How Should I be Grateful?
Dear Father Joe: I know we’re supposed to thank God, but some days I don’t feel a lot of gratitude. How do I feel thankful when I’m not?
Gratitude is a powerful tool in our fight for holiness, and it’s a tool that we rarely pick up.
Gratitude is an awareness of, and a sense of contentment with, what we have, where we are. It’s an attitude that confronts the discontentment within me that is a fruit of the Fall in Genesis. Gratitude is a wonder that I simply have to embrace to keep from becoming bitter, angry and controlling.
I believe I see the fruits of ingratitude in our society and Church right now, and it distresses me. Conservatives want us to be more conservative. Liberals want us to be more liberal. But in the midst of it all is the quiet voice of God letting us know that what we need is not a human creation or construct, but a divine one: gratitude.
I think some of the problem is simple: We mistake gratitude for a feeling. Gratitude is not a feeling; it’s a commitment, a mind-set, a spiritual attitude that focuses our eyes on all that God has given us, all that he has done for us and all that he is.
In those moments when we recognize a lack of gratitude in our talk or in our inner life, it’s important to pause and pray for the Holy Spirit to enlighten us as to how very blessed we are.
So, how we do become more grateful people? Obviously, whatever we do needs to be rooted in prayer. Human effort can take us only so far. So, what I’d like to do now is offer some traits that we can focus on to grow in gratitude, and I want to invite you to prayerfully embrace at least one of these traits if you are serious about becoming more grateful.
If we want to be more grateful people, then the first thing we need is to grow in awareness. Awareness is a trait that helps us see not just what is obvious and loud, but what is necessary and often subtle, simply because it is so constant.
To be aware is an effort, and it seems to me that part of the reason it is such an effort is the way we are wired. Our brains are geared toward the memory of pain. It’s part of the way God set it up, I think, that helps us avoid people or situations that harm us. This easy remembrance of pain is an important part of our lives, but it comes with a shadow that we need to be aware of: We don’t seem to have any mechanism to remember joy without help.
Because of that, it’s important that we make the effort to “remember the kindness of the Lord.” (Ps 77:11) We need to make a conscious effort to hold in our hearts those golden and lovely moments that are ours because our God is so generous.
How do we do that?
At least part of it is practice. There are not many things we will ever be good at without practice. So practice gratitude by acknowledging the myriad good things that happen every day and by thanking God for them. A number of simple “Thank you, Jesus” or “Thank you, Lord” prayers during the day are an exceptionally good discipline for ourselves, and a great gift to God.
Be aware of, and grateful for, the little things and the big things – make the effort to say “thank you” to people who help you or serve you in some manner.
Another way to grow in gratitude is to record. Again, when it comes to pain, we don’t need a lot of help remembering when someone or something hurt us, but we do need help to remember when someone or something helped us. To that end, writing down those simple moments when someone blessed us or made our day better is a good way to lock it in. I keep a journal, and I’ve recorded a lot of times when God touched my heart or gave me an unexpected gift. I’d like to share one of my favorites with you.
In 2011, I was going through an exceptionally hard time in my life. A lot went wrong for me in every area of my life, it seemed. I was working insane hours, my family was going through some struggles and I was facing a lot of darkness around me. I cried out to God almost daily, asking for his help and, honestly, it always felt like it was coming, but never seemed to be arriving in the time I wanted.
In the end, things got worse, not better. And at some point in February of 2012, I wrote this down:
“Suddenly, in the darkness, I felt your closeness and it moved me. It came and it went like a cool breeze on a brutal hot day. I wanted a hug, but I got a touch and I’m pleasantly surprised to write that it was more than enough. In the end, I’m struck by the fact that you hear me – that blows me away. You hold all of creation together within yourself, you attend the prayers of the living and the dead. You are present to all in time and history and, just now, you stopped it all and sat with me. You heard me. Today, that is enough; may it always be so.”
When I went through that journal years later, I was blown away by the fact that I had forgotten it happened, but as I read it, the power of that moment moved right through me, as did the shame that I forgot it.
I’m a human, so I am always going to be limited in mind and body. It is up to me to work hard to record those moments and share them so that I can be a more grateful person.
In order to grow in gratitude, we also need to share good news with each other. So much of our dialogue is negative, and negative is the wild animal in the yard: If we feed it, it gets bigger. Combat the human tendency to complain and find fault by sharing good news and good stories from your day. Share the little moments that made the day a touch simpler, share the little sacrifices people made for you that day on the road, at work, at home, etc.
Finally, make a commitment to reject complaining. My buddy Father Geoff Rose gave me an image one time that complaining is like scratching a bug bite. The instant relief is wonderful, but in just a couple of seconds, we’ll need to scratch again. That’s how complaining works: we’re never done with it. Reject the complaining spirit!
So, these are some ideas and I hope they help. I believe gratitude to be an indispensable part of the Christian life, but I also believe that this idea is often overlooked because it’s a change we have to make.
Let’s be grateful for who God is, what he has done and all the ways he shows his love to us through others. Let’s be grateful for our Church, our country, our families, our jobs. Let’s be grateful for the innumerable people in our society who make it all work, and make it work better. Let’s be grateful, people!
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!