A few weeks ago, I received an email from a pastor asking me to speak at her church. I asked her if she had any suggestions and she wrote, “How about gratitude?”
I paused and then wrote back. ““Well, that’s funny. Gratitude? I have a lot of anger and resentment these days… Not committed yet but will think on this.”
Always up for a challenge, I batted the idea around. Well, yeah I’m grateful but … and then there was a litany of butts. Gratitude? Are you kidding me? I sighed. I was really thinking hard now, sounded like platitude: A remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.
Gratitude? Flatitude—it fell flat on my ears. I had heard so much about gratitude from new thought communities, well-meaning proselytizers, books and the new age, that the word just sounded glib.
In fact, I remembered how a client once came to me and said, “I tried that gratitude thing, and it was the same five things every night.” I understood.
How Did Gratitude get to be a Moral Obligation?
When you are feeling so down about the world or when you feel like everything in your life is falling apart, mustering gratitude becomes another item on your ‘to-do’ list that you don’t do well—and just more guilt. You should be grateful or count your blessings? Sounds good but still platitudes. As for counting, that’s a function of the mind. How did gratitude which is a function of the heart, get usurped by the mind?
The Great Gratitude Sale
Then I started thinking about how gratitude has become a commodity. Check this statement out. I believe a well-meaning minister at what must have been a pep rally for gratitude spoke it.
“A grateful heart is full of greatness and the grateful heart is not an emotional reaction but a causative energy. Even Plato wrote that a grateful mind is a great mind, which eventually attracts to itself great things.”
It smacked of the law of attraction. While the law of attraction may have some merit, I have often come to think of it as the flaw of attraction, but that’s a whole other subject. And while a grateful heart may attract great things to itself, wouldn’t that be a byproduct of gratitude. Imagine the soapbox preacher: Get gratitude and you can have all these other great things combined! Yes, there is a whole marketing campaign afoot on behalf of gratitude with a little bit too much advertisement for my taste.
So I was still looking and I found a Forbes magazine article titled: 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round
So now we have to be motivated to give thanks? Hmm.
The article said that research revealed that gratitude opens the door to more relationships. It improves physical and psychological health. It enhances empathy and reduces aggression. It improves self-esteem. Grateful people sleep better. (So get rid of your melatonin and take a dose of nightly gratitude.)
And then there was the last benefit: Gratitude increases mental strength. The article cited a 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy that “found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – fosters resilience.”
While it’s wonderful that gratitude helps people in their lives and fosters resilience, I’m a little leery of the citation that war veterans with higher levels of gratitude experience lower rates of PTSD. I imagine some people using this study to imply the reverse correlation that all those suffering with PTSD aren’t grateful enough, and that’s too much of a hot button for me. I think we need to be careful in not overselling gratitude as the antidote to everything.
So while being grateful may have its positive effect, this article (and all the prosperity gospels out there) still shines too much light on benefits received from the transaction instead of just the moment of being with the other or the experience of the feeling. (Put ‘prosperity and gratitude’ together in a Google search, and close to nine million hits come up!)
The Gratitude of Giving and Kindness
Then a colleague told me that he feels most grateful when he had the opportunity to give. That was different. It took me back to Thanksgiving a few years ago when I found out a woman at the local gas station had to work. I thought no one should have to work on Thanksgiving, so I bought her a box of chocolate and delivered it to her with a card on Thanksgiving Day.
The look of surprise and delight across her face sent shock waves through my heart. I think that small gift to her ended up having more meaning for me! While there are many who believe giving is better than receiving, I don’t. I think we are all only receivers because we receive the gift to give. But then maybe giving is perceived as being greater because it just feels so darn good. And I was grateful to have learned that.
My search for gratitude was still on. I looked further and found more words by Plato who wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
I took the “be kind” part. When you’re having a bad time of life, especially be kind to yourself, be kind.
I thought about the kindness of the artist, Frederic Lecut, who is creating a mosaic to raise funds for the Yezidi people who, for their religious differences, are being persecuted and massacred by ISIS.
That’s pretty cool that he’s doing that. Then in preparing this sermon, I invariably had the next thought, well, thank God I live in this country and people aren’t coming at me with machetes and guns. A second later I castigated, recanting to myself. Thank God I live in this country? Who am I kidding? That’s like saying: Thank God I’m not one of them. That’s not gratitude!
Then I read:
“Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic.” ~ John Henry Jowett ~
What does that mean? I was still searching for what is gratitude that is not moralistic and not a commodity.
Gratitude, Prayer, and the Wee of Life
I remembered that there is a way to pray where you give thanks for the desired result before it is realized or achieved. It is an affirmative expectant prayer. For example, “I give thanks to God for this healing. I give thanks that the problems at work have all been resolved under grace in a perfect way.” People praying in faith that God or the Divine Being of their heart has already heard and answered their prayers.
