The Thanksgiving holiday gives us a unique opportunity to reflect on God’s overwhelming grace, abundance, and provision—spiritually, materially, and otherwise. But amid and throughout those reflections, how often do we pause and consider the relationships, channels, and institutions that God uses in the process?
Do we acknowledge that the very foods on our Thanksgiving tables come from an in-depth exchange of human creativity, investment, and daily sacrifice? Are we thankful for the labor it took to grow and harvest, package and ship, market and sell those items? Are we grateful for something like a free price system, which allows the necessary information to flow freely and efficiently?
It’s but one small window into the innumerable hands working together each and every day in service of the common good. But it’s a powerful portrait of God’s divine abundance and gratitude helps our hearts and heads to connect the dots.
For author AJ Jacobs, the expression of such gratitude has become a tradition during his family’s routine meals. Though agnostic in his own beliefs, Jacobs admits to saying a prayer of sorts to celebrate the work of human hands that has conspired to bring the meal to the table. “I’d like to thank the farmer who grew these tomatoes,” he says, “and the trucker who drove these tomatoes to the store, and the cashier who rang these tomatoes up.”
Stirred by such gratitude—and the prompting of his 10-year-old son—Jacobs decided to set out on a journey to personally thank each of the people involved in delivering one of his favorite products: coffee.
He recounts the story in the following TED Talk:
This quest took me months. It took me around the world. Because I discovered that my coffee would not be possible without hundreds of people I take for granted. So I would thank the trucker who drove the coffee beans to the coffee shop. But he couldn’t have done his job without the road. So I would thank the people who paved the road.
And then I would thank the people who made the asphalt for the pavement. And I came to realize that my coffee, like so much else in the world, requires the combined work of a shocking number of people from all walks of life. Architects, biologists, designers, miners, goat herds, you name it.
Even without a particular faith or framework for the divine, Jacobs experiences a certain awe and wonder at the trading relationships that spontaneously manifest to meet human needs. In taking it all in, he doesn’t give way to fear and territorialism about where his coffee comes from. He responds with simple thanksgiving, and it inspires more intentionality and grace in all that he does.
“This global economy, this globalization, it does have downsides,” he explains. “But I believe the long-term upsides are far greater, that progress is real. We have made improvements in the last 50 years, poverty worldwide has gone down. And that we should resist the temptation to retreat into our silos.”
To inspire such gratitude, he offers the following five distinct lessons to help us grow in gratitude and appreciate the work of others (excerpted for simplicity):
1. Look up: “Take two seconds and look at [trading partners], make eye contact, because it reminds you, you’re dealing with a human being who has family and aspirations and embarrassing high school memories. And that little moment of connection is so important to both people’s humanity and happiness.”
2. Smell the roses…and the dirt and the fertilizer: “This idea of savoring is so important to gratitude. Psychologists talk about how gratitude is about taking a moment and holding on to it as long as possible and slowing down time.”
3. Find the hidden masterpieces all around you: “When something is done well, the process behind it is largely invisible. But paying attention to it can tap into that sense of wonder and enrich our lives.”
4. Fake [gratitude] till you feel it: “The power of our actions to change our mind is astounding. So, often we think that thought changes behavior, but behavior very often changes our thought.”
5. Practice six degrees of gratitude: “It doesn’t have to be coffee. It could be anything. It could be a pair of socks, it could be a light bulb. And you don’t have to go around the world, you can just do a little gesture, like make eye contact or send a note to the designer of a logo you love. It’s more about a mindset. Being aware of the thousands of people involved in every little thing we do.”
While Jacobs doesn’t acknowledge the designer of this collaborative web, this mysterious and miraculous exchange of gifts mirrors our human destiny as co-creators made in the image of a creative God. We were made to trade, built for creative service for the love of neighbor and the glory of God. The same lesson is provided in the Acton Institute’s new series, The Good Society, which includes two episodes that are (also) focused on the partners and processes involved in delivering a simple cup of coffee.
Throughout each of these products and processes and exchanges, we see the development of something far more than parts and pieces (beans, trucks, tools, and machinery). We see a creative, cooperative journey among each worker and partner. We see new ideas expressed through new creations and new relationships. We see collaboration, trust, and value creation at a social and spiritual level. We see flourishing before and beyond the material stuff. We see the divine in action.
Gratitude helps widen our vision of global trade to see it for what it really is: creative and productive fellowship with neighbors to meet human needs and cultivate creation.
This Thanksgiving and every day thereafter, let us be joyful and thankful, not just for immediate family and friendships and the types of provision we can touch and taste. Let’s also be thankful for the pathways to trade and partnership, for the great and mysterious collaboration that enables these and so much else, both here and across the world.
More importantly, let us thank the miracle-working God who gave us these gifts, who entrusted us with freedom, love, and creativity, and who partners with us through the power of His Spirit to work and serve in his various economies for the life of the world.