An Attitude of Gratitude

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When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted

or take them with gratitude.

       – Gilbert K. Chesterson

So here’s a Trivial Pursuit question for you – which is anything but trivial: Who was the first person – in recorded history – to ever say “Thank You” to God? OK, I’ll give you a hint – the answer is in the Torah portion, “Vayeitzei.” And the correct answer (which hardly anyone gets right, by the way) is…our Matriarch Leah. Leah was the first person, in recorded history, to express gratitude to God, and she did so when she gave birth to her fourth son, naming him Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.”

Now this raises a pretty big question. Why didn’t Leah say “thank you” when her first child was born? Or her second and third for that matter? How was it that she waited until her fourth to officially thank God for this baby? At a quick glance, we are taught that Leah understood that her husband, Jacob, was destined to have 12 sons. Jacob had four wives, and so Leah did the math. When she gave birth to her third son, it seemed that she had been given “her share” which would have been the case if the 12 sons were divided equally among the wives. But this fourth child was a genuine surprise. He was unexpected. Therefore, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for this extra share over and above what she had perceived to be her lot.

But does this then mean that Leah was not grateful for her first three children as they were expected as part of her lot? Not at all! Leah faced a lot of challenges and was filled with insecurities within her marriage and her role in her family. Yet, she was simultaneously self-aware and communicated her needs to God, and with each child, she felt blessed that this baby was the fulfillment of her prayers.

When she birthed her fourth son, however, she recognized that she had been purely gifted. It was not just that she had prayed, and her prayers had been answered; but that God had provided her with the greatest blessing that she hadn’t even requested! This is the child that then received the name “Yehuda” for pure, unadulterated thanks. More so it is the reminder to us that we never fully understand (or sometimes we never understand at all) our situations and circumstances. But when we are grateful for what we have, then we find the meaning and purpose in who we are and what we are capable of.

This is why the Jewish people have been called by many names, but in the end, we are always “Yehudim,” “Jews” related to the name “Yehuda.” Judaism (Yuda-ism) therefore, can be understood as the means by which we can most fully express what we are at our core – beings who are grateful to God and who show that appreciation.

Ingratitude 101

Unfortunately, it seems that society has become more and more self-consumed, and one of the first things to go is the attitude of gratitude. This approach is a breeding ground for unhappiness. One of the ways we generate unhappiness is taking goodness for granted and focusing on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. When we take goodness for granted and feel that we are entitled to the good in our life, why should we be grateful? After all, it’s “what’s coming to me.” If we feel that we “deserve it,” then it’s not a “gift.” Therefore, we can’t see it as a blessing. Conversely, if we are not getting what we believe to be our “fair share,” then we will be pretty unhappy. And we certainly can’t feel a sense of thanks when we are coming from a mindset of “lack.”

The Pain of Comparisons

In her book, Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff describes a woman who emerged from her annual work review floating on air. Her boss said he was so pleased with her performance that she was getting a 10% pay raise. She immediately called her boyfriend to share the good news and, being elated for her, he promised her a champagne celebration when she came home.

As she was leaving work, however, she happened to overhear a coworker talking on her cell phone to a friend. “Can you believe it?” she said, “My boss was so impressed with me that he gave me a 15% pay raise – 5% more than the automatic 10% that everyone else got!”

When she heard that news, the 10% increase was no longer a cause for elation for her; rather, it only created resentment, discontent, and shame that she was not worthy of more. Since the 10% pay raise was what she was entitled to – and no more – she could no longer see it as a source of blessing and be grateful. Thus, a sense of entitlement kills gratitude. It helps to remember that many people are far less fortunate than you are – and are quite happy with what they have. I saw a sign on a dorm wall that said: “What if you woke up today only with the things that you thanked God for yesterday?”

When we understand that everything is a gift, we escape the trap of an entitlement mentality. And when we develop an “Attitude of Gratitude” then we can see and appreciate all of our many blessings. In the words of Melody Beattie:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.