For Everything in Our Lives
Lyricist Bruce Findlow, in his song, “For All that Is Our Life,” said that we should offer “thanks and praise” for everything that happens to us. Whether it’s sorrow, failure, fear, or other pain we experience, we should be grateful. 
He’s not the only spiritual teacher who has proclaimed this. For instance, Rumi, in his poem “The Guest House,” tells us to “welcome” everything that comes to us, and not just welcome it, but also “entertain” it. Each experience is a guest whom we should treat with hospitality. No matter if that guest is a sadness so deep it takes from us all the furniture in our home, we should still welcome it.
But can we really be grateful for the things we don’t like? For some of us, it’s hard to be grateful at all.
A Good Thing
There’s good reason to try being grateful, though, because the research on gratitude is compelling. According to a meta-analysis performed by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley, those of us more prone to feeling grateful for things done for us, or for life in general, are healthier. Emotions like gratitude directly improve the heart’s functioning and reduce inflammation. Grateful people sleep better, exercise more, and are willing to seek help when they do experience problems. 
Even more pronounced, the researchers discovered, were the ways gratitude enhances our psychological well-being. People who fill out daily gratitude journals tend to experience more pleasure than those who do not. They also develop a heightened sense of purpose and meaning.  Grateful people tend to feel satisfied with their lives, so they are less driven to amass material wealth or seek power. They resist sacrificing their lives or their souls for their jobs, and they experience less burnout. Additionally, gratitude helps us stay clean and sober, improves outcomes for those of us with mental illnesses, and helps us use our traumatic experiences for growth. 
None of this is surprising. No matter how we define gratitude, whether we see it as a behavior, an emotion, or a thought, it helps us focus on the positive things in life. If we do that, we’re going to feel better, because when we change our thoughts, we change our emotions. Indeed, many kinds of positive thinking activities can improve our lives as much as gratitude does. Nonetheless, writing in a gratitude journal could be good for all of us.
The Downside of Gratitude
That being said, gratitude doesn’t always make us happy. When we can’t reciprocate, such as because of a disability or illness, we may feel guilty and embarrassed at receiving care, especially if we can’t afford to pay for it. The obligation to feel grateful for that care can lead to resentment. Additionally, If we focus too much on the good in our lives and the blessings we receive even in the face of hardship, we might have trouble leaving an abusive relationship or claiming justice.
On the other hand, a culture that is not comfortable with gratitude may perpetuate oppression. For instance, in the United Kingdom, gratitude is associated with guilt and embarrassment.  In the United States, men tend to fear that if they express gratitude, they will seem weak or become indebted to someone else, giving that person power over them.  In cultures based on privilege and dominance, it’s scary to be beholden to someone else, so the rich and the powerful tend to take the blessings they have for granted and assume they deserve whatever good they receive.
If we encourage a culture of gratitude, we undermine the myth of rugged individualism. We question whether we do all get what we deserve, and we dispute the right of the wealthy and the strong to control everyone else.
Gratitude and the Social Good
Regardless of our natural stance on gratitude, we can all learn to be grateful. Keeping a gratitude journal can mitigate even an overweening pride.  Although the practice might inure people to the pain of their oppression, keeping them entrapped longer, in the long run, it may help. People who naturally tend to be grateful have better self-esteem and don’t automatically blame themselves when things go wrong.  Thus, grateful people are more likely to stick up for their rights and avoid harmful situations. After all, they believe they deserve to be treated well. Grateful people may be more humble, but that doesn’t mean they allow themselves to be abused.
In this way, gratitude is good for society. Humans and other animals evolved with the capacity to feel grateful for a reason. When we do experience gratitude, and when we think grateful thoughts, we tend to want to take care of one another, to work together for the common good, and to practice “reciprocal altruism.” 
So let’s take out our journals and write a hundred things we’re grateful for. We’ll be glad we did.
Things We Don’t Like
That would be a good start. But I want to consider the more difficult kind of gratitude that Findlow and Rumi talk about. It’s easy to be grateful for a windfall or a special gift, a good job, a home, a loving family, a beautiful sunrise. It’s harder to be grateful for the things we don’t like.
Over a period of some months, I visited with a patient whose disease left him unable to write, to feed himself, to hold a book to read, to work on the puzzles he used to enjoy, to walk, or to do much of anything except watch television. On top of this, he had a head injury that changed his personality. Maybe he’d always been angry and resentful and friendless, but given the stories he told, I suspect that attitude had worsened these last few years.
Once when I asked him what he felt grateful for, he could think of nothing. Food, warmth, and fishing shows weren’t enough for him. He wanted freedom, a healthy body, loved ones who hadn’t betrayed him. Nothing else would satisfy.
In his situation, I might feel the same. The depth of his sadness and loneliness overwhelmed him, and he didn’t have the mental capacity to process his grief. Feeling abandoned, he trusted no one. He believed in God, but he thought God was punishing him, so he couldn’t even trust his deity.
Don’t Tell Me Everything Happens for a Reason
Who am I to tell him he should count his blessings? It’s easy to talk about gratitude when life is good. What if we are raped every morning or imprisoned in filth? What if anxiety or depression cling to us like a friend or we are estranged, bullied, and shunned? Gratitude can seem like a ship disappearing beyond the horizon.
One patient’s ship had disappeared entirely. She had lost her faith because of the tragedies she saw around her every day.
“Don’t tell me everything happens for a reason,” she snapped when I sat down to talk with her.
She’d requested a chaplain visit, but was nervous about it, fearing religious nonsense. “There’s no excuse for children in cages,” she said, talking about our country’s detaining of immigrant children. Everywhere she looked, she saw war, betrayal, greed, and despair.
