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How to accept help

If you want to become a more grateful person — or at least recognize how lacking in gratitude you are — it helps to wake up one morning to an email requesting you to speak to a parish group on “the power of gratitude in the Christian life.”

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that if a heart of gratitude means being able to ask for and receive help, then I’m the wrong guy for the talk. I’m incapable of asking for directions, and when I’m tasked with a tricky item on the grocery list, I’ll walk up and down the aisles, endlessly, rather than ask. During several hospitalizations a few years back, I found it hard to bring myself to press the call button for help.

Fortunately, just a few days before my talk, I caught up with a friend who had returned from an extended visit with his beloved 102-year-old grandmother in the hospital. Until just last year, the centenarian lived an astonishingly independent life. I would see her at Mass from time to time, walking briskly alongside her great-grandchildren. Now she needs help with everything from eating to cleaning her dentures … and the list goes on.

My friend’s head was spinning. He thought his grandmother would be depressed and angry at her sudden dependence on the help of others. Instead, he watched with incredulity as she met her new circumstances with what he called “dignity” and “grace.” 

“She let us help and didn’t shy away from doing what she had to do,” he told me. “She just welcomes us into the room and into the experience, but I wonder if she was ever tempted to shout, ‘Come back later.’

“She’s teaching me that one powerful way to show gratitude is to let your loved ones be grateful for time with you; receive the gift of their time, and you show them a tremendous measure of gratitude.”

In search of more insights, I asked a 92-year-old friend who loves my children and who, just the other day, drilled my fifth grade daughter for her upcoming spelling bee.

“What brings you gratitude?” I asked, my pen and paper ready.

“Well,” she said, “it’s all around us, isn’t it? Everything can be cause for gratitude.” When I pressed her to explain, she smiled, waved her hand and said, “Go talk to your kids if you want more ideas.” She was right — she had already told me everything.

Inspired by the witness of these two remarkable women, I now had to examine the “gratitude gap.” Why is gratitude in short supply? Why is it easier to complain than to give thanks? Why are we so prone to push God and others away from our weaknesses, shouting, “Come back later”? Why, as David Brooks recently observed in The Atlantic, do we cling so tightly to our code of self-sufficiency and the wreckage of hyper-individualism?

With these and other questions, I opened the Gospel of Luke and found unexpected solace in the account of Jesus healing the 10 lepers. Only one returned to give thanks to Jesus. That 1:10 ratio is more realistic, I thought.

I recalled how my dad, who held public office, was generous in signing off on awards and recommendation letters for his constituents. He had a grateful heart. He didn’t do rec letters to get thanked, but I remember learning from him that very few people ever reached back to him with an email, let alone a handwritten thank you note.

The gratitude talk to the “empty nesters” group came and went, and the next day, I received an email from a woman who attended. After thanking me, she admitted, “I always thank God for his gifts, but I usually don’t like accepting help from people.” She wrote that going forward, she’s going to try to accept the kindness of others more graciously.  

“Ten were cleansed, were they not?” Jesus asks his disciples, and you and me. “Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”

Where are the other nine? Where are you? What a privilege we have: to bridge the gratitude gap and join that lone leper, and to hear Jesus say, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.” 

Johnson is co-founder, with his wife, Ever, of Trinity House Community (trinityhousecommunity.org).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020