Mr. Lewis was sitting at a pub and struck up a conversation with a younger man sitting next to him. Shortly thereafter the food Mr. Lewis ordered arrived. He bowed his head in silent prayer and began to eat his meal. At first, the young man was concerned. He asked Mr. Lewis if everything was okay. Mr. Lewis explained that it was his custom to offer thanks to God for each meal before eating it. The young man became indignant. He boldly asserted that he never thanked God for his own meals because it was his own labors that provided his meals. So, when a meal was placed before him he never offered thanks. He would simply begin eating. Mr. Lewis responded, "Yes, my dog does that too."
I don't know whether this account is an apocryphal story or not. It does fit the temperament of C.S. Lewis (maybe J.R.R. Tolkien even more). Regardless, it has constantly intruded upon my mind ever since I first heard it. It is, however, a story from which we can learn many lessons. Gratitude, I think, is the first lesson to be learned from the story.
We should all have a profound sense of gratitude. Why? Isn't the young man in the story correct. Is it not our labors that bring about our great achievements? On the contrary, we should be grateful because everything that we are and everything that we have and everything that we do is somehow dependent upon others. This is easy to forget. In my own experience, and through my own faults, I have seen a tremendous lack of gratitude in our culture. The poverty of "Thank You" cards and the preponderance of advertisements carried by the US Postal Service is enough to demonstrate this point. When we forget to be grateful for others we quickly lose the sense of gratitude all together.
We soon forget that we were dependent upon others for everything. Consider a college education. The teachers, professors, benefactors, government, etc, are all persons and institutions toward whom we should be grateful. Without each, the government to provide funding and freedom, benefactors who freely contribute financially to the mission of a school, teachers and professors who share their expertise with us, these, and more, are all needed to provide each of us a college education. Likewise, the Church. If we forget to be grateful toward the priest who provides us the sacraments, through the ministry of the Church, we forget to be grateful for the One who sent him. But, both the sacred and profane spheres of our life (and our very life) are dependent upon the love and goodness of God. When we lack gratitude toward the individuals and institutions who contribute to life's benefits we are also being ungrateful to God, the source and giver of all benefits.
So, what's the point? What can be done? I'll call it, preemptive gratitude. Our Catholic tradition of prayer provides us with the model. Consider a meal. We offer our thanksgiving before the meal and then grace after it. Likewise, the Mass. There is a prayer at the beginning and a prayer at the conclusion of Mass. This model of prayer reminds us to be grateful for the giver of the gift first, then to be grateful afterwards for the reception of the gift.
What are ways that we can be grateful before we have received the fruits of another's labors? Life is a great gift that we should welcome, the company shared with another is a great gift we should welcome, the work of the priest, the teacher, the parent, the politician. We need to be preemptively grateful toward all those who make the good things in our life possible. We need to do this in appropriate concrete ways. How can you demonstrate your gratitude? I can envision some concrete ways how preemptive gratitude can change lives. So, how can you be preemptively grateful today?