“Attitude of Gratitude”: Blessing or Burden?….

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The idea of having an “attitude of gratitude” has been on my mind lately; so much so, a few days ago, just out of curiosity, I did a Google search for that phrase.  In less than half a second, it turned up more than 37 million results.  Thirty-seven million!  I guess I’m not the only one thinking about it!

It seems that having an “attitude of gratitude” is much desired, greatly admired, and widely promoted (in Google’s list of suggested related searches, I even saw “attitude of gratitude spongebob”!), certainly all with the best of intentions.  According to one website, “It doesn’t matter how ugly the situation is or how bad it looks.  The simple act of writing the things that you are thankful for will definitely change your mood.  And if you do it continuously, it will transform your life completely.” (http://www.thankyoumania.com/the-disadvantages-of-gratitude/)  Another one promises to reveal “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude….” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/11/23/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-of-gratitude-that-will-motivate-you-to-give-thanks-year-round/)  And that’s just two of millions.

In my quick skimming of just a few of the millions of articles related to this practice, I saw only praise and accolades.  I could find only benefits and advantages.  I did not see one word, not even a single hint, of anything negative that might result from adopting a perspective of thankfulness.

Was this surprising?  No.  Was it contrary to my own personal experience?  Somewhat….

In all honesty, I sometimes struggle with this “attitude of gratitude” thing.

That’s not to say it’s a struggle for me to feel grateful.  I am very grateful for many, many, many things in my life, past, present, and presumably, future.  I like to think that I not only feel gratitude quite readily but that I express it with equal willingness, whether to my family, friends, strangers, or God.  As my children can attest to, I’ve even been known to shout out my thanks to “the traffic light gods” when we fly through a string of green lights on our way to some activity or other for which we are, all too often, already running late!

What I am saying is that every now and then it’s difficult for me to feel gratitude for all that is good in my life without also considering those who may not be experiencing similar levels of goodness….

Call me crazy, but when I feel gratitude for my family and all those who love me, for example, I am often led to think about those who struggle to name anyone who loves them….

Strange though it may be, it can be occasionally be difficult for me to feel grateful for having food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over my head without thinking also about those who don’t have those things….

And one more just for good measure (and confirmation of my lunacy??):  when I am moved to feel thankful for good health, or clean drinking water, or meaningful work, or a safe place to live, then those who do not have all, or perhaps even any, of those things frequently come to mind….

A few years ago at Christmas time, a dear friend gifted me with a Sierra Club “Engagement Calendar”–one of those lovely, spiral-bound, journal-sized calendars that has, on each two-page spread, a beautiful photo on one page and space for seven days worth of “engagements” on the other.  She had gotten one of them for herself, too, and suggested that we use them not as planners, but rather as gratitude journals, writing down five things we felt grateful for each day.

And so, beginning January 1 of the following year, I joined her in journaling my gratitude, trying to list not just general things for which I was grateful, like family, friends, and food to eat, but more specific things as well, such as snow pants (Jan. 7), the sound of rain on the roof (Apr. 9), and my then 5-yr-old daughter and 3-yr-old son “spontaneously giving each other hugs and kisses”while we were waiting in line at our local hardware store (June 2)!

I did pretty well for the first few months of the year, acknowledging my gratitude for many different good things in my life, big and small.  As the year went on, however, my entries became more and more infrequent, finally coming to a complete halt mid-summer.  Beginning July 18th, the pages of my gratitude journal seem untouched.  For pages and pages, for weeks and even months, there’s not an entry to be found.

What happened??  Did my entries dwindle because of the arrival of summer and the change of schedule that always brings?  Did my commitment to my psuedo-New Year’s resolution simply peter out?  Did the appeal of having an “attitude of gratitude” just wear off, leading me to let go of the “lens of thankfulness” through which I’d been looking?  Did I run out of things to be grateful for??

The explanation for my silence can be found on a page fairly close to the end of the journal.  On November 3rd, I penned my first entry since July 17th.  Like it or not, documented there in black and white, is the reason for those many empty pages.  Here is what I wrote:

“Okay…here I am…back after a long ‘break’…back because [my friend and partner in gratitude journaling] said, ‘Oh, just do it!’….There are just SO many things in my life for which I am grateful, I started feeling guilty…….?????….but, I’ll try again.  Today I’m thankful for…” and I listed five things.

I had stopped recording my gratitude because I felt guilty.  It had been so easy for me to be grateful for so many good things in my life, that I had begun to feel unfairly “gifted” with Goodness…and I didn’t know what to do with that.

One therapeutic response to feeling guilty for an undeserved tipping of the scales of Goodness could certainly be giving back…doing for others…sharing the bounty of my life with those who, for whatever reason, had less.

But I was already doing that!  I was working as a youth pastor at the time, and prior to that, I had worked as a school chaplain.  I had volunteered in soup kitchens and in hospices.  I had served two years as a missionary.  My husband and I were giving money not only to the church but to a number of additional charitable organizations.  There was no shortage of “giving back” in my life.

And yet, it seemed that I could not give back enough to balance the scales.  When I focused on the many, many things for which I felt grateful, it more often felt overwhelming in a guilt-inducing way rather than in any awe- or humility- or thankfulness-inducing way, which is not, presumably, the desired outcome of adopting an “attitude of gratitude”!

And so, what to do?….I was at a loss, and so I simply stopped “counting my blessings.”  I stopped putting down in black and white the things for which I was thankful.  I stopped documenting my gratitude.

