How can one practice the discipline of thanksgiving? It is a lot like those old Arthur Murray Dance Studios at which you learned to dance by following the footprints that were marked on the floor. It is incredibly awkward and we must begin with very basic steps. So here are my basic steps for cultivating contentment through the discipline of thanksgiving.
I begin with whatever comes to my mind. I choose to express thanks for whatever particular thing I am thinking about. So I will say out loud, “Thanks for the chance to go to campus today.” Then I turn to the next thing that comes to mind and I express thanks for that. “I am grateful that I don’t often have to wear a tie.” I keep this up until my mind begins to turn to those aspects of my life and situation for which I am deeply grateful. It is a privilege to be associated with Yale University. I am amazed that I get to be a philosopher and that I got to go to graduate school. I know lots of smart people who did not have the opportunity. The fact that I get to be married to Jeanie and to have David and Nick and Lizzy as my kids is astonishing to me. These elements of my life are occasions for deep and persisting gratitude.
The challenge of discontentment for me is often a challenge of cloudy vision. I don’t often know what I want. Particular and local frustrations seem large while those deep benefits seem small. The practice of Thanksgiving helps clear my vision. It helps me recognize (or re-cognize—that is—to think again about) those ingredients that in fact make my life rich. It helps me put those items that feed discontentment into perspective. It brings a deep sense of contentment. I take my first awkward steps when I decide to give thanks for whatever comes into my head.
The discipline of thanksgiving also has connections with Humility. The practice of thanksgiving helps us to realize that many of the most important things in our lives are not the results of our own efforts at all. They are gifts that we have received. This fact is part of the Reality to which we must submit. The connection with Humility makes it clear that the discipline of thanksgiving fits most easily into a theistic world-view. As a theist, I know that all of these things, my life and family and my opportunities are gifts from God. It is not hard for me to give thanks to him for them. Although you do not have to be a theist to be grateful or to practice giving thanks, the practice makes the most sense if the most fundamental Reality is a Person who made you and cares for you. Thanksgiving, then, is a person to person exchange. It is not just an exercise in wishful or positive thinking.
Excerpted from Thwarting Cynicism and Discontentment: Virtuous Practices of the Christian Scholar - Gregory E. Ganssle
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