Elmhurst College: Thinking and Thanking: <br/>Meditations on the Season

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Thinking and Thanking:
Meditations on the Season

We have entered the period of endings. The end of the College’s fall semester, the end of the calendar year. The end of seasonal light and warmth. The early darkening days and immanence of winter stimulate a desire to draw together for warmth both physical and emotional. The end of the year brings a different kind of shadow—the shadow of thought, of reflection on what has brought us to this point. As Christmas carols play, we take stock of the year, of our lives. Recently Elmhurst College started a new tradition: our Thanksgiving Service and Dinner. Held a few days before the holiday, the Thanksgiving Service provided an opportunity for our community members to think about and share that for which they are thankful. The experience of this event, and others like it during this season of stock-taking, led me to reflect on these two activities of the mind and the heart, thinking and thanking, and to offer you these words.

What is thinking? It’s figuring things out. It’s planning, ordering, organizing. Our recent College strategic planning process is a prime example of thinking. But so is putting your day together: running the kids to school, getting to work on time, making that play date or that hair cut appointment, and all the many things that occupy us in living a tidy life. We can call this kind of thinking, “calculative thinking.”

What is thanking? We know that, too. It’s acknowledging someone’s favors and kindnesses, both small, like holding open a door for us, and large, even monumental, like saving our life. It’s the Academy Awards—thanking everyone as a way of repaying a lifetime of social and professional debts—and it’s sending out cards for gifts received. This kind of thanking I’ll call, “calculative thanking.”

Both calculative thinking and calculative thanking are ego driven and are responses to living in a social environment, where planning is the key for success and our reciprocity of please-and-thank-you is a means for maintaining a functioning social order and for feeling good about ourselves and others. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes famously said, “I think therefore I am,” and we’re all Cartesians whenever we see ourselves as fundamentally beings that think, that calculate, that figure things out. So, too, when we thank: when thanking is about ordering our relationships, seeing how our behavior will affect another’s view of us, or their behavior affects our view of them, we are in effect “beings that thank.” Sending holiday cards, getting cards, sending gifts, getting gifts, going to parties, hosting parties—we all recognize ourselves around the holiday season, especially, as thankers. Descartes is said to have written his philosophical meditations during a long winter. I wonder if, around Christmas time, he ever considered the maxim, “I thank therefore I am.”

Let me be clear: figuring things out and thanking people in an orderly way are not bad behaviors. They’re good acts—they make the world run. But there is an older relationship between thinking and thanking that is prior to calculation, and it is this relationship I want to hold up for your consideration tonight. Thinking and thanking are believed to have come from the same linguistic root. In German, we say denken, or thinking, and danken, or thanking. You can see the similarity translates well into English—thinking, thanking. Martin Heidegger, a 20th century philosopher who relished drawing real-world significance from word origins, concluded after a lifetime of work that to think is to thank. What could that mean?

Before thinking is about calculating my relationship to a world of people and objects and ideas, thinking is a kind of meditation. Meditation is not thinking about specific things. It is being wholly present in the moment, to whomever or whatever has your concern. It is quiet time alone, watching your thoughts come and go and not pursuing them as fantasies or plans or fears that ensnare your ego. Thinking, as a basic human activity, is about diving deep below the waves of strategic scheming, to the heart of the matter, and abiding there. Or, to shift to Heidegger’s favorite metaphor, thinking is just hanging out in a kind of light-filled clearing in the dense woods of the mind, where all the stuff of daily life is absent. Sometimes, thinking is ecstatic, in response to something or someone who literally takes you out of yourself—your ego—and places you in the presence of what some philosophers call the ground of Being, or what theologians and mystics call God.

What about thanking? Thanking is fundamentally an attitude of gratitude. We see it in the spontaneous, “thank god you’re alive!” after an accident, or in the experience of beholding one’s newborn child or grandchild, or being lost in a beautiful work of art. Being in love is an attitude of thanksgiving, while “being in like” is just a way of saying that you make my ego feel good. The attitude of thanksgiving, as an attitude of fundamental gratitude, is prior to thanking some specific someone one for something, which again is setting out a relationship vis-à-vis oneself. Fundamental thanking is gratitude per se.

