Why do we fight it?
Our sages give us insight. In Hebrew the word modeh, thank you, also means “to admit.” In essence, saying “thank you” is an admission that we are in need, that we are vulnerable, that we cannot do it alone – and this is something we do not like to concede. We hate feeling beholden, especially if the favor extended to us is significant. Therefore the greater the kindness, the closer our relationship, the deeper is our reluctance to reveal our weakness by saying those two little words.
People who have no problem saying “thank you” to a waiter or a salesperson or a doorman have enormous difficulty saying those very same words to those who are nearest and dearest tot them – mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, teachers and rabbis and rebbetzins. To say “thank you” to them would be an admission that they grew and became wiser because of what these people did for them.
This inability to express gratitude has many ramifications and is perhaps one of the reasons why there are so many bitter people. Those who cannot acknowledge kindness always find something to grumble about, to criticize. They make miserable marriage partners, demanding children, and selfish friends. They are convinced that everything is coming to them, that they are entitled to all the goodies in life simply because they are alive. No matter how much they are indulged, they are never satisfied. They just keep taking without feeling a need to give back.
“Who is rich?” our sages ask. “He who is content with his lot.” How can you learn contentment? By mastering the art of gratitude. And how can you master the art of gratitude? Start with little things and slowly build up.
To develop a heightened sense of appreciation, you might try to keep in your mind’s eye the image of my husband sitting in a wheelchair in front of Sloan Kettering on a cold and overcast day in January thanking G-d for the wondrous sky. My husband’s appreciation of nature had nothing to do with illness. He always took great pleasure in contemplating G-d’s creations and he taught his family to do the same. I remember one of our granddaughters (five years old at the time) saying upon visiting a nature preserve, “I’m so glad Hashem gave me eyes so I can see all these beautiful things.”
Why is it that more people do not share this joy of gazing at the sky and seeing G-d’s beautiful world? One of the reasons may be that many people like to have something that is exclusively theirs; if everyone else has it, they just can’t derive pleasure from it. If you truly love people, however, if you are truly committed to them, your pleasure will intensify in the knowledge that they too are benefiting from that which you appreciate. Even as parents are happiest when they can share with their children, the committed individual will find happiness in the gifts that can be shared with others.
By taking a few moments each day to focus on G-d’s gifts by thanking Him for His many kindnesses through blessings and prayers – and by saying “thank you” to those who are nearest and dearest to us – we can acquire the attribute of gratitude. Even if at first our words are said by rote, the very fact that we say them will condition us to express appreciation, and that in itself is significant. One day we will wake up and discover that what started as mere habit has taken on real meaning and become part of our character.
About two years after my husband passed away I decided to move so that I might live closer to my children and grandchildren. You can imagine how difficult such a change was for me. There were so many friendships, so many associations. For thirty-two years my husband had been the spiritual leader of his congregation and it was not simple to pack that up and put it in a box.
In all our years of marriage my husband and I never exchanged a harsh a word. There was only one thing concerning which we had conflicts – his papers. He was a collector. Nothing was ever discarded, and his papers with voluminous notations were scattered all over the house.