula for human happiness:

  1. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort [of salvation in Jesus Christ], mayest live and die happily?
  2. Three; the first, how great my sins and miseries are;
    the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries;

the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.

Thankfulness is not a mere, isolated virtue that we pursue at the occasional expense of the others. Nor is thanksgiving a mere regular event. Instead, thankfulness sums up the entire attitude of the Christian life, and thanksgiving sums up the whole act.

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