The Song of Gratitude

I knelt beside my three-year-old and listened to his scrambled bedtime prayer: “I’m thankful for Mommy and Daddy, snow and clouds. I’m thankful for Santa Claus. I’m thankful for pizza and my big brother. Thank you for food. Thank you for everything.”

I waited as he hesitated. With such a long inventory of blessings, I assumed he was deciding between continuing his list or jumping into his warm, inviting bed. After a long pause, he hastily added, “Oh, and please bless our dumb old cat.” He then finished his prayer with an emphatic amen.

I tried to remember the last time I had thanked the Lord for such things. Certainly my life was filled with small blessings. Like my son, I thought pizza was delightful, but I never included it in my prayers. I enjoyed snow and clouds, too, but I never mentioned them either.

How much he had packed into his prayer! If only my prayers were so sincere. If only my heart were filled with such gratitude for simple aspects of everyday life.

I liked to think I omitted such items because they were too insignificant to include among important adult acknowledgments and appeals. But I knew that in reality I no longer noticed them. I had become so busy with “to do” lists and responsibilities that I no longer paid attention to the tiny purple flowers dotting the backyard, the intricacies of leaves, or the earth-washed smell of fresh rain. If I wasn’t even aware of these pleasures, how could I be thankful for them?

Unlike me, my children noticed all the details of their young lives. Nothing escaped their observant eyes and appreciative hearts. My five-year-old ran for the sheer joy of feeling his healthy body move—not to burn calories or reach his target heart rate. My three-year-old danced exuberantly whenever music was played and squished mud between his toes just to feel the warm, gloppy ooze. My baby was a study in joy. He tasted soap bubbles, smeared his hair with applesauce, and chased shiny, black beetles—unfettered by grown-up notions of cleanliness or repugnance toward six-legged creatures.

Surely I used to be like my children, but somehow I had lost their spontaneity and wonder. In my very adult, very busy life I had forgotten the joy in everyday activities. I had forgotten gratitude for the plain, the ordinary, the simple.

Of course I was grateful for the “big blessings.” I constantly thanked the Lord for health, family, and the gospel. These gifts were impossible to ignore. A hospital visit or a transitory illness were powerful reminders that health was a tangible blessing, not merely an item to include in hurried, mumbled prayers. Holiday dinners, crayon love notes, and generous hugs reminded me to give thanks for a rich, rewarding family life. Answered prayers or inspiring sacrament meetings nudged me to thank the Lord for the gospel.

Gratitude was also easy to muster during crises. I agreed with Elie Wiesel’s comment when he accepted the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize: “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.”

Though I had not suffered the atrocities of the Holocaust as Elie Wiesel had, gratitude was fast and fervent after the dark periods of my life. It was easy to be filled with thanksgiving when, after a series of frightening miscarriages, my first son was born full-term and healthy.

Gratitude flowed effusively when my second son was healed from a devastating, critical illness. My heart sang with gratitude when my third pregnancy resulted, despite complications, in the birth of a robust baby boy.

But what about everyday gratitude? Wasn’t that part of the gospel, too? Of course, a gospel-centered life included beliefs, worship, duty, and love. But gratitude had to be part of the package.

As I thought about childlike gratitude, I remembered Christ’s injunction to become as little children. Perhaps part of becoming like a child would be to hone my abilities to feel gratitude and give thanks. My sense of grown-up “busyness” had assaulted my sense of gratitude for too long. I no longer wanted to be so busy that I failed to notice my blessings—whether great or small—and the people who enriched my life. So I made a conscious decision to practice gratitude, in much the same way I had practiced the piano as a child—daily, conscientiously, persistently.

Wonderful things happened—not in the worldly sense or on a grandiose, obvious level, but in small, everyday ways. I saw the world with new eyes.

I began to see sunsets. Had they always been there? I started to haul my family outside to watch the sky’s extraordinary hues of purple and pink. I began to see the beauty in my baby’s face—even when it was covered with mashed green peas and congealed chicken gravy. I watched my husband tenderly tuck our sons into their beds at night and remembered how much I loved him. I began to play in the sandbox with my boys and relish the texture of the grainy, white sand. I began to feel gratitude, even without a “kingdom of night.”

I had always thought gratitude was a feeling like love or anger—something that came naturally. But gratitude is more a virtue, like hope or faith—something that may not come naturally but can be learned (or relearned) by becoming as little children. It can be practiced, and, like a difficult passage in a Chopin étude, it becomes easier with practice.

Even when mastered, gratitude does not solve all our problems. It is not a phony attitude of ignoring the blemishes and pain of life, nor is it a selfish, self-aggrandizing attitude. It does not erase grief and hardship, but can make those times easier to bear. It can nourish us spiritually and smooth the jagged edges of our crowded lives.

Since our lives are so crowded, with many activities and obligations competing for our attention, it is not always easy to give thanks for or, as the hymn suggests, to count our blessings. Counting blessings is not particularly popular today. The world tells us to focus on what we don’t have—money for a new car, for an exotic vacation, and for unlimited material possessions.

Despite the world’s focus on this self-indulgent attitude, the gospel teaches us that gratitude is fundamental. The Savior demonstrated its importance in Luke 17:11–19. Jesus cured ten lepers, and of the ten, only one returned to give thanks. This man glorified God and fell to Christ’s feet to thank him. Jesus asked, “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?” (Luke 17:17).

I’ve often asked the same questions. Where were those nine men whose lives had been so completely transformed—social outcasts who again became part of society as healthy and whole individuals? How could they not utter a simple “thank you” after being miraculously cured of such a loathsome disease? Did they not understand the magnitude of the miracle? Did their parents forget to teach them about saying thanks?

I don’t think so. Though the scriptures do not tell us, I think they were plagued by the same difficulties we face two thousand years later. Perhaps their lives were crowded with details and trivialities. Perhaps they were so involved in their lives that they simply forgot. Maybe they were impatient to join their families and community, wanting to forget about their former lives altogether. The account in Luke never says. But we do know that only one came back.

That one was truly blessed, and not only because he recovered from his cruel disease. He was especially blessed because he had not lost his spirit of thanksgiving. He had a grateful heart and could stop to give thanks. Many young children are like that leper. They stop to feel gratitude.

After hearing my son thank his Heavenly Father for pizza, as well as for parents and big brothers, I began to be more like the healed leper—more like my three sons. I began to feel gratitude for warm blankets, puffy marshmallow clouds, and white tulips. I began to give thanks for three messy, lively boys, a winter free of ear infections, and a loving husband.

I began to sing the song of gratitude.

[photo] Photography by John Luke