Let’s put our reflections on fundamental thinking and thanking together, and agree that to be mindful is to be grateful. If you are genuinely thinking, you are thanking, and vice-versa. I will illustrate this with a story.

Attending church this year on Thanksgiving Day, I heard the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verses 12 through 19. It is the story of the 10 lepers and it goes like this:

Luke 17:12 - 19
As He was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him - and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then He said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Though 10 were healed, only one returned to the source of grace, while nine others went to perform ritual duties of cleansing and reintegration into society. All ten were happy about not having leprosy, no doubt. But only one “thought to thank.” How often do we think to thank? Or do we see that our calculating and planning have gotten us what we want, and we move on to other obligations, other plans. All are happy, but only one was grateful. As the story points out, there is a difference, often ignored, between being happy about a gratuitous result, and actually being grateful for it: “He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” The one who returned whole-heartedly gave himself up to the experience of gratitude—gave himself, his ego, up. He did not calculate, “I was this before (diseased) and now I am that (healed) therefore I will express proportional and thus appropriate gratitude to the cause of the reduction in my suffering.” He did not stop to think—to calculate—whether to send Jesus a thank you note or a fruit basket. He gave no theological speeches, uttered no pious words to God, as presumably the other nine did before the priests in order to resume normal relations with their community. He simply returned and “threw himself” in the humblest possible posture and gave thanks. The story of the 10 lepers illustrates the unity of thinking as being wholly present to the moment and thanking as pure gratitude.

Authentic thinking and thanking are the grounds for our everyday experiences of thinking in a calculative way and thanking as a valve controlling our social relations. We simply cannot dwell in a world of physical, interpersonal, and economic demands. Life says to us, as Jesus said to the one who returned, “rise and go.” Go about your business, your busy-ness. So thoughtful Mary yields to busy Martha, faith to works, in the ceaseless but entirely human round of emptiness and form, as Buddhists might put it. Or, as many a bar owner has told patrons at closing time, “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”

These musings, abstruse as they may appear, are actually germane to why we gather this evening. This is, after all, the President’s Appreciation Dinner. But lest tonight become one more “work,” one more “form” of gratitude in our semi-official season of busyness—the business of holiday cheer—I wanted to spend a few moments with you exploring the basis for appreciation, the ground of so many thank-yous we at the College have to offer this year. For I do appreciate all of you. Each in your own way, and in ways you may not know, have given gifts to our work, our plans, and most importantly, to the people who are blessed to receive your concern, in all the ways you have shown it. I am, metaphorically, throwing myself at your feet and saying thank you. I am being “grate-ful”—full of gratitude, full of gratia or grace—your grace, your generosity of time and talents, and yes, of treasure. In this sense, I am a stand-in for many: for our faculty, our staff and administrators, our trustees, and our students most of all. Hear and understand my “thank you” as theirs.

As I look to the future, I see what many of you do: the aspirations set forth in the College’s new strategic plan, a plan that will guide us in the design of programs and facilities for years to come. It is a wonderful thing, this strategic plan, the fruit of hundreds if not thousands of hours of labor, of thinking, by dozens of people. On this occasion of appreciation, I call us back to the ground of that thinking, the meditative place where the desire for a better future, a better campus, was born and from which it draws strength and inspires deeds of sacrifice and toil. At that place of first hope, thinking and thanking meet.

Here is our mission: We aspire to provide our students with occasions for grace, forest-clearings of their own, where they can encounter opportunities to form themselves as whole persons and prepare themselves to step with confidence into a complex and demanding world. Your support of the College, always and in all ways, makes our aspirations possible, and for that we “return” tonight to give you thanks.

In a moment we will honor two individuals, who, in distinct but powerful ways, have fulfilled the mission of the College through lives of teaching and example. They are George Thoma, former Elmhurst College faculty member and now Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus, and John Grollmus, an Elmhurst graduate and neurosurgeon, who pioneered the practice of job shadowing for the College’s pre-med students. Allow me to say how much I personally appreciate what you have done, Professor Thoma and Dr. Grollmus, for the College and our students.

I close as I began: we have entered the period of endings. As we accelerate the pace of calculative thinking and thanking in this holiday season, I invite us to dwell, each in the way that finds us, at the heart of meditative attention and humble appreciation, as in a clearing, or beside a manger, or the foot of a cross, where thinking and thanking are one.

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