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WM: Leaven for Community

“The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live. He has penetrated the whole mystery of life: giving thanks for everything.” —Albert Schweitzer, theologian and Nobel Peace Prize winner 

I happened to be born on Thanksgiving day, so my genesis stories of birth and life are wrapped up in my large Midwestern family collectively gathering to offer gratitude and thanks each fourth Thursday in November. 

Libby Davis ManningAs a child, I remember our family and friends arriving throughout the day for the evening turkey meal at my parents’ large dining table. My parents invited everyone to find time during the day to share gratitude with each person present—a memory, a comment, a way of being that each person uniquely contributed that year. 

It was a rich experience, and that practice has shaped our family and succeeding generations. We found it was a more meaningful practice than going around the table and saying the obligatory “one thing for which we were grateful.” As a result, life and gratitude are intertwined in my thinking and being. 

From the outset, I’ll clarify that I think about gratitude from my faith tradition, Christianity—not because Christianity is necessarily the best, but because it is the particular religious framework I happen to know the best. It has been my experience, though, that cultivating gratitude is shared by religious and nonreligious people alike. It is a virtue that invites all, and is not exclusive to any one faith or group of people. It is also a virtue that spans all the world religions. 

The random occurrence of being born in late November has invited me to pay attention to the ways gratitude is cultivated within the individual apart from Thanksgiving Day, and then the ways the individual shapes the local community. Gratitude is so central to life and character formation that I wonder, what are the conditions for gratitude to take root in the individual, and what are ways gratitude is cultivated throughout the entire year? 

Children’s literature cultivates gratitude in young readers through beloved character development. For example, A.A. Milne wrote, “Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.” We teach our young children to write thank-you notes, and say “thank you” when receiving a gift. 

In liberal arts communities such as Wabash, professors, coaches, faculty, and staff deliberately cultivate gratitude in our young men. Doing so advances the aims of our College mission to live humanely, as practicing gratitude is related to maintaining good health, meaningful relationships, and a balanced sense of well-being. 

What exactly is this virtue of gratitude of which the poets and evangelists write? Robert Emmons, a leading social science expert who studies gratitude, teaches that gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Gratitude is more than a series of recalling kind actions, Emmons writes. It is a truth we speak to ourselves affirming that good things and good people are at work around us. 

Historian and Christian theologian Diana Butler Bass drew on Emmons’ research in her book titled Grateful. In it, she concludes that gratitude is a spiritual awareness and a social structure of dynamic gift and response. Gratitude, she believes, is an awareness that we go through life receiving infinitely more than we contribute. She teaches that life is an abundance of shared gifts we give to each other. 

Other great minds have stumbled into this truth. In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote while in prison for resisting Hitler, “In normal life one is not at all aware that we always receive infinitely more than we give, and that gratitude is what enriches life. One easily overestimates the importance of one’s own acts and deeds, compared with what we become only through other people.”

What I particularly appreciate about gratitude is not how it enriches my particular individual life, but rather, the fact that gratitude always orients me toward a larger relational network—the “me” is expanded into the “we” when we live gratefully, as Butler Bass notes. While gratitude may be practiced as a personal ethic, it always connects us to others and opens our eyes to the larger network of relationships around us, which we often fail to recognize. 

Living gratefully animates us to the invisible but present threads of gifts and goodness connect our lives together. This gratitude-connection seems valuable when considering social isolation has increased and more people than ever live alone in Western cultures as the average size of families decreases. In fact, the Making Caring Common project out of Harvard University reported in February of 2021 that the pandemic deepened an epidemic of loneliness in America such that 36% of all Americans, including 61% of young adults, feel “serious loneliness.” 

Gratitude has a place of growing importance in communities, and grateful individuals have a potential to be the leaven for the creation of those grateful communities. 

Like yeast in a bowl of rising bread, grateful individuals quietly but profoundly change a place. Have you seen this in action? When someone embodies gratitude around me, I am inspired toward acts of gratitude. I am reminded that I receive far more than I give. 

Gratitude is contagious and in some profound way, the transcendent is captured in a brief moment. Thus, if we embrace the notion that gratitude changes individual lives for the good, it follows that gratitude can be an ethic and a vision for our community life together, based on practices of grace and gifts, interconnectedness, and recognition of others’ contributions to our lives. 

David Steindl-Rast put it this way: “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live.” 

I invite you to live more thoughtfully—purposefully and robustly practicing gratitude in your individual lives, and then watching for the ways gratitude becomes the leaven for the community around us. To whom might you write a thank-you note today? From whom have you received more than you’ll ever give? How does the community around you, like a loaf of bread, rise ever so slightly when you offer gratitude and thanks? I’ve seen hope rise, morale rise, a sense of interconnectedness rise in the presence of gratitude. In turn, we are changed for the better when our eyes are open to the invisible network and web of people around us, offering life, abundance, and support. 

Take time to thank a colleague this month. Students and alumni, consider writing a professor or trustee a note about how her or his wisdom and expertise have shaped you. Then set a reminder to do it again next semester. 

If we make it a habit to offer gratitude in our work and home lives, imagine the ripple effects across our communities. 

Holocaust survivor and novelist Elie Wiesel wrote, “Right after the war, I went around telling people, ‘Thank you just for living, for being human.’ And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are, ‘Thank you.’” Wiesel spoke of his ability to experience life as a gift and to treasure that gift—his ability to experience the transcendent in a single moment of gratitude. 

There is no doubt that COVID-19 reframed much of life for us in the past three academic years, both positively and negatively. One of the positive things it has done is to remind us anew of the pure gift of being together, of sharing ideas as we engage together in the life of the mind. 

Rev. Libby Davis Manning is the director of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program