Selfish Gratitude

Has anyone ever asked you what your favorite holiday is? Mine is Thanksgiving. There was always something special about how Thanksgiving was celebrated in my family when I was growing up. There were no other distractions or things to interfere with the simple concept of thanking the Lord for His many blessings. I mean I love Christmas, but the gifts, the shopping, and the craziness can get in the way! On Thanksgiving our family would simply go to church to thank the Lord, then spend the whole day together with close cousins, aunts and uncles, and friends, being grateful for the life we have with one another.

In my musing about Thanksgiving this year, I started thinking about the ways that we show gratitude and I noticed a bit of a stumbling block…. A lot of the time, when I say “Thank you”, or something similar, I say it in a bit of a selfish way, and I don’t think I am alone in this fault.

Think about it. Often, when we feel moved to say “thank you”, it is because someone else did something that is pleasing to or for us! And the sincerity behind the words of gratitude in these cases is more a measure of our own joy and satisfaction than actual thankfulness for other people’s thoughts and actions. It is less gratitude to the giver than it is relishing in the pleasure of receiving!

If you’re still not on board with me, think of it this way…. When we come to expect another person to be doing things which benefit us (like doing the dishes, or opening the door) do we not become less and less expressive of our thankfulness? And if those benefits stop happening do we not start to wonder why they stopped? We might even complain to them, “Why didn’t you do the dishes?!”

Maybe we need to pay more attention to the way we think of gratitude and be more mindful about how we express it. I’m not saying that it isn’t good to tell people, “Thank you so much!” But, when we do, are we focused more on appreciating the other person, or appreciating the way they make us feel?

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.(Luke 6:32)

In contrast to what we might call “selfish gratitude”, let us think about a story related to us in the Word for the New Church about a person who had recently arrived in the other world. The experience tells of a man who realizes that he no longer had any of the things which he had in the world. No home, no money, no things. This made him very anxious. Where was he going to sleep? What was he going to eat? However, after some time of being left in these thoughts, he was then taken up into the care of various angels who provided for him anything he needed and desired. They also protected him from the many evil spirits who were constantly trying to attack him. This experience was given to him in order that he might learn that the Lord provides everything for everyone in heaven and that he need not worry. In the conclusion to this story we read the following:

After [experiencing] all of this, when left to his own thoughts, he began to consider how he could repay such great kindness. This shows that his soul was led by the Lord, and that almost immediately after his bodily life he would come to live among the heavenly. (Spiritual Experiences 2038)

Another version of this same story adds:

It was evident from this that while he lived in the body he had been in the charity of faith. Wherefore he was immediately taken up into heaven. (Arcana Coelestia 318)

It is certain that as this man learned more about heaven, he would discover that angels do not desire anything in return for their services and that they would give all credit and glory to the Lord for the ways they were able to serve the man. However, the simple fact that the man’s thoughts of gratitude focused on the giver showed that he had a charitable heart; one destined for heaven.

So, here is a challenge for all of you readers as we approach my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. Pay attention to your own thoughts of gratitude and thankfulness. Perhaps even keep a journal of each grateful thought. Ask yourself, “Am I grateful for ME or am I grateful for them?” How might this change the way we demonstrate our thankfulness?

For people who have a genuine heart of mutual love, they enter into their own delight and blessedness when they perform good deeds to their neighbor; there is nothing they desire more. That delight and blessedness is what is meant in the Word by a ‘reward’, for delight or blessedness is the reward, and in the next life it becomes the joy and happiness that is experienced in heaven, and so becomes for those people heaven itself. For when those in heaven with whom that love resides perform useful services and good deeds for others, they feel so full of joy and happiness that they seem to themselves to be in heaven for the first time then. (Arcana Coelestia 6388)

Happy Thanksgiving!