NCS All School Chapel Thanksgiving Homily – 30-Day Gratitude Experiment

by | Nov 15, 2017

Good morning. Let me begin by thanking Mrs. Jamieson and your chaplains for inviting me to speak today. It gives me the opportunity to tell you what I think about nearly every day as I watch you from my position on the Cathedral Close and that is how much I admire and appreciate you–the girls, young women, faculty and administration of National Cathedral School.

I’d like to tell you a story then invite you into a 30-day experiment.

The story is about a five year old girl, Rachel, who lived with her parents in a small apartment in New York City. Her grandfather would come to visit and when he did, he would often bring Rachel gifts–not the kind of gifts you would expect, like dolls or stuffed animals or books.

One of the gifts he brought her was a little paper cup. She looked inside hoping to find something sweet to eat, but all the cup contained was dirt. Her grandfather smiled at her disappointed face, brought her into the kitchen, and put the paper cup on the window ledge. “If you promise to put a little bit of water in the cup everyday, something special may happen.” It made no sense to her–remember she was only five–but she promised her grandfather that she would put a bit of water in the cup everyday.

At first it was easy to remember this daily chore, and she was curious to see what would happen. But as days went by and nothing changed, it was harder for Rachel to remember. When her grandfather returned a week later, she asked if it was time to stop. He said no. The second week was even harder and she felt angry and frustrated. When her grandfather came to visit, she wanted to give the cup back. But he refused to take it. “Every day, Rachel, a bit of water.” By the third week, she began to forget about her cup until she was in bed at night. Out of respect for her grandfather, she would get up and put water in the cup.

And one morning, there were two little green leaves sprouting up from the dirt that had not been there the day before. Having never seen plants grow before, she was astonished. Day by day the plants grew a bit bigger. She couldn’t wait to show her grandfather, whom she thought would be as astonished as she was. But of course he wasn’t. He explained to her that life is everywhere, blessings are everywhere hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. “And it needs it water, Grandpa?” Rachel asked. “No,” he said, “All it needs is your faithfulness.” (Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging  (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000).)

Rachel is now a rather famous doctor and author. This is first memory, she says, her first lesson in the power of service, although her grandfather wouldn’t have used those words. He would have said to her that we all need to remember the power we have to bless and nurture life around us, and the life within us. He would have said that when we remember to bless life, we can help heal the world.

That’s the story, the power of faithfulness.

Here’s the experiment that I invite all of National Cathedral School to take up with me for the next 30 days. (I’m not going to ask the boys of St. Albans to do this, so they can be the control set.)  

At some point every day, for the next 30 days, write down in a notebook or journal or in a document on your computer at least 3 things for which you are grateful. Try not to miss even one day, but if you do, simply start again. You don’t need to share your gratitude journal or lists with anyone, although you can, if you like. You can even do this as a group activity if you want, but the results of this experiment that I’d like you to document are for you as an individual. What changes do you notice, if any, as as result of the practice of gratitude?

Some of you may already do this, or have some other daily practice of gratitude. If so, you can simply continue on in what you do. Some of you may be like me, and practice gratitude more sporadically. The experiment is the kind of daily faithfulness that Rachel’s grandfather spoke of.

What’s the point of this, besides the fact that we’re gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving?

There all kinds of studies being done on the power of the practice of gratitude. The positive benefits described in these studies are nothing short of amazing: better health, lower stress, better sleep, and greater capacity to deal with the very real challenges of life.

In one study, participants were asked to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Studies have also been done on students, ranging from elementary school to college, with similar results.  

Thus over the past decade, science has shown that gratitude is one of the most valuable and important emotions we possess, and it is a virtue that anyone can cultivate. In fact, researchers have developed many different methods people can use to foster an attitude of gratitude, and the science shows that many of them really work. One of them is the one I suggest we take on–the daily gratitude journal.

So I propose that we all begin now. Then, if you’re willing, that you share your experiences with me right before you leave for winter break. Let’s see what we learn.

Now, a few things to consider as we begin:

First, the important thing is the daily practice of expressing gratitude. Holidays like Thanksgiving are wonderful extravaganzas of gratitude, but according to the studies, it’s the small, daily practice that has the most positive, lasting effect. Like most things of value, you can’t pull an all nighter in gratitude, any more than pouring a bucket of water once on seeds in a cup will help them sprout and grow.

Second, in the course of a month, as in the course of our lives, hard things will happen we don’t need to pretend we’re grateful for.  When things are hard and you’re struggling, start by acknowledging that to yourself and others. It’s okay to feel disappointed and discouraged sometimes. But in the midst of the hardship, struggle, disappointment, look around and try to name three things for which you are grateful in the midst of the hardship–a supportive friend; good food; a hot shower in the morning.

Third, a side benefit of our gratitude practice, according to all the studies and what we can see in the people around us, is that we will become more generous and kind. Out of a growing sense of blessing, we will naturally want to be a blessing to others. That is a very good thing. But for now, what I encourage you to focus on is what the practice of gratitude does for you.

For there is no doubt in my mind that you are all doing good and important things to help make this broken and beautiful world a better place. And that you are doing your best to help other people. What I hope we can all experience through this exercise is more joy.

Gratitude is one of the best antidotes for two of the most joy sapping conditions of our time: envy and anxiety. We’d be made of stone not to feel envious and anxious in this high achieving, high consumer driven culture. As a result we can all lose sight, far too quickly, of how much we have to be grateful for, and–most important of all–what a gift it is to be alive, what a gift it is to be who we are.

May this 30-day experiment help you know what a blessing you are. I started my gratitude journal this week. And on the top of my list today is you.