Gratitude is like prayer. Prayer does three things. It connects us to that which we pray to, prayer deepens our faith, and prayer brings us into the silence. Gratitude connects us to “other” in some way. It deepens our faith perhaps in human kindness, and when we feel gratitude deeply in our hearts, it is often beyond words. More just a feeling with maybe a humble quiet thank you attached to it or with tears streaming your face.
I was reminded of my friend, John. Thirty years back, John had a motorcycle accident. He was on his back for nine months. Then, one day, for the first time since the accident, he stood and took a shower. Of when he felt the water streaming down his back, he said, “I wept like a baby.” Thank you, John, wherever you are for your words and friendship from that time. John took his own life a few years ago.
I was reminded of Myrtle Archer, a woman who wrote a story called, “The Solace of the Wee of Life,” published in my first book, Women Celebrate: The Gift in Every Moment. In her story, she reveals that her father-in-law shot her mother-in-law and then took his own life in a murder–suicide. She and her husband had no idea the stress the man had been under caring for his wife who had Alzheimers. Myrtle described how she got through the anguish, grief and recrimination. After all the the windows were washed for the hundredth time, she took to observing the tiniest of life, the wee of life: “an ant exploring a green geranium leaf … a grain of salt in purest white on the yolk of my breakfast egg.” As she felt better, her gaze slowly widened. “Even in the midst of trouble, the world in tiny spots is a wonderful, beautiful and serene place. And it was still here, waiting to comfort me.” The appreciation for the very small is what took her through a very dark period of time in her life.
Gratitude as a Social Emotion
I started feeling a bit closer to gratitude. Then I found an article by David Shariatmadari, which tells the story of a woman named Marie Jaloweics Simon.
“In the winter of 1941-1942 the threat of danger settled round my neck like a noose and kept tightening.” Marie Jalowicz Simon, a young Berliner, shared the fate of thousands of her fellow citizens who had been unable or unwilling to flee Germany and the Nazi regime. She was Jewish, lodging in a tiny room with a Jewish family, dodging demands by the authorities that she go out and work in support of the war effort. One morning, the Gestapo came calling. They marched into the house and straight to her bedside, saying she needed to come in for questioning. Thinking on her feet, she asked that she be able to go downstairs and get some food to bring with her. “I can’t run away from you dressed just in a petticoat, can I?”
The officer gave her permission, but run away was exactly what she did. She walked slowly and deliberately to the street corner, and then started sprinting. “I spoke to the first person I met, an elderly labourer, briefly explaining my predicament. ‘Here, come into the entrance of this building,’ he said, ‘and I’ll lend you my windcheater. Then we’ll both go to people you know who can lend you clothes. And if I’m late to work, who cares? It’ll be worth it to put one over on those bastards for a change!’
“Jalowicz Simon had to make a split-second decision to trust a complete stranger. He could easily have raised the alarm. But instead he gave her something precious – the very clothes off his back. She successfully evaded the authorities for a further four years, going to ground in the most dangerous city on Earth, emerging at the end of the war, her formidable spirit unbroken.
During that time, despite the obvious hardship, she had hundreds of opportunities to feel grateful. The gratitude must have been exceptionally intense: each act of assistance was, after all, an attempt to save her life. And it worked. Though she was not always able to thank them at the time, Jalowicz Simon recorded her experiences decades later, and each small act of generosity now echoes down the ages.
“Strange as it may seem, the Holocaust, a machine of hatred and destruction, was at the same time the context for millions of small acts of kindness. Researchers in California recently used first-hand accounts by Holocaust survivors to induce feelings of gratitude among experimental subjects. Lying in the MRI scanners, participants were given real-life scenarios, such as, “A woman at the immigration agency stamps your passport so you can flee to England,” and “An Allied soldier gives you his glasses. You can see for the first time since the war began.” They were asked to reflect on how they would feel if these things happened to them. The results showed patterns of neural activation linked to gratitude – the first attempt to comprehensively map this specific emotion.”
And I thought, wow, gratitude as an emotion, a feeling that sweeps through us. Not something we make a list of that we say I’m grateful for, but something deeper here.
“What the researchers found was that being grateful activated parts of the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked to assessing the value of things and the mental states of others. Thus, understanding how useful a simple windcheater could be at a crucial moment, and interpreting the motives of the benefactor: a desire to do you good at the expense of your enemies. Areas associated with reward, particularly relief at having a source of stress eliminated, also lit up.
“These findings contain an important insight: gratitude is, above all, a social emotion. (Italics are mine) It’s possible to be happy or miserable and for those feelings to have nothing to do with other human beings. But gratitude is always about your connection to the outside world, to someone who has extended a hand to help you. (When you feel grateful to something non-human, such as fate, or the weather, it’s likely you’re thinking of it as an agent with intention – personifying it. Even atheists say “thank God”.)
