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Belief in Gratitude
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Beliefs are a bit like the blinker signal on a car: they indicate the direction toward which we're moving. They point us down a path and give impetus to the journey we're on. Beliefs—those tenets we hold to be true—don't transform our hearts in and of themselves, but they certainly open the way for spiritual energy to deepen and take root.
Despite all experiential evidence to the contrary, traditional wisdom and scripture urge us to steer our spiritual growth toward thanksgiving. But sometimes the meanness of man and the messiness of Mother Nature seem more visible than the goodness of the Lord for which the writer of Psalm 27 yearns. As we are bombarded with daily reports of murder and mayhem, it's difficult to remember, much less believe, that we are wired for gratitude. But the medical, scientific, and psychological evidence is piling up, as books and studies affirm the value of this virtue, telling us that we not only need thankfulness, but also that we are made to be thankful. It is a state of the soul that enhances both health and happiness.
And even longevity, according to a study reported on the TV show 20/20 some years ago. One hundred active centenarians from cultures around the globe were interviewed to determine any common characteristics they might share. There were four attributes that outdistanced all the rest of the factors in the study. In short, they were: simple daily mobility and physical activity (like walking to the mailbox); engaged passion in something one loves to do; the ability to let go, to adjust to loss; and an optimistic, grateful attitude. We may not want to live to be one hundred years old, but if we do, the quality of those extended years will be better if thanksgiving is threaded through our days. And we aren't the only ones. There are indications that even animals are part of the circle of gratitude. Every pet owner is familiar with the beloved dog who wags his tail in appreciation for a new bone or the cat who purrs contentedly when her back is stroked. A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle is a moving reminder that this impulse exists not only in the human species, but in the animal kingdom as well. It seems that a female humpback whale (weighing about fifty tons) had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines eighteen miles from the Golden Gate Bridge. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. Yards of line rope were wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, and mouth. A fisherman spotted her and radioed for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team determined that she was in such distress that the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her—a very dangerous proposition. The divers worked for hours with curved knives while the whale floated passively in the water, giving off a strange kind of vibration.
"When I was cutting the line going through the mouth, her eye was there winking at me, watching me," said one of the rescuers. They eventually freed her from the twelve ninety-pound crab traps. When the whale realized she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nuzzled them, as if to thank them. Some said it was the most beautiful experience of their lives.
It seems to me that this tendency toward appreciation is most evident in the unscripted responses of children, before the experiences of life have chipped away at their innocence. We often travel the road to maturity at the expense of losing childhood's unbridled delight, that sense of arms flung wide open to the world. How do we lose these bits of wonder along the way? Perhaps the spontaneous smiles of children can help lead us toward a renewed belief in the power of gratitude.
It will take many pages to plumb the depths of that simple word. So as we begin to explore this natural impulse in all its nuances, let's first consider what gratitude is not
Gratitude is Not Gullibility
"Gods in His heaven; all's right with the world," we want to say with Pippa in Robert Browning's famous poem. For years, I accepted the popular definition of gratitude as the recurrent affirmation of what's working in our lives. But what was I to do with all that wasn't working? The intellectual tension began to build—that persistent wedge that exists between positive thinking and the reality I actually experienced. As a kid I was taught in Sunday School to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess 5:18), and it sounded like an impossible mission. Inevitably, I just became accustomed to the disconnect between what I heard on Sunday and what I experienced on Monday. Renowned writer Henri Nouwen expressed the dilemma this way:
... how often we tend to divide our past into good things to remember with gratitude and painful things to accept or forget... we develop a mentality in which we hope to collect more good memories than bad.... Gratitude in its deepest sense means to live life as a gift to be received gratefully. But gratitude as the gospel speaks about it embraces all of life: the good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, the holy and the not so holy.... It is so easy for me to put the bad memories under the rug of my life and to think only about the good things that please me. By doing so, however, I prevent myself from discovering the joy beneath my sorrow, the peace hidden in the midst of my conflicts, and the strength that becomes visible in the midst of my weakness.... As long as we remain resentful about things that we wish had not happened, about relationships that we wish had turned out differently, about mistakes we wish we had not made, part of our heart remains isolated, unable to bear fruit in the new life ahead of us.
