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Friendship skills: Obstacles to thankfulness

Thursday July 12 2018

Friendship skills: Obstacles to thankfulness

I’ve been writing the past two weeks about the importance of asking, giving and thanking in friendships. Why don’t we do those actions more often?

Perhaps we are slow to thank people because we really don’t want to admit that we need others. We don’t want to admit that kind of weakness. Perhaps we don’t express thanks because we are so caught up in the stresses of our lives that we forget to take the time for that note or word of thanks. Perhaps we are so caught up in our own lives that we forget to notice what other people have done for us. We can’t thank people for something we haven’t taken the time to notice.

Perhaps the consumer culture has influenced us in deep and profound ways, encouraging us to focus our attention on what we don’t have, rather than noticing what we do have. The sea of advertisements that washes over us encourages us to believe that we need something more. The consumer culture tells us that what we have is not enough. If we are experiencing abundance, if we are feeling happy with life, then we’ll quit shopping. Buy, buy, buy. Whatever you have is inadequate, you need more.

In this sea of advertising, noticing the great gifts God has given us requires intentionality and effort. In the same way, paying attention to what our friends have given us requires a shift of focus away from what we lack. Thankfulness is rooted in noticing what we have been given.

Paul gives the Colossians some general instructions for how to live as Christians:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Col 3:15-17).

Thankfulness and gratitude are mentioned three times in those three verses. Gratitude toward God is stressed, but gratitude towards others is implied. Thankfulness enables us to live more fully in peace because thankfulness admits that we need God and we need others, which is the honest truth. The pride of self-sufficiency reduces peace because it is fundamentally dishonest about who we are as human beings. Thankfulness for the caring actions of the people around us affirms that we were created to live in relationship.

Thankfulness shapes us because we take the time to notice the way people are contributing to our lives. As I wrote last week, thankfulness builds bridges because giver and thanskgiver acknowledge their dependence on each other.

Friends ask each other for help and companionship. Friends thank each other for all the ways the friendship nourishes them. Asking, giving, receiving and thanking create bonds between people that say, “We belong together.”

Here are two definitions of friendship given to me in interviews for my book on friendship. See if you can identify the role of asking, giving and thanking that makes possible the things described in these definitions:

“Our real friends are the people we have spent time with, shared experiences with, told our secrets to, exchanged ideas with, supported through difficult times or allowed to support us.”
—Hope, an office manager in her forties

 “Friendship is a commitment to a relationship with another person that involves being intentional about working on the best possible communication with each other and understanding how to serve each other.”
—Emma, a project manager in her fifties

(Next week: Baruch and Jeremiah. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking: We belong together

Friday July 6 2018

The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking: We belong together

Giving and thanking shape friendships. When we ask for help, we are giving our friend a gift, the opportunity to give a gift back to us. And when we thank our friend for that gift, we acknowledge we depend on our friend. We need our friend, and we honestly admit that need. And this binds us together.

Brother David Stendl-Rast – who I quoted in last week’s post on giving, asking, noticing and thanking – believes that the person “who says ‘thank you’ to another really says, ‘we belong together.’ Giver and thanksgiver belong together.”[1] When we ask for help, we create a situation in which we affirm that we belong together with the person we are asking for help. When we thank that person, we are continuing to affirm that we are connected.

I have found that asking for small favors is a great way to nurture a fledgling friendship. After we moved to New Zealand in 2007, I have found myself asking all sorts of small questions, “Can you help me understand how the city council works here?” “Can you tell me which restaurants you like?” “Where do you buy gardening tools?” Later, when I acted on the answers to those questions, I felt grateful to the people who gave me the information, and I tried to remember to thank them.

Even though Dave and I had lived many years in Seattle, when we returned to Seattle in 2017, the same process repeated itself. This time it required quite a bit of humility to ask questions about a city which we expected to feel familiar, but of course many things had changed in the decade we were away. We had to ask for help many times, and we have tried to use those instances as opportunities to affirm that we belong together with old and new friends.

Question asking in online settings builds intimacy in the same small way. “Does anyone know a motel near the Los Angeles airport?” Later, thanking the person who provided the name of a motel affirms the connection between giver and receiver.

In New Zealand, I was thousands of miles from my closest friends, but I continued to ask for their help. Using email, I asked for advice, prayer support and sometimes practical help with something I couldn’t do from a distance. And then I thanked them.

The significance of thankfulness in friendship cannot be overestimated. Perhaps gushing expressions of thanks can be overdone, but noticing the many ways the people around us contribute to our lives, and trying to thank them appropriately, is a key friendship skill.

I have watched my mother write hundreds, perhaps thousands, of thank-you notes. She adheres to an old standard of etiquette. Every time she has meal at another person’s house, every time she attends a party, and every time she receives a gift of any kind, she writes a thank you note.

I don’t write anywhere near as many thank-you notes as she does, but I make a concerted effort to notice all the ways the people around me are helping me, and I try to thank them. A personal word of thanks in a conversation, a thank you by email or other online means, and sometimes a thank-you note.

Friends help us in so many ways, even when we haven’t asked for help.

  • “Thanks for listening to me ramble on about my job the other day. It was helpful to get it out.”
  • “Thanks for the lunch we had last week. I enjoyed the conversation.”
  • “Thanks for giving me a lift to the meeting on Thursday. It was great not to have to drive.”
  • “Thanks for photocopying that article you thought I would enjoy. I appreciate that you remembered me.”
  • “Thanks for your email. I loved hearing from you.”

Thanking connects the giver and the thanksgiver. Thanking shapes relationships because it affirms that we value the link between us. Thanking affirms to the giver that their action matters to us. I figure if I thank people for something, they’re more likely to do it again because they know I value it. Thankfulness is positive reinforcement for things I appreciate receiving from my friends.

(Next week: Obstacles to thankfulness in friendships. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

[1] David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 17.

Friendship skills: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking

Thursday June 28 2018

Friendship skills: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking

Giving in friendship can involve providing help in a variety of ways. Giving includes presents. In the broadest sense, all acts of kindness in friendship are gifts: listening carefully, sending a card or message expressing sympathy, or accepting that a friend is experiencing extraordinary challenges at work and won’t be able to spend time together for a while. Acts of initiative can also be viewed as gifts of friendship: reaching out to someone who is new in town or new on the job, or sharing a vulnerable feeling with a friend to indicate they can do the same with you. Offering forgiveness after being hurt may be one of the biggest gifts a friend can give.

Misunderstandings in friendship can arise when two people give gifts to each other in different ways. One of them buys presents and the other one tries to give the gift of practical help or a listening ear. A discussion of languages of love can be illuminating.

I have observed that people who have a rich circle of friends have learned the friendship skills of asking for help and giving a variety of gifts. They have also learned the significance of thanking the people who help them or give to them in any way. My understanding of the significance of asking for help in friendship has been influenced by my own growth in thankfulness.

For more than 15 years I have been giving special focus to thankfulness in my prayers. That focus has forced me to pay more attention to the good gifts God has given me in daily life. Noticing what God is giving me has spilled over to noticing what people are giving me. Noticing, and then expressing thanks, are great intimacy builders, both with God and with friends.

David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote a book on thankfulness in prayer that lays out the way that giving and thanking build intimacy. In Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, he writes:

Why is it so difficult to acknowledge a gift as a gift? Here is the reason. When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver. This may not sound that difficult, but there is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence. . . . When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. [1]

When we ask for help in any form, we are asking for someone to give us something. We’re asking for a gift. Asking for a gift implies that we are depending on the giver, that we are dependent people. Thanking the person for the gift reinforces that dependence. When we thank the giver for that gift, we acknowledge the bond between us. Bonds between people are a form of dependence, and acknowledging our need for those kinds of bonds requires that we relinquish some of our pride in our own self-sufficiency.

I mentioned Daniel’s mother last week, who didn’t tell her family about a serious illness. She couldn’t face the idea that she might be dependent on another person, therefore she couldn’t ask for help. She missed out on the bond that forms between people when they give gifts to each other and express gratitude to each other.

Stendl-Rast believes that this bond that develops between giver and thanksgiver helps us understand the significance of gratitude in prayer. I have discovered his word to be true as I have grown in willingness to engage in prayers of thankfulness. Prayers of thankfulness acknowledge our dependence on God. Taking the time to notice all the ways God has blessed us and cared for us nurtures our relationship with God, because with each prayer of thankfulness we acknowledge that we need God.

(Next week: We belong together. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

[1] David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-16.

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Friday June 22 2018

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Daniel, in his sixties, was raised with notion that men are supposed to be independent and strong, able to meet their own needs. He jokes that the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock, I am in island” summarizes the philosophy of manhood he learned as a child. In his childhood, the stoicism encouraged for men spilled over to all of his family life. Even his mother was afraid to acknowledge weaknesses or needs. The shame of needing someone’s help was very strong.

People have told Daniel that asking others for help can be a way to build intimacy. He has found it difficult to act on that idea, but he has tried. He can see that the extreme self-reliance of his parents wasn’t good for them or for their children because it resulted in isolation and alienation from neighbors and family members.

Daniel volunteers with an international student ministry at the local university. The small group of students decided they would like to hold a retreat over spring break. As Daniel was praying about the possibility of holding a retreat, he remembered that a couple he knew from his church had a holiday cottage. He wondered if perhaps they might be willing to loan the cottage to the student group for the retreat.

He didn’t know the couple well, but he got up the courage to ask about the cottage. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and asked Daniel and his wife to meet them at the cottage for lunch a couple of weeks later.

The lunch was fun, and Daniel got a good preview of the cottage so he could begin to make plans for the retreat. As the retreat drew nearer, Daniel consulted with the couple about some of the plans for the retreat, and afterwards Daniel was able to share with them some of the good things that happened. All those conversations about the retreat drew Daniel closer to the couple, and after the retreat was over, Daniel realized he knew them much better. Asking for help had indeed increased intimacy and set him on a path toward friendship with that couple.