Did I stop feeling guilty?  Perhaps a little.

Did I stop feeling grateful?  Not in the least.

Did I come up with other ways to resolve my self-imposed dilemma?  Not a single one!

Until this week.

From the grave, Henri Nouwen struck again!  🙂

Here are the words I read earlier this week in one of his online daily devotionals that hopefully…possibly…just might be finally shedding some much-needed light on this ongoing struggle of mine:

“The Spiritual Work of Gratitude”

“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives–the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections–that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.
Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.”

What I heard in those words is that my gratitude had been too limited in its scope.  Instead of having been grateful for too many things, as I’d been thinking, I had been grateful for too few!  I’d been readily giving thanks for all that I perceived as good in my life–things that increased the love, joy, laughter, comfort, security, good health, smiles, etc….but not so much for the things I’d perceived as bad–anything that might have brought pain, suffering, anger, upset, conflict, sadness, discomfort, confusion, and so on.

For much of my life, for example, I have thought of interpersonal conflict as something “bad,” something terribly uncomfortable and unsettling, something indicative of a problem between myself and someone else (which, if you are a perfectionist, as I have tendencies toward…, is not something you want to admit.  If you’re doing everything right and perfectly, then how can there be any problems??  That just might mean you’re doing something wrong!  Gasp!), and most certainly, something to be avoided if at all possible.  I certainly have not, historically, felt any gratitude for conflict!  I have felt gratitude, on the other hand, when my relationships have been marked by harmony and peace–or at least, an absence of conflict….  To my way of thinking, conflict was clearly bad and harmony was obviously good, the latter meriting feelings of thanksgiving, the former, not so much.  Right?  Of course that’s right!  Who would possibly disagree with that?

Well…I, as someone who has experienced more of life, both in years and in depth, now find myself disagreeing with that!  “Presence of conflict = bad, absence of conflict = good” had been my way of thinking…until relatively recently.  In recent years, I have had the opportunity to learn that conflict in and of itself does not have to be bad!  In fact, conflict can even be good!  Conflict generally does mean that there is a problem of some sort, and it is often uncomfortable and unsettling.  But I’m learning that the absence of conflict in a relationship does not necessarily equate to the presence of peace.  I’m learning that the depth of interpersonal harmony that can be achieved by acknowledging the presence of conflict and addressing it is so much greater than the superficial peace that is created by ignoring it.  So, while it’s certainly all right to be grateful for harmony in relationships, I’m learning, too, to be just as grateful, and sometimes even more, for conflict, because I have experienced the even deeper peace that can result.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem so clear-cut–“Presence of conflict = bad? or good?…Absence of conflict = good? or bad?”  According to Nouwen, I should try to be grateful for times of conflict as well as times of peace, regardless of which one I perceive as good and which, as bad….

So what does all of this have to do with the “attitude of gratitude” and my feelings of guilt??  Back on topic, Worley!  🙂  Well, if I can be grateful simply for my life, and all that it is and has been and will be–the comfortable and the uncomfortable, the tenderness and the anger, the ease and the challenge, the laughter and the tears, the clarity and the confusion, the times of good health and the times of illness, the conflict and the peace, the love and the hurt, the good and the bad–then the focus of my gratitude will shift from perceived “good” things to all things…not only doing away with any “scales of Goodness” (and the resultant feelings of guilt that came from a perceived unfair tipping toward me!) but presumably leading to an ever-increasing trust, as Nouwen said, “that [I] will soon see in [my life] the guiding hand of a loving God.”  

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose.”  (Romans 8:28)  It doesn’t say “Trust in the things that you think are good, because they are, in fact, good, and if you trust in them, everything will work out for you.”  It says (my paraphrase!), “Trust in God and God’s purpose, and all things will work together for good.”  What is that good?  We may not know, we may not see, we may not understand–not now and perhaps not in our lifetime–but we can trust that God knows, and that God’s purpose is good!

In another of Paul’s letters, later in the New Testament, we find his well-known exhortation to the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16-18, emphasis added)  Had he been aware of the phrase, Paul might have suggested having an “attitude of gratitude!  And not just when things are good, and comfortable, and easy, and fun, when life is full to the brim with love and peace; not just when the way ahead seems straight and smooth; but also when life is hard, and uncomfortable, and challenging; when life is infuriating and lonely, and it hurts; when the path that lies before us is pitch black and terrifying.  That is the challenge.  That is the test.  That, perhaps, is the true indicator of how deeply a person is committed to living with an attitude of gratitude–can he or she continue to give thanks even when circumstances suggest, and even would seemingly demand, otherwise?

Can there be gratitude in the face of pain? loss? betrayal? grief?

Can gratitude be expressed in the midst of illness? heartache? abandonment? abuse?

Can an attitude of gratitude survive when it seems there’s not a single thing in sight for which to feel grateful?

Paul would have us believe that it can…. And I, for one, would like to join him in that belief.

For myself, I want to move away from being grateful simply for that which seems good, and move toward being able to “give thanks in all circumstances,” trusting more and more that “all things work together for good for those who love God”–which I believe I do– “who are called according to [God’s] purpose”–which I believe I am.

I’m called to live the life that I’ve been given, be the person I’ve been created to be, and give thanks for all things and in all circumstances, trusting that all of that will work for God’s Good purpose…whatever that may be.

Having an “attitude of gratitude”:  blessing or burden?  I think I’ve finally come down, wholeheartedly, on the side of blessing.  But I’m grateful for the struggle!  🙂

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