Though we can't erase the reality of random tragedy, unexpected illness, and daily disappointments, we can choose to be thankful in them, if not for them, certainly not an easy thing to do. We may indeed be urged to "offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving" (Ps 50:14), but we are not called to sacrifice our honesty. We find ourselves at a familiar juncture in the spiritual life: the land of paradox, the embracing of the opposites, the embracing of both/and thinking, and the letting go of either/or.
Paradox is defined as the holding of seemingly contradictory phrases or ideas, both of which are true. For instance, the sovereignty of God exists at the same time as the free will of human beings. Deep joy can exist in one's life at the same time as desperate circumstances. I can desperately love my child, but also be furious enough to yell at the top of my lungs! When we dig down to the truth of something, sometimes paradox is the only way to express it.
As we look closely at the topic of thanksgiving, we can't avoid the conflicting emotions that are co-residents inside us as we confront life's problems. My friend Dr. Herbert Smith, professor emeritus of psychology at Rhodes College in Memphis, spoke of this mysterious mixture as we were discussing the painful neuropathy from which Herb suffers daily. I asked him how he managed to maintain equilibrium and gratitude during the most painful episodes:
Sometimes there's a bad day when the pain overwhelms me. It feels as if I become my disease, and I literally can't move. It is me against the pain. At those times, I can barely focus outside the discomfort of my body, so I just breathe into it, realizing that the pain itself, though unwanted, is evidence that I am alive. I begin to reframe the situation, becoming aware of the many non-pain elements that are present in the wonderful world outside the pain. I sense the undeserved privilege of being right here now. I focus on the softness of the sheets on the bed, the movement of my breath in and out of my nostrils. I hope that soon I'll be up tasting my morning oatmeal, looking at the robin building its nest outside the window, having a glass of wine with Betty at dinner. Unless I can find the place in my inner world where I connect to gratitude, regardless of conditions, life can be a constant and grim struggle. Somehow, accepting things exactly as they are seems to open the way for a thankful heart to emerge.
Dr. Smith has shared his struggles in powerful ways to improve the lives of others. The neuropathy support group he started helps scores of folks understand and overcome painful and limiting conditions, and his many courses on "The Art of Conscious Living" in Rhodes' Continuing Education Program have attracted hundreds of adult students seeking a more meaningful quality of life.
Joy and sorrow, healing and pain, are sides of the coin in all our pockets. Mourning and dancing are part of the same movement. "Gratitude is born when our heart says yes to the lesson that God has granted all these occasions of life and is speaking to us through them," reminds David Steindl-Rast. When we can take three steps back mentally and accept everything as a part of the whole, surprising bursts of gratitude can bubble up within the human spirit.
Gratitude Is Not Guilt
The guilt trips start early in life, and we just keep on taking them.
"Eat all your vegetables ... be grateful for good food when there are starving children in Africa," mothers say with authority. Somehow, I never quite understood what that had to do with those canned peas, but I ate them anyway, choking with guilt.
"I'm thankful that God spared me in the auto accident last week... my buddy didn't make it," reflects the survivor.
"Just look at all my blessings! I really should be more grateful," my friend said shamefully.
Our memory banks are full of similar statements, attesting to the fact that gratitude is sometimes tinged with guilt. Strangely enough, this kind of reasoning is often where we begin in our journey toward a thankful heart. We hope, however, that it isn't where we end, because the implication is that no matter how genuine the gratitude, it comes to us at someone else's expense—the person with no food, no home, no worthwhile life. The unspoken message is that at least we are better off than they are.
These remarks are not intended as harsh judgments to make us wallow in more guilt. Instead, they can be signposts along the way toward a genuinely thankful heart. Awareness of the discrepancies in the world around us can serve a formative purpose. Such was the case when my son David, a young medical student at the time, served one summer on a mission team to the Dominican Republic. He wrote about his experiences in a poignant story called "Manuel's Lunch." Here are some excerpts:
You always think you're prepared. I knew it would be hot with no air conditioning; I knew there would be bugs; I knew the food would be different; I knew it would be hard work; I knew there would be devastating poverty—I had seen enough on television to know what was coming.
Our mobile medical unit had seen eight hundred children in four days. Children filed through day after day with open sores, parasites bloating their bellies, and infections running rampant. However, what astounded me were the huge grins on the faces that accompanied such disease! For a medical student from the U.S., the juxtaposition of such suffering with such apparent happiness brought on feelings of amazement as well as a little envy.
Envy, you ask?
