For someone who tries not to care too much what other people think of me, well, I care a lot about what other people think of me. It causes problems. Over on the Collective site, I wrote about wanting to be influential without people thinking I’m manipulative. Last night I starting thinking about how to be thankful without seeming smug.
I’m not always great at being thankful. I’m too self-absorbed most of the time. I’m good at enjoying things. I get over-excited very easily. When I meet new people that I get on well with, I think they’re the best thing ever. I think (hope) that I kept appreciating stuff at Oxford like amazing dinners and champagne parties even when they became the norm. I think I enjoy life well, but it I’m not good at turning it around and being thankful to the God who gives life and good things in it.
Oddly enough though, I am feeling really thankful at the moment. I’m thankful for the chance to do a job I’m absolutely loving, with people who make me laugh and have made work feel like home. I’m thankful for a house full of friends who don’t (always) judge my food choices. I’m thankful to have been introduced to a church where I’ve met God without meaning to, and felt welcomed straight away. I’m thankful to be in a city where I don’t think I could ever get bored, and especially thankful for free travel in it! I could go on… And even when I forget to pray about anything else, I’m remembering to thank God for those things more than I usually do.
I’ve noticed how thankful I am because people keep asking me how things are going, the new city, new job, new house… and every time, I start excitedly telling them how great everything is, and then I realise just how smug it sounds. Even the number of times I’ve used the word ‘I’ in these last few paragraphs shows it. I can just see myself, through the eyes of whoever I’m wittering on to at the time.
“Yes thanks, my life is great. My job, that I managed to get (well done, me) is great. I’ve got all the friends and family I could need (aren’t I popular?), and given all the great nights out I’ll happily tell you about, apparently I’m not too stressed about money either. Is your life as great as mine? Is it? IS IT?”
It sounds so… ugly. But it would seem ungrateful and untruthful, if when people asked me how things are going, I didn’t share anything that I’m thankful for. It would be like being asked what I got for my birthday and saying “oh, nothing much” when actually my friends or parents had been incredibly generous.
So how do we do thankful without doing smug and self-satisfied?
There is a particularly smug guy in a story that Jesus once told, a guy who is thankful for plenty of things. He thanks God for his very religious life, for how much better it is than other people’s. How much better he is than other people. So what’s his problem? What makes him so annoyingly smug? Maybe I can find myself in him.
- His thankfulness is for the public. I’m making an assumption here, which is always a dangerous thing to do, but I can’t help imagining that this guy did more of his thanking God like this in public than he did soul-searching prayers at home, alone. I guess thankfulness that isn’t smug has to be genuine, has to start as an attitude before it becomes an announcement. It’s the attitude behind smug words that make them so annoying to hear I think, so the key to avoiding sounding smug to other people is probably just to avoid being smug, and cultivate genuine gratitude.
- He is (probably) unrealistic. He has a rose-tinted view of his life, seeing only the good. Maybe being thankful, especially when it’s in response to people asking how things are going, needs to be in the context of a more balanced report. There’s loads I’m thankful for, but that doesn’t mean London life is perfect. But it’s a much more vulnerable thing to be honest about the things I’m finding hard than it is to rave about the fun parts.
- He is stupidly self-satisfied. His prayer is such false one because it’s not really prayer at all. It’s self-congratulation. He doesn’t even do God the courtesy of acknowledging his help in getting to these great heights of piety, just uses it as a way to announce that he is. If thankfulness is to be thankfulness, it has to be about what God has done, not about what I’ve done, and that probably means occasionally reining in my ego and acknowledging that it’s not my greatness that has made good things happen, but God’s grace, generosity and, frankly, extreme patience with me.
Here’s a crazy thought though. Maybe as well as all those things, I could try something radical in my quest to avoid smugness.
I could care more about how other people are doing. I could ask the question first. I could listen instead of talk. I could be thankful for other people’s successes and excitements, and sit with them in their pain when things are much harder. Sounds a bit like the kind of thing Jesus would do, so it’s probably a good place to start.