“What is God thinking?” she wanted to know. “Can there even be a god if this is the way the world is?”
She wasn’t ready to think about gratitude. All she saw was horror and helplessness. So we spoke of injustice, and we spoke of resilience. We listed some of the ways people had come to terms with why the bad are rewarded and the good punished. In the end, we acknowledged that none of us has the answer. Not really. Somehow, we carry on, anyway.
Grateful for Lessons and Learning
I wonder, though, if gratitude isn’t part of the answer, even when it seems there’s nothing for which to be grateful. When we are so depressed or so fragile we dare not hope, gratitude may seem absurd. But if we can rouse ourselves to look at what is good in our lives, we might feel better. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
We also might find we learn something.
About four years ago, I hurt my back. Nerve pain shot into my thigh, keeping me awake at night. Walking was difficult and sitting near impossible. At work, I had to force myself to focus. By the end of my shift, I was exhausted and could no longer think.
To get through each day, I became curious. I took an interest in the sensations I felt, focused on how I responded, noticed my grouchiness and exhaustion, the way every little thing took so long. I imagined living this way for the rest of my life, and I thought, This is what it’s like for my patients. My empathy deepened.
We can learn from adversity and create meaning from hardship. It’s one way we get through difficulties and sorrows. In his song, Findlow isn’t suggesting we embrace misery for the privilege of feeling pain. He says we should welcome the entirety our life because we can use everything as a gift to make the world better and learn to be “glad.”
Even Rumi implies that life’s horrors carry within them a blessing. The guest of sorrow who sweeps through our house is preparing us “for some new delight.” Even the worst guest “has been sent as a guide from beyond.” There is purpose in our pain. By learning and growing, we can find a joy beyond imagining.
Grateful for No Reason At All
So I can be grateful for the disturbing events and experiences of my past, because all that has happened and failed to happen has taught me compassion and kindness. Besides, I love learning. Everything I go through makes me a better chaplain and gives me material to write about. Nothing is wasted.
To be grateful just for the experience, to appreciate a suffering that reaps no benefit, offers us no gain, no kinder world or compassionate heart, is something else entirely.
Think about it. Was Jesus always grateful? Did he say, “Thank you for forsaking me, Peter?” or “Thank you for torturing me, Pilate?” or “Thank you, Abba, for setting me up to be nailed to a cross?”
I don’t think so. I may feel grateful for my year of pain because it taught me something, but I am even more grateful now because my discomfort is mild.
Maybe I should give up on the idea of feeling grateful for everything. Any way I look at it, it seems masochistic. Oh, yes, I’m so glad you hurt me, Life. God, that pain feels so good. Even to suggest it’s a lesson, that we’ll gain compassion or better the world, seems like hubris. Who am I to think I can find good in everything? How could I then suggest others do so?
Yet when we do find a way to see the gift in even the worst of times, we feel better. It’s that power of positive thinking. Not only does a general sense of gratitude make us resilient, it also makes us happier. Even more important, a capacity for gratitude opens us up to love.
Love and Vulnerability
Last week, I mentioned that one goal of the Recovery Church circles was to create a space in which vulnerability could be held. What that means we decided to talk about another time. There’s something in that statement, though, that speaks to gratitude and what it means to be grateful for our entire lives.
When we are vulnerable, our hearts open. We embrace the fullness of life, the beauty and the horror of it. We feel everything.
Take love. It’s a wonderful thing to be in love, yet life brings us loss, and then we mourn. The more we love, the more we hurt when love is taken away. If we refuse the pain, though, we must also refuse the love. To know joy, to be vulnerable and open, we must accept everything that comes our way. If we do that, our suffering will be tempered by the magnificence of existence. That itself is something to be grateful for.
We have a choice. We can seek the false safety of independence and individualism, or we can seek the blessings of vulnerability. If we turn away from love, we will be left with sadness, anger, loneliness, and desperation. Wealth and power might seem like reasonable compensations, but they are traps. In them, there is no gratitude; nor is there joy.
If, instead, we have the ability to live in love, to open our hearts to all life brings, we should be grateful. It is an incredible gift to be vulnerable. When we brave the depths of love and loss, then the pain of life will lessen.
Deciding to Be Grateful
Gratitude is a feeling, a thought, a behavior. It is also a decision. We decide to be grateful by focusing on what we experience here and now. Even if nothing seems right, if despair hangs like mist around us, we can still count a few gifts. Do we have fingers and toes? Pets? Electric lamps? Curtains? What about sacraments, relationships, music, beauty, the wonder of being able to see or hear or touch, the pleasure of breathing? Can we not be grateful for these things and more?
In every life, mundane blessings make our days flow. Gratitude is a decision to notice and appreciate them, to love life, to be in love, and to accept the losses that loving and living bring. When we do this, our contentment and our compassion grow. We find love, freedom, joy, and an even deeper well of gratitude. If we can’t be grateful for everything, we can at least be grateful for the little things.
In faith and fondness,
- Findlow, Bruce “For All that Is Our Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, 128.
- Rumi: Selected Poems, trans Coleman Barks with John Moynce, A. J. Arberry, Reynold Nicholson, New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
- Allen, Summer, “The Science of Gratitude,” Greater Good Science Center,” May 2018, https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf, accessed 11/21/19, 28-30.
- Ibid 30.
- Ibid 35-37.
- Ibid 25.
- Ibid 3.
- Ibid 38.
- Ibid 32, 34, and 35.
- Ibid 3.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved