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Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Saying “thank you” to friends

Lynne Baab • Tuesday October 10 2023

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Saying “thank you” to friends

I learned about polite, dutiful gratitude in childhood, and I’m grateful for those lessons. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, taught me something new about expressing thanks in his book, Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer. Brother Steindl-Rast emphasizes the relational component of thankfulness: “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” (pages 15-17).

A simple “thank you” tells the other person that I value what they have contributed to my life. I value my relationship with them. I want to be connected to them.

Recently I was in a situation where I helped someone with something that seemed straightforward to me. This person thanked me over and over. I could tell my help made them acutely uncomfortable. Perhaps that discomfort came from the fact that they were ashamed to admit they needed help. I don’t know for sure. After the second or third thank you, the person was no longer indicating, “We belong together.” Instead, they seemed to communicate, “I am uncomfortable with your help. I don’t want to be needy.” To some extent, the multiple expressions of gratitude seemed to say, “I don’t want to need you in particular.  I’m totally embarrassed to be in this relationship in this way.” These thank yous communicated no intimacy, pretty much the opposite of what Brother Steindl-Rast describes.

This week, I want to encourage you to ponder the way you express gratitude in friendships and other relationships. Do you like to “acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver”? When you say thank you, are you saying, “We belong together?” You may want to pray about the answers to these questions and how you want to move forward.

You may resonate with Steindl-Rast’s idea of the connection between giver and thanksgiver. If so, probably the main form of prayer you need to engage in is asking for wisdom in expressing gratitude wisely and well. If you are embarrassed by receiving help, your prayers may need to go deeper to the place of acknowledging that we all need help. You may need God to impress on your heart that giving and receiving help — as well as the gratitude that accompanies helping — are part of healthy and loving relationships.

You also may want to pray for God’s wisdom about the best form to use when expressing thanks. One of the discoveries I made when doing my Ph.D. studies in communication 17 years ago is the way that communication has become so individualized. We need to acknowledge this and ask God for perception and wisdom. Some people never listen to their voicemail. Some people don’t read their emails. Some people prefer personal messages within a social media site and reserve regular email for work. Some people love gifts that express thanks. I once sent a thank-you card to a young adult. Later I learned that he checks his physical mail only once every month or two, when the mailbox at his apartment building gets jammed full. Despite my commitment to targeting my communication to the receiver, I didn’t know until then that some people don’t check their physical mail regularly. If we want to express gratitude, we need to consider the options that are appropriate for the person we want to thank, including text messages, voicemail, voice messages sent as a text, email, message within a social media platform, in person, in a written note or card, or in a note attached to a gift.

Expressing thanks matters. The Bible is full of statements of gratitude to God. You can read through any ten psalms in a row, and I bet you’ll find a dozen or more statements of thankfulness. My husband and I used Colossians 3:12-17 as one of the readings at our wedding, and part of the reason we chose it is that being grateful/thankful is mentioned three times.

My experience with the person who thanked me over and over, and who so obviously felt uncomfortable receiving help, is instructive. If we feel uncomfortable thanking human beings who help us or give us something, will we also find it hard to thank God? If we feel that receiving help and giving thanks shows we are too needy, will we also find it hard to accept that we need God’s help every moment of every day? You may want to go back to the beginning of this post and read the quotation from Brother Steindl-Rast again in the light of giving thanks to God. When we thank God, we affirm so many things about Jesus’s friendship with us and the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowerment, including our dependence on God for every breath.  

Thanking God helps us learn to thank humans. Thanking humans helps us grow in thanking God. Expressing gratitude honestly and humbly nurtures our bonds with friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, and the God who calls us “Beloved.”

O Giver of every good gift, open our hearts to receive your love and the love of friends and family members. Help us express gratitude frequently and humbly in a way that nurtures our relationships. Help us say thank you in a form that people can easily receive. Help us notice your generous gifts to us so we can give you our thanks often.

(Next week: The listening skill of reflection as a way to discern if we understand. Illustration by Dave Baab: Victorian house on Highgate, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.”)

A few years ago I wrote a series of blog posts called “The friendship skills of asking, giving, and thanking.” The rest of the posts follow after the first post.

Here’s another related post you may enjoy: Thankfulness versus optimism 

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