I hadn’t even heard of it, until I received an email from interfaith activist Julie Siddiqi to participate in a service in the grounds of what was once Coventry Cathedral, and an invitation to attend a thanksgiving service for the NHS at St Paul’s.
July 4 is Britain’s first ever Thank You Day and sixteen million Brits are preparing to take part. It’s the culmination of a month of community, including Volunteer Week, Loneliness Awareness Week, Refugee Week, Small Charity Week and many other ways of making and celebrating connections across our society. The day is supported by as diverse a group of organisations as the NHS, the Football Association (who’ll be even more thankful if England gets through to the Euro semi-finals) and the Church of England.
Each of the thirteen founders of Thank You Day is devoted to community. It’s moving to read their stories here. May Parsons, matron at University Hospital Coventry, gave one of the first Covid vaccination in the world (outside of clinical trials). Sonny Purba and his son Sameer have been calling people isolated during Covid; they say volunteering ‘has brought them closer together as father and son.’
This all fits well with Judaism, which is a thank you religion. The day begins with the prayer ‘Modeh Ani, I give thanks before you, living God, for restoring my soul in mercy.’ What this really means is ‘Thank you for another day of life.’ I don’t always succeed, but I try to start each morning with those lines, not by looking at my phone.
Saying blessings is a discipline of gratitude. ‘Baruch Attah, blessed are you, God,’ should also be translated as ‘Thank you…’ The words can easily degenerate into a pious formula, what the rabbis called mitzvat anashim melummadah, a mitzvah done by rote. But sometimes they jump out. It’s happened to me a few times, that I’ve lain down on the ground, wanting to put my heart as close to the earth as possible and say with all my being ‘Thank you! It’s a wonderful world!’
It may seem odd to write of ‘discipline’ in this context. But there’s much to be said for cultivating a spirit of gratitude. I know people who won’t go to sleep before recalling five things they’ve appreciated each day.
The ideal is to have a grateful and gracious consciousness. No one can accomplish this all the time. There’s much in the world to be less than grateful for. Why should someone mistreated, or injured by cruel fortune, feel grateful while they absorb the blow?
What we really want to avoid, though, is a bitter and resentful mind. Most of us have tasted those feelings and the flavour isn’t pleasant. While we may not always be able to escape them, we don’t want them to take up residence in our consciousness. For many of us this may sometimes be a struggle in which the help of others and the quiet and beauty of nature are indispensable allies.
The rabbis of the 1st century were deeply aware of this challenge. They puzzled over the familiar phrase in the Shema commanding us to love God ‘bechol me’odecha – with all your might.’ The words translate literally as ‘with all your very-ness.’ But what does that mean? Working carefully with the Hebrew, they explained:
Whatever measure of fortune God metes out to you, acknowledge God most profoundly.
In Hebrew ‘acknowledge’ and ‘thank’ are the same word.
I think of this instruction when I meet people who take their tough fate with good grace, like the man with Parkinson’s, of whom his wife said after he died, ‘He never ever complained. He would look out into the garden and see the good in every day.’
Contemporary life often incites us into a culture of entitlement, of ‘I need’ and ‘I want.’ Thank You Day encourages us to replace, or at least supplement, these demands with two questions: ‘What can I contribute?’ and ‘How can I say thank you?’