“Count your blessings.” “Thank God.” “It could be worse.” Respectively these number among the most common aphorisms, exclamations, and subtle expressions of gratitude (however faint) in the English language, and consequently in our heads and hearts. One could argue the reverse—that because these thoughts fill our heads and hearts, they work their way into our language. But as George Orwell explained perhaps better than anyone else, our lazy brains reach for clichés precisely because their phrasing is ready-made. Often we would rather choose a thought from a shelf rather than generate one for ourselves. Ergo, language does not merely embody our thoughts—it controls them.
Convenience is a cliché’s virtue. Its vices are sloth, slop, insincerity, and deceit. So are ingratitude and selfishness, if a cliché concerns thanksgiving.
Our brains are never more prone to laziness than when giving (or appearing to give) thanks. It is much easier to say “thank God,” for instance, than to pause our enjoyment of God’s blessings in order to thank him for them. Likewise, telling yourself or someone else that you have so many blessings to count is easier than actually counting them. When we are at our best, clichés about gratitude stand in as substitute thoughts and serve us well enough, like a substitute teacher who once in awhile manages to make someone else’s classroom productive. At our worst, we use clichés to deceive ourselves (or others) by checking the gratitude box without truly thanking God or counting our blessings.
One reason we reach for the ready-made, besides it being less work than thinking, is that we dislike the kind of work gratitude requires. Giving thanks for anything, great or small, takes humility, and humbling ourselves is one of the most arduous tasks humans are called to do.
Humility challenges even the saints among us—perhaps them especially. The Christian tradition makes the Son of God’s act of humbling himself sound far from easy:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…. (Philippians 2:5-9a)
Christ’s humility was laborious and sacrificial. More tangibly, the Gospel of John shows Jesus washing and drying his disciples’ feet when they found no humble servant present to do so for them. Most importantly, the Gospels record Jesus dying as the substitute for the very disciples who would flee and deny him, as well as the centurion who crucified him.
No doubt humility, like all virtues, is easier to practice when it is a habit of the soul rather than a dalliance. But this side of heaven, humility is bound to be painful, because it entails laying down our pride and putting others first. In a word, it entails sacrifice.
Yet this hard work of the soul fuels gratitude, which goes nowhere without it. For those of us who occasionally (or constantly) struggle with moving past clichés toward truly counting our blessings—intentionally and verbally and thoughtfully—let the sine qua non of humility be a clue. Often a thankful heart eludes us not because our situation precludes gratitude, or because we fail to see the value of the blessings we enjoy, but because pausing to express heartfelt thanks concedes our own weakness. That’s humbling.
To thank someone and mean it is to say, “I am better off now because of you,” which equals, “I was worse off before.” More starkly: “I once was lost, but now am found; / Was blind, but now I see.” Most of us would reserve such an extreme confession of weakness (i.e., expression of humility and gratitude) for just a handful of people at the most: God, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or some personal rescuer.
Yet although these people have seen us at our worst, they can be the very ones from whom we would most like to conceal our weaknesses. Maybe we do this because we wish to please them. More likely, that’s just what we tell ourselves—whom we truly wish to please.
At any rate, to deny or try to hide our weakness from God or the people who have lent their strength to supporting us is to avoid humbling ourselves, which in turn suppresses our gratitude. And to suppress our gratitude is to make ourselves less thankful. As with the trick of language above—i.e., language influences the direction of our thoughts, in a sense controlling them—one could try to argue it the other way: that because we are less thankful, we suppress our gratitude. But this inverted equation forgets that virtue, character, humility, and gratitude, do not rain down upon certain saintly people like manna. You don’t start with these habits, nor are they surgically implanted. They sprout up around unsaintly people from seedlings. Those who cultivate them reap the harvest, which is a grateful heart.