A new language
At nine months old, my baby said, “Mama.” And then, before I could break out the baby journal, she added, “mamamamabalalala,” and stuck a finger in her mouth. I’d like to say Mama was her first word, but “word” implies meaning, and I’m pretty sure there was none. She was just playing with sounds, turning them over in her mouth, checking what her oratory structure could do.
That early non-word, however, was part of a process. Now, at just over a year, she can say “Mama” with reference to me, and “Dada” too, obviously of her father. She doesn’t use these words often, but meaning is evident when she does; she looks directly at the person she is referencing.
This is how a baby acquires language: she begins with an unwitting exploration of the sounds her mouth can form and then attaches meaning to them, syllable by syllable, as she hears them repeated by the people around her.
In the last few years, I, too, have begun to learn a new language. It is coming syllable by syllable, through concentrated intentionality, by surrounding myself with people to whom it is natural. It is not my native tongue, and for most of my life I didn’t know it was worth learning; I got by simply by mimicking the sounds of others when it seemed appropriate. But now that I have begun to grasp the meaning behind those sounds, it is adding considerable meaning to my life. It is the language of gratitude.
A Google search of the word gratitude will yield over a hundred million results. Psychology Today tells us, “Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so.” Derrick Carpenter, on happify.com, writes that, “The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.” Even secular culture acknowledges the profound impact of experiencing and expressing thankfulness. How much more should gratitude be the native tongue of Christians?
Second language learner
Although I have considered myself a Christian most of my life, I had never paid much attention to gratitude. My native language is skepticism, pessimism, critique. In material abundance, I see unequal distribution. In professed healings, I see those with unanswered prayers. My tendency has been to view silence as evidence and gifts as coincidence. And the more I nurtured those ways of seeing, the more natural they became.
Then I read Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, one of the few books that both enlarged my theology and changed my practice. Through it and other influences, I began to understand gratitude not as an emotion but as an intentional act, perfected through repetition. Being grateful is something I can do, and get better at. And the practice of gratitude changes all other areas of life the way exercised muscles affect all systems of the body.
Not for the first time, I see an analogy in parenting. My baby’s growing ability to express herself – still mainly through sounds and gestures – has an enormous impact on her quality of life. Not only can she get her needs met, she can connect with me in increasingly meaningful ways. As she practices language, we grow to understand each other better and better. Soon, like her five-year-old sister (herself an unstoppable geyser of language), she will be able to tell me she loves me and understand me when I tell her. Similarly, my halting acquisition of gratitude gives me a language to voice praise, for, after all, worship is gratitude expressed. But more than that, the intentional recognition of my blessings helps me to better understand God’s constantly demonstrated love for me. Gratitude helps me to receive love. No wonder the Bible so often commands us to learn and practice this language: “. . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Thess. 5:18).