Well, perhaps mourning is a better term ... mourning for the part of me that had sold out to complacency, that had taken for granted all that I had to the point of always wanting more. I felt the humility of knowing that if I were in their condition I would be screaming bloody-murder and demanding attention like a two- year old....
One day during the second week, two or three fellow members of the medical staff and I were making our way up a mountain road in search of a small child with congenital cataracts, hoping to convince his mother to allow us to take him to an ophthalmologist. About a mile up the road we found Manuel near a dilapidated shack with his brothers and sisters, playing in the dirt outside their "home." Manuel, who was virtually blind, was running with amazing accuracy and dexterity, knowing every inch of ground within the yard.
The mother worked about ten miles away and would not be returning until late that night. Consequently, the children would not be eating that day. Manuel was milling about, playing contentedly in the dirt, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed him pick up something, put it in his mouth and swallow it. Somewhat alarmed, I quickly went to him and tried to figure out what was happening.
"What was that?" I asked.
"A rock," he replied.
"What?! A rock?" I asked frantically, "Why?"
"It's my lunch," said Manuel, with a matter-of-fact look that stopped me cold in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat. My gut knotted. I had been prepared for many things, but I was not prepared for this—not for the sight of a poor, withered, blind child swallowing an inch-long rock simply to satisfy his burning desire for food and thinking nothing of it. I felt the urge to tell him not to do that again, immediately followed by the horrifying notion that I might be thus depriving him of one of the few times in the day he would feel some degree of physical gratification. I felt a feeling beyond tears. It was numbness.
I'll never forget that afternoon. It will always stay with me. I hope. The story wasn't all sad. We were able to locate the mother and get permission for the trip to the ophthalmologist as well as obtain some food for Manuel.
I have since returned to the wealth and health of my home with a new awareness of the condition of a large portion of the world that is no longer simply on a television show, but forever imprinted in my mind in the face of a young, hungry, blind Dominican boy....
Experiences like this can lead us from guilt to clarity, as we mentally descend from our ivory towers of privilege to an acceptance of the reality faced by many in our world. As this story shows us, deep gratitude is not just a pleasant feeling, but can serve as an impetus to genuine compassion and service. Even when appreciation is initially motivated by a sense of guilt, it invites us to graduate from gratitude-as-an-ought to the beginnings of authentic thanksgiving. Otherwise, we'll settle for a sense of gratitude that ends up breeding arrogance.
Gratitude Is Not Grandiosity
"God blessed us with a cloudless day for the patio party."
"I was so grateful for God's protection on that stormy flight to Chicago."
"Our company has been blessed with huge profits!"
While statements like these are all too human, we need to be aware of the tinge of entitlement underneath the sentiments. What are we really saying? That the near-by farmer who needed rain on the day of the patio party was not blessed while we were? Was the plane that crashed while mine stayed aloft full of folks who were outside the realm of divine protection? Are the owners of failing companies somehow out of favor with God? The unspoken implications of some of our thankful words hint at a hidden arrogance. In some cases, there's the notion that somehow we deserved it or that God must have thought we deserved it. Author Christina Baldwin writes, "There are no guarantees in life. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.... Being spiritual doesn't save us from anything. But being spiritual allows us to hold whatever happens in a spiritual way."
One glimpse into the complexity of the problem will remind us that any glib talk about the mystery of suffering is as ludicrous as trying to square a circle. Strictly speaking, the problem is insoluble. As I said before, part of me likes the popular definition of gratitude as "the recurrent affirmation of what's working," because it's a simple, uncluttered meaning. But, the deeper part of me knows it's too one-sided. It omits the powerful potential for blessing contained in that which is not working. In our privileged culture, we tend to see blessing confined to what gets good results, producing happiness and prosperity, favors that can be catalogued and counted. As we move toward a more profound understanding of gratitude, we must be willing to include the wholeness of life's journey—both the light and the dark—and the holy potential in each. Those who are courageous enough to ask deep questions of meaning inevitably confront this dilemma, and the struggle itself is often the cutting edge of real faith. Being thankful for our blessings does not mean we are entitled to them or deserve them.
Now that we've looked at some of our casual notions of gratitude, let's look more closely at some of its deeper dimensions. Gratitude grounds us in reality; it comes to us as a process of grace; and the more it is practiced, the more it grows.
Excerpted from How Can I See the Light When It's So Dark? by LINDA DOUTY. Copyright © 2007 Linda Douty. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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