The power of two small words: thank you

I still keep a Band-Aid in my wallet, even though my kids are adults. It’s one of those Girl Guide, ever-handy things that can be used for a grazed knee or entertaining a two-year-old. Band-Aids are our go-to first aid staple. They stop the bleeding and are very satisfying to use. Simple and effective.

In the realms of mental and spiritual health, I think there is an equivalent. A simple and effective strategy that will “stem the flow of blood”, so to speak, and give us some reprieve before we are able to attend to underlying causes. It’s the phrase “thank you”.

“Thank you” is the super-handy Band-Aid for our emotional health.

“Thank you” has the capacity to bring grace; that simple acknowledgment of gratitude, an expression of appreciation, the “I’m not taking you for granted” moment. It can make the difference between resentment and bitterness in our homes, or contentment and gladness.

It’s also where the faith journey begins, when we know our need and receive God’s gift.

The Bible has been promoting thankfulness for millennia, and for the past two decades the Positive Psychology movement now endorses it scientifically. This movement asserts: “Let’s not only study pathology and problems – let’s understand what makes people thrive and build on what is going well in their lives.”

Not surprisingly, gratitude and thankfulness have been shown to be essential components of a thriving life (see Martin Seligman’s Flourish and Authentic Happiness).

And so I return to my Band-Aid. “Thank you” is the super-handy Band-Aid for our emotional health.

When anxiety is creeping up on you, threatening to steal your confidence and joy, start pumping out “thank yous”.  Genuine ones. Thank you, Father, for this day. Thank you for your good character and your amazing works in history. Thank you for the people you have put in my life. Thank you for the education and experiences you have given me.

Push into that positive zone. It has an uncanny way of shifting your focus away from fear and self-doubt and just a little bit closer towards confidence and possibilities.

It’s not entirely magic, of course! If anxiety is your thing, you will need more than this Band-Aid to change your thinking habits. But it is a start, and a really good start.

And the same with depression. The hopelessness and powerlessness that characterise depression are allergic to “thank you”. They breed in us a fixation in my inner world that is introspective and alienating, distorting my perspective on reality with negativity and blatant lies. So when this is at the door, take a deep breath at the door handle, and turn your mind to generating just one or two “thank yous”. And then more.

“Thank you” also can be a scalpel to cut away dross from our hearts.

Of course, for Christians, “thank you” connects me to my heavenly Father. It lifts my gaze from my navel to his face – and the view is so much better there! Start with little things. Perhaps you can thank him for good things in your past. Thank him for adventures and opportunities you have had.

In our spiritual lives, “thank you” can be a Band-Aid, a short-term strategy to cope and regain perspective. It also can be a scalpel to cut away dross from our hearts.

Paul exhorts us to “pray with thanksgiving” (Phil 4:6) and to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18); these are concepts that bring us to our knees, open-handed, dumbfounded before our God. Really? After a cancer diagnosis? Facing unemployment?  When my child is expelled? At a suicide?

The teaching of Tim Keller has been profoundly helpful to me in these realms. His masterful and brilliant volume Walking with God through Pain and Suffering takes us into these mysterious and dreadful realities, pointing us relentlessly back to the sovereign Living God, whose love for us took his Son to the cross:

“Because God is sovereign we are to trust him. But Paul goes one step further. Because God is sovereign we are to thank him – we are to live thankfully because we know he is like this. We are to thank him beforehand, even as we make our requests. We are to thank him for whatever he sends to us, even if we don’t understand it.” 

“Thank you” expresses confidence, even through fear and doubt. It articulates faith in his perfect goodness and unfathomable wisdom and glorious purpose. “Thank you” invites him to incise the self-absorption in my heart and reorient myself to seek only him and his glory. And this is a hard journey, a road less travelled. As Keller writes:

“Suffering puts its finger on good things that have become too important to us. We must respond to suffering not by jettisoning those loved things but by turning to God and loving him more, and by putting our roots down deeper into him. You will never really understand your heart when things are going well. It is only when things go badly that you can see it truly. And that’s because it is only when suffering comes that you realise who is the true God and what are the false gods of your lives.”

And then Keller shows us where to begin with this: “You can’t go home and try to love God in the abstract. You have to look at Jesus – at who he is and what he has done for you. It is not by gazing at God in general, but at the person and work of Christ in particular, that you will come to love the immutable (unchangeable) and find tranquility. Look at what Jesus did for you – that is how to find God irresistibly beautiful”.

So, “thank you” is needed – both in the short-term immediate coping, and in the long-term, reflective, heart-shaping of our lives. It is needed both as Band-Aid and as scalpel.

Sue Bartho is a clinical psychologist, director of Brunswick Heads beach mission (northern NSW) and SRE teacher at Cheltenham Girls’ High School in Sydney.