When we sit down to give thanks this Thursday, what is it exactly that we will be doing? What is it to give thanks, and, in particular, what is it to give thanks for our lives or the world in general?

It may seem obvious that it is the acknowledgement of a debt and an expression of appreciation, but just a little reflection reveals this to be inadequate: When I sit down to sign papers at a loan closing, I am acknowledging a debt, but I may not be thankful. When I come upon a tasty patch of blueberries and mutter “Mnn . . . that’s good, ” I may not be thankful.

It may be easiest to see what else is involved by looking at cases where we are not willing to express thanks. We are not thankful unless we believe that what we receive comes from an agent and from some intention or purpose of that agent. (The American philosopher, and atheist, Daniel Dennett, upon recovering from a heart attack, wrote an essay expressing his unwillingness to thank God and his willingness to thank all the good people whose actions he benefited from.) Thanking entails our belief in an agent and our belief in its good intentions. (Indeed, much of the mechanical thanking that we do in the course of daily life is nothing but a polite way of acknowledging the personhood of the people that provide us services, that they are ends and not merely means.)

We might also not be thankful if we do not believe what we receive to be good, or if we suspect that the giver does not believe it to be good, or if we are not hopeful of its continued goodness. We would not be thankful if we suspected that a gift would go bad or eventually destroy us, no matter how sweet it may seem now.

More subtle, however, are the other reasons we have for refusing to be thankful. People sometimes refuse to be thankful if they hate the person who is giving, if they feel uncomfortable setting themselves in a relationship of dependence, or even if they simply dislike the intimacy or openness involved in allowing ourselves to accept an act of kindness. Most of us would be uncomfortable accepting a major gift from a stranger, because of the very necessity of being thankful and the intimacy it implies. We might also refuse an act of kindness because we feel unworthy of it, because we suspect its motives, or because we cannot bring ourselves to accept that which does not come from ourselves, what is not dependent just on our own will. Sometimes the most difficult thing for us to do is to allow ourselves to be open to goods that are not of our own making. Thankfulness implies setting ourselves and our wills in a relationship of openness or receptiveness towards the author of what we receive, as well as the intention to communicate this openness to the object of our thanks.

Gratitude recognizes that the good we receive flows from the intentionality of an agent, hopes about the continued goodness of the gift, opens the will to the acceptance of goods not of our own making, and intends to show all this in a gesture of friendship or love. What is it, then, to be thankful for life or the world in general? It is to be able to recognize our lives and the world we inhabit as good, to feel it and ourselves as the expression of a living purpose, to set our wills into a relationship of openness to what our lives in this world may bring. It is to establish our footing in the world as one based upon faith in its purposiveness, hope in its goodness, and active love expressed within the unrolling of each of its instants. If, when we sit down to eat this Thursday, as we make up our list of things that we are thankful for, we can also feel thankful for our very lives and existence in this world, then there is one more thing we should add to this list. We should also be thankful that we find within ourselves the ability to give thanks.