After every birthday party, and any other special event from which I received a gift or favor, my mom would soon have 10 to 15 thank you cards out on the table for me, waiting to be signed, sealed and delivered.
She taught me to value the sacrifices and acts of kindness that others showed me. She reminded me that the least I could do was to send a handwritten note, expressing my gratitude.
This is a rare quality today, when so many of us are rushed, focus on the self, connected to our electronic devices and otherwise absorbed in our own lives. But we can never forget the goodness that is around us, or that is shared with us by others who care.
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Here are a few things for which I believe we should all be grateful.
1.) Gratitude for your faith in God. After spending three years now in New York City, I have come to realize that many people simply have little to zero faith. They were not brought up in a strong Judeo-Christian tradition, and at least four passengers on the Metro North train (that connects Manhattan with some of the outer suburbs) have personally told me they don’t know if they were baptized or not.
One 55-year-old nurse mentioned that she had never prayed once to God in her life. She was brought to tears as I tried to explain how much God loved her.
A member of the New York City Atheist Society verbally attacked me on the subway train, saying that the Bible was the greatest mythology story ever written. I have witnessed so many people reading Buddhist literature or self-help books, desperately trying to fill the religion void resulting from a poor upbringing.
2.) Gratitude for your family. A roughly dressed young man in Midtown recently stopped me and asked, “Reverend, why do kids kill each other?” I was startled by the question, and responded, “Well, many grow up in difficult family settings with no supervision or guidance.”
He said, “Look, Reverend, my dad is in jail and my mom has serious drug issues, but I am not killing people. My teenage friends are killing each other…”
What do you say to that young man? I still remember visiting an orphanage in El Salvador on December 22, just before Christmas, with a group of American dads with their sons. Many of them were brought to tears when they heard that this group of 30 impoverished kids did not have a home or a dad to go home to for Christmas. I have so many fond memories of time spent with my parents, my two brothers and my sister, and it really hurt to see that these kids did not have a home and a family they could call their own.
3.) Gratitude for your health. During my walks up and down Manhattan, I pass so many homeless men and women, many without arms or legs, on the streets of New York City. In a suburb of New York where I live, I can go for a daily run without worrying about getting mugged, and I notice dozens of adults running, jogging, and walking with their friends. The FDA guarantees that our food is safe and healthy, and most of us can afford to buy quality food that will keep us fit and nourished. We have the best health care system in the world (though expensive), with amazing preventative care to catch and cure diseases well before they advance.
I have written this article from a heated room, overlooking a cold and snow-covered landscape. When it’s cold out, most of us have heat. When it gets a little hot outside, we turn on our air conditioners or fans. Spend a few weeks in Africa or in the slums of Latin America — and there is a much different reality.
4.) Gratitude for fresh starts. In this new season of spring, birds are chirping, blossoms bursting, warm breezes blowing — and baseball is underway. Yet many people are struggling to make ends meet, to find a new job, to finish school, and to nail down their summer and even fall plans, and well beyond that. This season offers hope and opportunities for a new beginning. And although God is always right there to help you in your new journey, he also provides mentors, friends, pastors, teachers and neighbors to help you along the way.
Don’t waste time and energy focusing on all the obstacles and problems. Look around you and see the many “angels” and blessings God has placed in your life.
5.) Gratitude for your freedoms. We do not live in a police state. We can freely practice our religion and freely state our opinion. Our democracy allows the people to elect our president, our congressmen and senators … and we have an incredible legal system of checks and balances that prevents this country from falling apart. The American dream is still possible for the poorest kid in the slums, while the standard and quality of life in this country is higher than anywhere in the world.
Please, take time to step back and thank God. We are all blessed in so many ways, and I believe God deserves a personalized “thank you” note from all of us, in whatever way we are comfortable reaching out to the Almighty. However we do that, he will hear us.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.