It seems that feeling and expressing gratitude is touted by everyone from talk-show hosts to magazine editors. Oprah, Dr. Oz, Women’s Day all declare the virtues of Gratitude. Gratitude Journals pop up everywhere especially in this season of Thanksgiving which is an entire holiday dedicated to…well Gratitude. The reason is simple; Gratitude is good for you. John Ortberg author of Soul Keeping says that gratitude is essential for the Soul to grow. It lifts your mood, shifts your perspective, and helps you remember the good in situations. In fact, neuroscience has found that people who feel gratitude have less depression and anxiety. Feeling gratitude regularly can even re-wire your brain to be more positive. Those folks who are resilient, who have overcome difficult circumstances and made their lives successful in spite of misfortune and trauma are found to have more gratitude. We can learn from them. After all the scripture teaches, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you (I Thessalonians 5:18).”
It is nice to see reminders this time of year. The paper plates at Walmart sport pumpkins and the simple phrase, “Give Thanks.” Wall plaques have sayings like, “Grateful, Thankful and Blessed.” But there are those who struggle with gratitude. Folks who suffer from depression can feel out of place or even irritated seeing these gratitude reminders. They are low in the neurotransmitter serotonin, a wellbeing brain chemical that helps our mood be more positive. It also helps us count our blessings. Without it we can toil over what our blessings really are and feel guilty when someone tells us to count them in an effort to evoke gratitude. Then there are those who are more negative in temperament and see the glass half empty. The Negative Ned or Negative Nelly who find gratitude and thanksgiving hard to come by. No matter where you are in the continuum, gratitude is something that can help you. Since we are in a season where we are constantly reminded there is no time like now to begin this practice.
Anne Voskamp in her great book, One Thousand Gifts teaches us that miracles happen after thanksgiving. The term she uses is in the Hebrew, Eucharisteo. The root word of eucharisteo is charis, meaning grace and also holds the derivative, the Greek word chara, meaning joy. Thanksgiving moves us to see grace and feel joy (p.23). She encouraged readers to make list of 1000 gifts that they can be thankful for, and name them. She says, “Naming is Edenic. I name gifts and go back to the Garden and God in the beginning who first speaks a name and lets what is come into existence” (p.53). Vokcamp goes on to say that to name a thing reveals its essence, nature and purpose and in other words, helps us bless God for it. She encourages us to appreciate and name the wonderful things around us every day: a beautiful moon, a pretty sunset or a silly playful child. I can be way too serious at times. After all I work in a field where people bring serious issues to me for help. This book helped me loosen up, look around me and see gifts right in front of me… butterflies, flowers, and a genuine smile from a cashier. I still have to be reminded when I get stressed to see and express gratitude for those simple things. There is a famous quote by Thornton Wilder that says, “We can only be said to be alive in the moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” What are our treasures?
Admittedly, when difficult situations arise it is hard to see your treasures. It is hard to be thankful for the possibility of a silver lining in the hovering dark clouds, but the Apostle Paul who had plenty to complain about, tells us, “All things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28). If that is true we then can be thankful for the dark clouds because they will grow us. Many of us are not so good at being thankful for adversity or seeing the silver lining in the dark clouds and here are some reasons why.
Pride and Control
It is hard to be grateful when we really want things to go our way and they don’t. Wanting our way is a form of pride which often leads to control. In his classic work, Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen, a self-confessed Melancholy, says that the prideful are seldom grateful because they do not believe they get what they deserve. It’s as old as Eve. She could have been grateful for her paradise but instead thought God was holding out on her and wanted more. If we want what we want and not what God wants, gratitude can be in short supply. The solution to this gratitude robber is Surrender. In the 12-Step movement, Step 3 is to surrender your life and will to God. It is essential for any addict and it is essential for all of us. Life can be pretty difficult even miserable if you don’t surrender your life and will to God. If He is in control instead of you, there is room to see him work and see the situation through His eyes. This leads us to the second Gratitude thief — a Poor Perspective.
A Poor Perspective
The difference between a trial and an opportunity is how you see it. There is an old story about a WWII radioman who received reports from a raid in Europe. An infantryman called in and said they were in trouble, hammered, and failing to stop the enemy. Shortly afterward an airman radioed in from his plane and said that the missiles they dropped hit their targets and he could see the enemy retreating. He reported the allies taking ground away from the enemy. One saw only what was directly in front of him, the other had a higher perspective. That higher perspective is a view from above and can see a panorama of all that is occurring. God has a higher perspective and can see things we cannot. Knowing that God is in control and we are not can shift our perspective and allow gratitude even for the hard things to flow.
Michael J. Fox in his book, Always Looking Up: So Much to Be Thankful For has a great perspective on his difficult diagnosis when he wrote:
“For everything this disease has taken, something with greater value has been given—sometimes just a marker that points me in a new direction that I might not otherwise have traveled. So sure, it may be one step forward and two steps back, but after a time with Parkinson’s, I’ve learned that what is important is making one step count; always look up.” Now that’s a viewpoint that yields gratitude.
The great theologian, Lewis Smedes after surviving a serious illness wrote, “It is then that I learned gratitude is the best feeling I would ever have, the ultimate joy of living. It was better than sex, better than winning a lottery, better than watching your daughter graduate from college, better and deeper than any other feeling; it is perhaps, the genesis of all other really good feelings in the human repertoire. I am sure that nothing in life can ever match the feeling of being held by the gracious energy percolating from the abyss where beats the loving heart of God.” Both men could have been resentful of their plights but they were not because of their perspective. This leads us to the last Gratitude stealer—Resentment.
For those who have lived through complex trauma, those who have a great many soul wounds, it can be hard to combat resentment and move to gratitude and thanksgiving for all things. Nouwen says resentment is the opposite of gratitude because it blocks the perspective that life is a gift. Resentment tells us we don’t get to have what we deserve. It can manifest itself in jealousy. Gratitude he says goes beyond mine and thine and claims the truth that everything is pure gift. Like many of us wounded souls, he labored to find gratitude for a father who did not favor him as he needed. In his toil, Nouwen found the solution for finding Gratitude in all situations. He began to see Gratitude and Thanksgiving as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude, appreciation, and thanksgiving is the effort to acknowledge that all I am and all I have has been given as grace from the love of God and is to be celebrated with joy and thanksgiving.
Nouwen further states that Gratitude is a conscious choice that is done intentionally in all situations. He writes, “I can choose to stay in the pit and lament about my misfortunes, but I don’t have to do this. I can choose gratitude when my emotions and feelings are steeped in hurt and resentment. I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. There is always a choice for gratitude when I can look into the eyes of the One who came to search for me and found me. I can see therein that all I am and have is pure gift calling for Gratitude.” I try to remember this when old memories surface, times get hard or I’m stressed by the tyranny of the urgent. I want to challenge you to do the same. So get out your Gratitude List and start writing. Here’s some of mine:
The early morning sunrise (If I can wake up)
Wet dog kisses
The hug of a loyal friend
The right Scripture at the right time
The wonder on the face of a child
Fruitcake (Yes, I’m one of those few)
Christmas Lights…and man I love Christmas Lights… but first Thanksgiving!