Friends ask for all sorts of things: help with physical projects, a listening ear when times are tough, prayer support in the midst of challenges, companionship in activities, a few moments to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem, and many other things. The give and take of asking and receiving is an integral part of friendship.

Why is asking so hard for so many people? I have observed that the most isolated people often have a hard time asking for help.

Daniel’s story illustrates the impact of the “rock and island” philosophy of being a man. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t figure it out on your own?” These words float around in Daniel’s head when he considers asking for help. The pride of being self sufficient is a strong motivator for many men, and it influences many women as well.

In fact, Daniel’s mother experienced as much, if not more, shame than Daniel’s father when she had needs. She found it excruciatingly difficult to ask for help or acknowledge a weakness. She experienced a major health crisis without telling her family members. When they found out about it many years later, they were stunned that she had not been able ask for support and encouragement in the midst of a medical challenge that could not possibly have been considered to be her fault. She died a lonely, isolated woman. Her inability to acknowledge her need for help played a significant role in her isolation.

Pride in self sufficiency and shame in asking for help are two major forces that make it difficult to admit we have needs. In addition, we may fear that our friends are too busy to help or have too many struggles of their own. We don’t want to impose on people who are already stretched. We don’t want to be a burden.

(Next week: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This post is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

Thursday May 31 2018

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

We often conflate thankfulness and optimism, but they are not the same thing. Christians who want to enjoy God’s economy of abundance will find it helpful to tease out the differences.

I recently wrote a book on pastoral care which will be released in August by Fortress Press. One of the chapters focuses on stress, because caregivers in any context need to know how to deal with their own stress, and they also need to help care recipients cope with stress better. Research shows that optimism helps people survive stress better, because how we think about the things that are happening to us makes a difference. One of the people I interviewed talked about the difference between optimism and thankfulness for people under stress.

Optimism can be defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” Hope is a major theme in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul uses the name “God of hope” in Romans 15:13, and in 1 Corinthians 13:13, he lumps faith, hope and love together as things that endure.

So if optimism is composed of hope and confidence, why would we not want to embrace it all the time? The woman I interviewed for my book, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said that optimism can be overemphasized. When we focus on optimism too much, she said, we can slide into denial, which is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. She said thankfulness can bring about the same good results as optimism in many difficult situations, but without any denial.

Here’s how it works. Thankfulness is a choice to focus our eyes on good gifts. Those gifts might come from the people around us – a stimulating conversation, an act of kindness, direct help that meets a need, an encouraging word, a doctor or other professional who gives help we need, or many other specific gifts, big or small, from people in our lives.

Thankfulness also enables us to see God’s good gifts that come directly to us – an answer to a prayer, a situation that works out well despite the odds, inner strength to do something difficult, or peace that passes all understanding. Thankfulness also helps us notice the good gifts in the physical world God created – a delicious meal, the clear eyes of a child, colorful fall leaves and beautiful spring flowers, a vivid sunset, dramatic mountains, and towering clouds.

The kind of thankfulness I’ve mentioned creates a foundation for hope. We are hopeful and confident about the future because of God’s faithfulness that we observe in the present. We trust in God’s promises because, by being thankful, we have taught ourselves to see the fruit of his promises already.

When we focus on the good gifts that are present in our lives, we do not deny the reality of pain, stress and challenges. Thankfulness involves turning our eyes to see good things even in the midst of those difficulties, and we take a moment to thank the giver of the gift.

 Thankfulness nurtures relationship. David Steindl-Rast, in his beautiful book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, writes, “When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. . . . The one who says ‘thank you’ to another really says, ‘We belong together.’ Giver and thanksgiver belong together.” [1]

Steindl-Rast wonders if our society suffers so much from alienation because we are reluctant to offer thanks. I agree with him. It seems clear that our friendships and family relationships suffer when we feel uneasy acknowledging bonds with other people, when we hold back from expressing gratitude.

 Steindl-Rast points out that everything is a gift, yet we find it hard to acknowledge gifts because we don’t like to admit our dependence. Thankfulness involves acknowledging that we belong with others and with God, and that we depend on the people around us and on God. We are not alone. We are not self-sufficient. We cannot navigate life on our own. 

 In contrast, when we feel pressure to be optimistic, we often feel we have to generate positivity within ourselves. Optimism can be quite individualistic, while thankfulness nurtures community. 

Sometimes, focusing on optimism is exactly the right thing to do, but we have to be careful not to take it so far that there’s no room for our own – or others’ – sorrow, pain or tears. Thankfulness leaves more room for sadness and tears because we can be thankful for God’s work in a situation while grieving that the situation is happening. 

I invite you to ponder the role of thankfulness and optimism in your own life. Think of the models you’ve seen for both thankfulness and optimism. 

(Next  week: the guest-host shift. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Past posts about thankfulness:

Growing in thankfulness         
A thankfulness challenge         
Another thankfulness challenge         
Five quotations about thankfulness         
Thomas Merton on our transparent world         
Thankfulness and sentness                    

[1] David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-17. 

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