Gratitude recognizes what came before us

November has always been, for me, a month for a particular sense of gratitude. This is partially because Thanksgiving comes in November — that one holiday that has been left mostly untouched by commercialism (with the possible exception of the turkey industry).

For the most part, however, Thanksgiving is still a quiet holiday, untouched by sectarian or political divisions, for simple thankfulness transcends the dark lines we draw to separate us. To the grateful, there is no “us” and “them,” only one humanity that, in our best moments, realizes that so much in life is not of our own making. We stand on the shoulders of others and benefit from their hard work and loyalty to great ideas and ideals.

This truth comes through in Deuteronomy 6, which says that we drink at cisterns we did not hew and drink from wells we did not dig. One paraphrase is:

“We build on foundations we did not lay/ We warm ourselves at fires we did not light/ We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant/ We drink from wells we did not dig/ We profit from persons we did not know.”

In other words, no generation should ever think of itself as self-sufficient. Whatever we accomplish in life, whatever we build, we build on the foundations laid by others. If we fail to recognize this, we harbor the illusion of self-sufficiency.

If every generation thinks only of itself, we will never make progress. When Israel was ready to enter the Promised Land, they were reminded that they did not build the cities, plant the vineyards, dig the wells or manufacture the goods. They would experience the blessings of the promise, but to be blessed can

easily become hypnotic, and we easily forget the gifts or the givers of the past.

A friend of mine who serves as pastor of a church in New York City tells of a question and answer time in a church capital funds campaign for the nursery and preschool program of the church. One of the sincere questions asked was, “Why should we give to this project when our children will have graduated from the nursery by the time the project is finished?”

In other words, “What’s in it for me?”

The truth of the matter is that as long as we labor only for ourselves, we leave no gifts for those who come after us. November is a good time to consider another way of life — gratefully leaving something for others, investing in a future beyond ourselves, and expressing our deep gratitude for those who did the same for us.

Part of the nature of gratitude is that it cannot be commanded — it can only be encouraged. Gratitude that is commanded is not really gratitude. Gratitude comes from a willingly grateful heart.

So this month I only encourage you to consider a grateful attitude. After all, it’s the good soil in which you may sow a little something that will grow into something more. Not because you have to, but because you get to. Not reluctantly, but with a measure of gratitude that may begin to multiply, until one day it fills you full.

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