Expressing gratitude is something I had always taken for granted.  By that I mean that I just did it when I remembered (like sending thank-you notes), but otherwise didn’t think much about it.  I certainly never considered expressing gratitude to be a spiritual discipline.  And the possibility that such expressions might be therapeutic never occurred to me.

But recently that changed.  One person especially helped to change my mind about gratitude.  Her name is Penny and she’s the administrative assistant in the Spiritual Health Department at medical center where I was a chaplain.

For more than a decade, the Spiritual Health Department has provided a Gratefulness Tree in the hall outside the office. Throughout the month of November, passers-by find blank leaf-shaped pieces of paper on strings, along with pens, on a table beside the office door.  The idea is that people can write their expressions of gratitude and then hang them on the tree.

Penny manages this project.  Year after year she enlists the help of the chaplains and chaplain interns. Sometime in late October Penny starts filling staff mailboxes with colored paper containing outlines of leaves. The chaplains’ job is to cut out those leaves.

            And cut out more leaves.

                       And cut out even more leaves.

                                    And keep cutting out leaves.

We cut out untold numbers of leaves because, turns out, this gratitude exercise is wildly popular.  It’s so popular that there have been years when one tree isn’t enough, and we need to add another tree. There are even times when some leaves must be removed to make room for others.

People are keen to express their gratitude for everything from a successful surgery to another day of life for a fragile newborn, to a peaceful end of life for a loved one. They appreciate their homes, their communities, their families, their friends.

Everyone gets into it – patients, visitors, medical staff, maintenance staff, kitchen staff, and on and on.

Photo by Penny Abbott

And of course, children think this is great fun.  They eagerly draw pictures of the things for which they are grateful, unabashedly describing them via creative phonetic spelling.

Offering the opportunity to express gratitude in this tangible way is powerful.  It’s especially powerful in a medical center where worry and anxious thoughts are the norm.

People come into the building worried if they are about to receive bad news from a provider, or if a treatment they are about to start will be successful.  They anxiously wonder if their loved one is going to recover from a traumatic event.  They fear that they will not be able to cope with a drastically altered lifestyle due to a diagnosis of a debilitating disease.

Members of the staff are aware that patients and visitors are often a bundle of jangled nerves when they arrive.  And they are also aware that there are many times that the news they will deliver might add to the pain that people are already experiencing – which is the last thing that healthcare providers want to do.  They are committed to helping and to healing.  Added to this discomfort are the stresses that staff members may also be experiencing in their personal lives.

Worry, fear, and anxiety are normal responses to this kind of difficulty and uncertainty.

But normal or not, worry, fear, and anxiety tend to send us into an inner downward spiral. Left unchecked they have the cumulative effect of increasing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Expressing gratitude, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.  It requires that we look outside of ourselves, placing our attention on something positive, on something that makes us breathe a sigh of relief, on something that triggers unexpected joy.

When we think of people or situations with gratitude it lifts our spirits.  Best of all, it fosters positive connections and reinforces vital bonds with people we appreciate and love.

When I look at those Gratefulness Trees, I see instruments of healing.

I’m reminded of the power of simply calling to mind something for which I’m thankful and then responding in some small way.  It could be writing it down, sending a note to someone, or somehow “paying it forward” to make someone else’s life a little easier.

Come December, the gratefulness leaves will disappear.  But that doesn’t mean that the practice of intentionally expressing our gratitude must vanish along with them.

So, thank you, Penny, for shepherding this project year after year.