11/21/2012 12:46 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2013

Much Obliged: Why We (Should) Say Thank You

Anne Lamott's new book describes prayer in three steps: "Help; Thanks; Wow." Others have taught that the secret to a satisfying life is to have an attitude of gratitude.

Psalm 107 begins: Hodu L'Adonai -- "Give thanks to God." At this season of thanksgiving (especially since Hodu is also the Hebrew work for turkey!) it is good to think about what gratitude and thanks actually mean.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha tov -- literally, recognizing the good. This "attitude of gratitude" begins with being aware of the good that is already yours. Alan Morinis, a contemporary teacher of the Jewish spiritual practice called Musar describes four steps to gratitude:
  1. Recognize the good that you possess.
  2. Acknowledge that it is a gift, not something you deserve.
  3. Identify the source of the gift, whether God or a human being.
  4. Express your thanks.
"Express your thanks." Sounds like a no brainer. But it turns out that it is more complicated than it seems. As the late Musar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe taught:

"Gratitude is intellectually compelling and is a very good trait so why are we so often ungrateful? There are two reasons. The first is that a person's first impression is that everything comes by itself and that it is all coming to him. The second is: when I receive good from someone and I recognize that good, I become indebted to him."

One of the colloquial ways people say thank you is "Much obliged." Saying thank you does seem tied to obligation. But many of us don't want to feel obliged. To be obligated seems to mean to be dependent, and the culture we live in is terrified of dependence. We are taught to believe that everything we have achieved is because of our own merit, that we are entitled to the abundance of our lives. But it isn't true. Everything we have is a gift, even the next breath we take. Recognizing and acknowledging the source of the gift doesn't make us dependent but reminds us that we are all interdependent.

An example: Jewish tradition teaches that we should say a blessing before we eat. There is actually a different blessing for different kinds of food. The blessing for a brussel sprout is: "Holy One of Blessing, whose presence fills creation, who creates the fruit of the ground." The blessing for an apple is "Holy One of Blessing, whose presence fills creation, who creates the fruit of the tree." So first, we have to know where the fruit grew. The blessing acknowledges gratitude to God for the creative power that enables trees to bear fruit. But of course that is just the beginning. Someone had to tend the fruit as it grew on the tree, then someone had to pick it, pack it and some else had to transport it to the market where yet another someone washed it and put it out on display for whomever in our family bought it and put it in our refrigerator. And if I acknowledge all those people I might actually wonder what the working conditions are like in the orchards or the supermarket or how much those workers get paid. I would notice that this apple is indeed a gift, and that my enjoyment of it isn't because of my own merit but rather because of my interdependence with and connection to a web of other people. I am much obliged to all of them.

My prayer for this Thanksgiving can best be captured in the words of Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

Spirituality is living with attention.
Living with attention leads me to thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is the response I have
to the great debt I accrue with each breath I take.
Attending to the everyday miracles of ordinary living
I am aware of the interconnectedness of all things.
I cannot be without you.
This cannot be without that.
All cannot be without each.
And each cannot be without every.
Thanksgiving is not for anything.
It is from everything.
May I cultivate the attention
to allow the thanks that is life
To inform the dance that is living.