When I was in high school, I learned one of the best lessons I know about gratitude. I was shopping with one of my closest friends, and like many a teenage girl before and since, I started complaining about how my legs looked.
If one pair of pants made them look too wide, the next made them look too short, and so on through every rack of clothes. But as I tossed yet another pair of rejected jeans onto a growing pile in the dressing room, my friend made a cool observation: “At least your legs work.”
What I had overlooked in the midst of my shallow fit of vanity is that my friend had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few months earlier. She knew better than anyone that functioning legs are a gift, no matter how pale or dimply they might be.
I have thought about this interaction often over the years because it was the first time I saw how ugly and oblivious ingratitude can be — embarrassingly so. And yet, still, it plagues most of us in nearly every aspect of life. Particularly so in the area of our daily work where frequent irritations, jealousies, injustices and frustrations highlight our disappointed hopes or expectations.
Much like walking on a pair of working legs, our jobs can easily become so routine that we forget work itself is a gift. In contrast, however, cultivating gratitude in the simplest things, be it walking or working, changes how we see the world and our place in it. In the workplace especially, whether that be logging hours in a cubicle or clocking in and out of shifts, learning to see what there is to be grateful for and then to tune our attention to all of the easy-to-overlook bits, takes practice.
I find that the blessings of work are rarely the things I expect to find as I earnestly will myself to feel more thankful or, at least, less annoyed. Instead, as I make an effort to remember the bigger context of my work, to re-orient my perspective, and to record and reflect on my daily experiences through a variety of simple practices and disciplines, I am often surprised by the gifts I discover.
The Bigger Context
Remembering the bigger context of my work is an important beginning. And by this I simply mean that there is value in remembering that our work is part of a larger biblical narrative. Our work is a central way that we image God, bearing the Imago Dei of Him who is the progenitor of all creativity, provision and productivity. It also gives us new eyes to see the image of God in others who bear forth this same infinite image in myriad ways throughout the world and across different seasons of life. Likewise, rooting ourselves in the story of Scripture reminds us that our work is a gift God gave to us before the Fall. And so, while we all experience fits of futility and frustration at work, we can also take comfort that work itself is not the problem.
Our work was never supposed to be as frustrating as it is. Our work was never supposed to be as frustrating as it is. The Old Testament affirms the value God places on work, always engaging with Israel as a nation of workers and stewards of creation in how they care for plants and animals to how they construct the temple. And in the New Testament again we see Christ himself was a worker, hewing and shaping wood into furniture for years before He began His public teaching. It also points us toward the culmination of all things, when God renews creation and our work once again resumes its proper place as a life-giving, productive and satisfying part of our relationship with God, working alongside Him to steward and tend and create all manner of good gifts.
Understanding the biblical narrative in this way is critical for understanding Teresa of Avila’s insight that, “God has no body but yours” to do His work of care, redemption, healing and service until the day of His final redemption. And it is this right and full and rich view of work that plants the seeds of gratitude as we begin to see our work as a gift and a privilege rather than merely a nuisance or a burden.
Understanding our work in context is a critical first step, but because the Fall seeps into every corner of creation, the reality for most of us is that it’s hard to sustain a grateful perspective in the midst of irritations and tension. In the midst of the everyday push-and-pull of work, we need some anchors to help us stay oriented.
One critical anchor is understanding our responsibility. This comes primarily in narrowing the scope of what belongs to me. Vaclav Havel, the late Czech playwright and politician writes, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility,” which is another way of saying the depth and richness of our identity is best discovered as I figure out that which is uniquely mine to do. This is far easier said than done, in part because most of us are easily preoccupied being responsible for others or being responsible in general or burdening ourselves with abstract responsibilities which may or may not ever be realized.
By asking ourselves the simple but honest question, “Is this mine to do?” we may discover new founts of freedom in our work, which in turn can grow our sense of gratitude. This question is not intended to be snarky or sidestepping, but rather to discern what is uniquely yours to steward and then to release all the other “not mine” responsibilities to others and, ultimately, to God.
By the same token, Dorothy Sayers offers another helpful anchor to root our perspective in work, and that is simply the idea that we ought to serve the work rather than seeking to serve the world, or the community as she calls it, through our work. It is an important nuance. As she writes, “The only true way of serving the community is to be truly in sympathy with the community, to be oneself part of the community and then to serve the work without giving the community another thought. Then the work will endure, because it will be true to itself. It is the work that serves the community; the business of the worker is to serve the work.”
In short, she argues if we have any motivation other than doing good work for good work’s sake, we run the risk of manipulating or diminishing the value of our efforts to suit our own personal, if well-meaning, ends. In contrast, she writes, by serving the work and by giving our best to making it good, we allow the fruit of our labor to nourish others as it will.
I find this perspective especially helpful because it gives an integrity to work that demands one’s entire self while setting aside the petty distractions of performance or perfectionism. Further, it underscores the nature of work as service in every possible dimension. As we, too, come to see our work as service to God and others, we also grow in our ability to see how the work itself serves God and His purposes better than even our best intentions.
Remember and Record
Finally, as we seek to develop habits of perspective and gratitude that can nourish us in our daily work, we must do as God has commanded His people for centuries. Because we are forgetful we must remember and record God’s faithfulness, likewise we must pray and ask God to help grow in us a spirit of gratitude and the ability to see our work as He sees it.
When I was living in England, a friend of mine encouraged me to think about my “gifts” differently than I ever had before when she offered a daily exercise for me to follow. She instructed me to seek the Lord each morning and tell Him, “I desire to use the gifts You have given me today in Your service. Please give me opportunities to do so.” And then again at the end of the day, I was to pray and ask the Lord to show me where those opportunities had been.
It seemed simple enough, so I began trying this each day. It only took one before I began to see how radically this prayer could change my perspective. In general, nothing about my day or tasks changed, yet in countless scenarios I began to see how a grilled cheese sandwich offered much-needed nourishment for a hungry person, how a bit of advice served as wisdom to one who was confused, how a chance conversation at the grocery store saved a poor family a bit of money in their grocery budget each week.
Engaging in the practice of asking the Lord to use us in our work and then following that request full circle to see how and where He answers those prayers in turn becomes the litany of praise that we can return to again and again, recording and remembering how He has been faithful in the past and will be faithful in the future.
Not surprisingly, the word “grace” is rooted in the word for gratitude, and it means not just thankfulness but also favor or God’s favor. As such, as we seek to grow in gratitude at work we need not simply strive more from an altruistic will or an always-cheery disposition to pretend to love the things we actually despise about work, but instead to seek the Lord in the midst of those tensions. To remember His story is big enough to account for our frustrations, to ask for help in re-orienting our perspective to the realm of the possible, and to express a sincere desire to have Him help and guide us in our daily work.
Copyright 2014 Kate Harris. All rights reserved.