Not too long ago I was at the Louisville post office sending off a package. On my way out I walked past the P.O. boxes and saw a paper sitting on one of the tables. For some reason I decided to turn it over. It was a check for $10,000.
Bells and whistles started going off in my head and I engaged for a moment in the I’ve-won-the-lottery train of thought—paying off my car, getting new windows and living large for Christmas this year. But then I remembered that I’m a Christian, we don’t steal, and I came to my senses. It was good while it lasted.
I started googling the company that wrote the check and contacted them to let them know I had found it. Then I googled the company who the check was made out to and called them to let them know I had it. A man answered the phone and seemed genuinely grateful that I had found the check and taken the time to track him down. He gave me his address and a few minutes later I delivered the check. When I stepped into his two person office, I could see that he was on the phone. His secretary glanced at me and said “I’ll take that” looking at the check in my hand. “I was at the post office just a little while ago. I don’t know how it got left behind.” She grabbed the check and that was it. No finders fee, no hug, and not an ounce of gratitude.
As I’ve thought about that moment, I think this crabby secretary was embarrassed that she had screwed up and left the check behind, so when I returned it, she wasn’t feeling grateful. Instead she was feeling a sense of shame because she had failed.
Robert Emmons, a professor at UC Davis, one of the experts on this topic of gratitude says
“Gratitude requires that we affirm our dependency on others and recognize that we need to receive that which we cannot provide for ourselves. Until this dependence is acknowledged, gratitude remains a potentiality at best.”
Real gratitude is for those who accept their dependency on others. Which is why gratitude is so hard for teenagers. The main goal of the adolescent journey is individuation or becoming independent and gratitude for their parents reminds them that they are still dependent on their families. It feels horrible to them and let’s face it, doesn’t prompt great behavior.
Us self-sufficient women we struggle with dependency too. We have the hardest time with gratitude because we believe we should be able to do ourselves and we are embarrassed that we cannot. Robert Emmons says to be grateful means to allow ourself to be placed in the position of a recipient (self sufficient gals are givers and not receivers)—to feel indebted and aware of one’s dependence on others. Gratitude implies humility—a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others.
I’ve experienced this quite a bit in the last 2-3 years since I became a single mom and the primary guardian of my children. I sometimes feel that it’s all up to me to help and heal my children, And even though I will always put every bit of effort that I can muster into that challenge, I know deep down that this job is simply too big for me and I’ve had to become more of a recipient than a giver. It’s been incredibly humbling.
The first time this happened, I was driving with Caroline as she started to tell me about her friends, one in particular that had come to mean so much to her in recent months. She said that she loved this whole family because they were so kind and loving toward each other and they treated her like one of the family. And then she said some of the hardest truth I have ever heard, “They are like the family I never had.”
You have a mom and a dad although we don’t all live together anymore! You have a dog, for crying out loud! I have dedicated almost 20 years of my life to that family you never had: creating an identity, going on family outings, teaching Christian values and unity, being available, modeling truth and grace, getting to know their hearts, and doing those crazy highs and lows at the dinner table. But, since the separation and divorce my children now come from a broken family.
And at first it shamed me. And so what I felt for this loving family who cared for my daughter was indebtedness not gratitude. Indebtedness is an ugly feeling when you have received a gift that you did not want or don’t feel like you deserve. It makes you want to even the score and give them something back OR just avoid them (like the woman with the post office check.)
Caroline spent many nights at this family’s house but when I tried to pay them back by inviting their daughter over, they rarely accepted. And so all I could do was write them a thank you note, receive their gift of love, and be grateful.
And this has happened in various ways to each of my daughters as teachers have brought flowers that I used to bring, youth leaders have taken my girls on dates that I used to take them on, and coaches have provided the rides that I used to provide. But since I am well acquainted with humility, I am overwhelmingly grateful.
As Caroline and I pulled into the driveway that day she looked over at me from the passenger seat and said “Do you know the one thing that my friends are jealous that I have?” “What’s that?” I asked. “They are jealous of my relationship with you.” And that pretty much made up for her earlier comment.
Gratitude is an admission of need. This week, during this season of Thanksgiving, express your gratitude to someone who has helped you along the way or to someone you neglected to thank because you were a bit embarrassed that you needed their help. Lean into humility, and let your heart be grateful.
Who do you need to thank this week?