“Did you know we have ancestors from France?” Before I could say anything in…
“Thank you so much.”
Was that my 12-year-old son who just said that? Without being told? Did he really just spontaneously thank some random person who only indirectly served our family? “Thank you so much.” I’ve since caught him doing that just about everywhere. Weird, right?
Now, like most parents, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with our kids over the years to say their “please and thank yous.” Sure, that matters, keep doing that. But that is less about gratitude, and more about following socially acceptable manners. Again, that can be a good thing, and there’s overlap, but it’s slightly different.
This wasn’t about manners. It wasn’t about what was expected of him. My son was genuinely thanking someone he had no social obligation to thank. He was just grateful and he wanted to express it.
How did that happen? In a culture that pushes extreme individualism, even to the point of entitlement, where did my son learn gratitude? Well, from his perfect parents, of course! Especially his dad, right? No! I struggle with entitlement and self-interest just as much as the next person, and possibly more. My default is a thankless heart. So how?
The Other Side of “Work Matters”
A couple years ago our church preached a series on how our work is the primary way we love our neighbors. We don’t just love our neighbors by bringing them soup when they’re sick, we also love them by serving them in our vocation. You love your neighbors on Monday by designing or manufacturing helpful products or offering valuable services. You love your little neighbors by serving them at home. My work loves my neighbor. That makes sense to me.
As I reflected, I remember marveling over the other side of this reality. This means someone loved me today enough to toast my bagel at Panera (and to bake it, grow and deliver all the ingredients, and even design and build the structure I sat in). People at the power company loved me enough today to keep my electricity running. The people at the car shop loved me enough to change my oil and rotate my tires, not to mention the people who built the roads to get there. Just start listing it out—all of it. That’s a lot of love!
Sure, I’m paying for those things, but that doesn’t take away the genuine benefit I receive from so many. A truly countless number of people tirelessly work every day to make my life better.
Everyone, Everywhere, Every Day
So I decided then to add a new discipline to my life, or at least to try it out. To the best of my ability, I’m going to try to thank everyone, everywhere, every day—anyone I see serving me.
Seriously. Why not? It costs me nothing. It takes literally zero time because I’m there anyway. It requires nothing of me but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. And if they’re wearing a name tag, I’m going to try to do it by name and look them in the eyes. “So-and-so, thank you so much for serving me.”
To the best of my ability, I’m going to try to thank everyone, everywhere, every day—anyone I see serving me.
Sounds great, right, but so much harder than I thought! Once I started trying, not only did I begin to realize how many people love me every day, but I also had to constantly fight the entitlement and pride that lives within me. Thoughts like: Well, it’s their job to serve me. Besides, I’m paying for this—I thank them with my money. Or even just being blind to it or taking for granted the innumerable amount of people serving. This can be especially true of those who work in positions our culture has little respect for.
But once you start… I remember thanking the man cleaning the men’s restroom at a Royals game. Yuck. “Thank you, so-and-so, for serving.” He stopped, returned eye contact, and with delighted surprise in his voice said, “Thanks for noticing.” It cost me nothing. It made his day. When is the last time someone thanked him?
Once you see the difference it makes, the way it brightens someone’s day to be seen and appreciated, the way it gives dignity to their work no matter what they do, and the way it increases your own sense of gratitude and joy, it’s pretty hard now not to do it.
Besides, the Bible not only commands gratitude, the gospel motivates us, and the Holy Spirit enables us to have truly thankful hearts. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In ALL circumstances. For this is God’s will for ME. For YOU.
So I thank the person holding the door, the person sweeping the floor, the TSA agent violating my personal space (yes, even there). I thank the restaurant server, UPS driver, mechanic, and truly just about everyone I can. I wave to construction workers, garbage truck drivers, post office carriers, and police officers.
Now, please don’t miss this. I am not patting myself on the back. I still struggle with being an ungrateful, entitled, self-centered piece of work. Even years after I started doing this, I still forget or get lazy, lose my nerve, or just don’t notice. I’m a mess, people. I don’t do this nearly as much as I wish I did.
See How Much You Are Served
Yet we talk a lot about gratitude, don’t we? We know it’s good for us. We know it makes our lives better. We know it breaks the cycle of entitlement and selfishness. We all want more of it, don’t we? In so many ways, it begins by simply seeing the many people who serve you, and therefore love you, every day. Do you see them?
There are the obvious ones—grocery clerks, baristas, teachers—start there, with the people you inevitably interact with. Then begin to look wider. Who keeps this place clean, safe, efficient—janitors, door greeters, security guards, store managers. If you see them, thank them.
And although it’s much harder to thank the ones you don’t see, even just acknowledging them makes me more grateful. For example, I just made myself a life-saving cup of coffee. It was amazing. Farmers grew those beans for me in Costa Rica. For me. Someone harvested them, someone roasted them, someone packaged them, and someone thought to import them. For me. They put them on a boat, then a train, then a semi (and someone built the boats, trains, semis, and roads, by the way). For me.
They ended up in a store which required engineers, architects, and construction workers just to build it (not to mention where all the materials came from), executives and managers to run it, and clerks, shelf-stockers, and janitors to maintain it. Then, of course, there are the people who keep our water clean and make sure it gets to my home, who give me power to heat it up, and who designed the coffee pot. Somebody even made me a nice mug to drink out of. For me.
How many people served me so that I could have that cup of coffee? That’s a lot of love! Do you have eyes to see it?
Say Thank You All the Time
So thank them. At least the ones you can, whenever you can, as often as you can, for your sake and theirs. Not because you have to in order to obey social norms, but because you are truly grateful for the love you receive from so many.
Imagine if we all made this simple goal—to thank everyone you see serving you (directly or indirectly) every time you see them serving you. By name, if at all possible. It’s such a small thing, but imagine what that would do, the dignity it would give, the hearts inside us that would grow, and the joy that would be shared.
It won’t cost you a dime. It requires nothing but eyes to see it, a heart to appreciate it, and a mouth willing to express it. Try it for a week and just see what happens.
I can tell you for me, this discipline is changing my life. Sure, I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s actually made me more grateful, more aware, and more sensitive to the world around me. I see people differently. I empathize more with those who work jobs society has little respect for. In return, I receive greater joy and purpose, and even greater delight in my own work (the way I love and serve my neighbors), even in the thankless parts. I feel their love, and I delight to give love in return.
Apparently my kids have noticed. I never meant to teach this to them. It was just a habit I wanted to try for a while, and for their sake and mine, I’m so grateful I did.
Colossians 3:15–17 says:
“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…with thankfulness in your hearts 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.”