There is a poster on the wall of a 4th grade classroom at York that caught my attention a couple years ago:
Watch your thoughts; They become words.
Watch your words; They become actions.
Watch your actions; They become habits.
Watch your habits; They become your character.
Watch your character; It becomes your destiny.
The message is both unsettling and hopeful – the idea that thought upon thought, action upon action can build into something as momentous as character and destiny. It makes me wonder, what kind of words and actions are on repeat around here?
The last few years I have been trying to foster the practice of gratitude. Knowing what the Bible, what research, and what wise, joyful people I know have to say about the positive impacts of gratitude gave me plenty of motivation to work on this.
In Ann Voskamp’s blog and her subsequent book, One Thousand Gifts, she described a challenge someone gave her to chronicle one thousand gifts in her life – things she was thankful for. The book is the outcome of that practice. She discovered that giving thanks for the life she already had – from the mundane, to the beautiful, to the hard and ugly – caused joy to invade heart and pointed her to God’s grace.
Four years ago this month, I started keeping my own list of thanks. I had already established the habit of rising every morning at the same time each day, before the rest of my family. Along with my cup of coffee, Bible, and prayers, the numbering of thanks began to repeat, day after day. I would reflect on the previous 24 hours, and as events, people, things, and words flashed by, I’d recognize the goodness they added to my life, and gave thanks to the Giver. I wrote them down, starting with number one.
After a short amount of time, I started noticing the gifts while they were happening instead of just remembering them the next day and realizing they were gifts. I’d hear little words and phrases spoken between my kids and delight in them. I’d see a pile of laundry overflowing and thank God that my family is always amply clothed. I smiled when I realized that we were out of milk because I knew how easy it was to hop in the car and pick up a gallon at the store.
When my life looked and felt like this, I could give thanks:
My messy house, my chattering children, my husband, home later from work than I anticipated, were all numbered in my journal, and gratitude and joy slowly pervaded my character.
As of this writing, I have logged 7,430. Four years of counting and thanking, sometimes two or three a day, sometimes long lists, some days skipped entirely. Number 7,430: “John and Ellie exercising in the kitchen.”
Over the years, I have also attempted to cultivate gratitude in my kids, but honestly, it’s hit and miss. We have written things we’re thankful for on cut-out leaves and hung them on a tree, we have written things on cute post-its and stuck them on the window, I have encouraged my insomniac daughter to think of 20 things she is thankful for while trying to fall asleep, and when my son was having some rough days at school I encouraged him to hold up his hand, fingers spread and count five things he is thankful for whenever he felt sad. Extended family members joined the conspiracy and designed a game around the dinner table, seeing how quickly we could list 64 things we are grateful for (five minutes). I still hear a lot more grumbling than thanksgiving from my darlings’ mouths, but hopefully they are hearing the opposite ratio coming from mine.
I love that we have a holiday whose very name forces us to think about gratitude and the giving of thanks. Like New Years, this is a good time to begin or renew a pattern of thoughts, words, and actions that form a habit and cultivate character. Plus it’s just plain good for the soul and the souls of those around you.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18