“During wartime, a safe place to live can be the greatest gift of all. When the fighting finally ended in 1945, Marie Jalowicz Simon found herself suddenly privileged, officially designated a victim of fascism. She was entitled to housing, but the rooms she was shown made her heart sink: one of them had a shell-hole, half a metre wide, above the bed. Finally, someone put her in touch with a high-up who was able to arrange for an apartment of her own, after so many years of relying on others. “He handed me the key and said, ‘we’ll draw up the agreement later. For now, let me wish you peace and happiness here.’”
“She wondered whether she was dreaming. After collecting herself, she walked the hour and a half to Pankow and put the key in the lock. “There was no gas or electricity on, but there was running water. “Hello, dear water-tap,” I said cheerfully, but much moved at the same time.” She bathed her sore feet. “Afterwards I lay down on the floor, stretched out full length, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.”
Gratitude as a social emotion—gratitude for the water tap.
I began to see gratitude like a giant puzzle with many moving parts. There is the moral aspect, “You should be grateful.” There is the commodity and advertisement of gratitude and all the benefits it will get you. There’s the prayer aspect of gratitude in giving thanks ahead of time for that which is not yet here. There is the gratitude for being given the gift and opportunity to give. Even the sincere giving of “Thank you” to another person can have enormous ramifications for their heart and for your own. There is gratitude, our recognition for what we have, appreciation for the wee of life, and for the large in life. The things that fill the well of our heart that sometimes make us weep and weep. The water running down our back, or that a life has been spared.
Grateful I Am
I see my own mom and dad, and am grateful for their goodness in my life. While they have done enormous things, more than the enormity of any physical gift, it is who they are as people that I am most grateful for. Especially for the millions of small moments I share with each of them that I will not ever share with anyone else. Pillow talk with my mom, when we lie on her bed and talk about all our memories together, of how our cat ate honeydew melon off the kitchen table and scratched on the meditation room door. We have our own brand of humor and our own secret language. We people watch in the sun. Sometimes she reads to me at night and we meditate together. In the silence there is closeness untouched by the world.
I remember how my dad listened to me like I was the sun, moon and stars. He was silent in the deepest place of his soul when I talked. Even if he didn’t believe as I did, he listened like he did. In the last days and weeks of his life, I was lying on his bed teaching him self-healing techniques. My mom came to the door and said, “Come on Danny, get up, our guests have arrived,” his sisters and friends who flew in from the east and west coast to see him one last time. I remember him saying, “Just a few more minutes, Cathy, we’re white-lighting ourselves.” I am grateful for that.
I am grateful for the spiritual cradle that rocks me steady amidst the stormiest hellish emotional of seas.
I am grateful for peace that exists even during war.
Gratitude for the Presence, call it God, Love, Christ or leave it without a name or face.
Gratitude a Branch of Peace
I see that this elusive gratitude is now a branch of peace. No longer a platitude.
And then my seeing expands and I know somewhere in this world there is a person holding out a hand to someone else.
Like strangers did for Marie Simon, an olive branch maybe it’s twisted, a hand saving another’s life.
Somewhere in this world right now, there are two enemies choosing not to fight because they see a glimmer of hope in each other’s face. They walk away, their weapons laid to rest, and in that moment their fates change.
I’m grateful that in this raucous world acts like this grace the space, whether we ever know them personally or not.
Grateful that my awareness and your awareness of these amazing courageous acts expands, multiplies and enhances the peace. Because it is the communal witnessing that heals, nurtures and restores.
Gratitude is not something we have to do. And whether the other person knows it or not, maybe that doesn’t always matter. Because it’s something we feel inside of us and that changes our heart. Like a rainbow of light it gently shines silently touching another and then another. As we walk and talk, we carry gratitude with us because it is part of our spiritual DNA, a constant companion, part of the fabric of who we are that stays with us through our lives.
Gratitude the Prayer
And while gratitude may be an action and a causative energy, it is so much more than that. It is a prayer.
And so this is my prayer.
May we be grateful with the peace that tenderly touches our grief.
May we be grateful with the peace that reaches past our anger, position and polarity.
When we feel utterly responsible for someone else or a group of people but are without the control, may we remember in that scared contracted place that we are not alone.
May we be grateful with the peace of knowing we love and are loved. Whether those we love and are loved by are here in body or not. That they leave an imprint on our lives, that is eternal and we do the same for them in their precious lives wherever they are.
Thank you for this social emotion when we are suffering, in despair, lost and lonely. Thank you that there is a connection to something bigger, nameless, wordless.
Grateful for the peace that holds our frailties and lets us feel safe enough to melt, rest and surrender to this something bigger that lifts us up in love.
Grateful that we share the air, this space and place, the silence, the music of life, and planet Earth.
And thank for your witnessing kindness that connects me to all of you.
Happy Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving.
Article and Art by Elizabeth Welles
The sermon version was given at Via De Cristo,
United Methodist Church on Sunday, November 22, 2015