It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy. Brother David Stiendl-Rast
It is the week before Thanksgiving, and I am sitting in the sauna after working out. My thoughts are circling around all the good that has come to me over the years . Suddenly, tears began to flow. Mixing invisibly with perspiration, no one in the sauna was the wiser.
I am surprised and a little embarrassed by this spontaneous eruption of gratitude, springing up from a sudden awareness of what has always been true; that absolutely everything is pure gift. I have once again stumbled upon a treasure that was always there.
Gratitude: A Way of Seeing
In addiction recovery rooms around the world, November is known as “gratitude month”. Those who have risen out of the ash heap of addiction, selfishness, or violence, understand what a gift it is to now see the world differently—to see it as it truly is, full of beauty, and love, and adventure. With this new way of seeing the world, life presents itself each day, each moment, with fresh surprises and renewed reasons for gratitude.
Elie Wiesel was a Jewish author, concentration camp survivor, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. In his acceptance speech he said;
No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
Ingratitude, however, arises from a lack of vision–an inability to see life as a pure gift. When in this mental state, I spend my time wanting what others have, wishing I was somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. In any given moment I can become the victim of the delusion that if something would change, I would be happy and content.
Gratitude from Love
Gratitude, like all virtue, both originates and flows from love–a love born of trusting and relying on a God who actively cares for me. The heart of gratitude lies not in things received, but in an awareness of that one relationship that will never fail.
As Brennan Manning wrote, “The dominant characteristic of an authentic spiritual life is the gratitude that flows from trust.”
The Gratitude List
Each year at this time I make a little gratitude list, which then prompts a change in my perception. When I begin to wish things were not as they are, or that someone would act differently, or my situation were different, then it is time to take out a pencil and write down all the beauty and grace that surrounds me in this very moment.
Making the list may be difficult when you are sick, or broke, or fighting with a loved one. Yet, that is the very time to make one. So I start with what is directly in front of me; the table I am sitting at, the pen in my hand, the ability to write, to think, to breathe in and out, and on and on until it dawns on you how many gifts you are showered with.
A friend of mine once said that when he is discontented, it is usually around one of two things—people or possessions. He is either unhappy with someone in his life, or he is wishing for more material things.
When it comes to people, I find it hard to be irritated or annoyed if I am aware of their value as a human. Even those ‘challenging’ folks are in my life to teach me something about myself–so with that view I can be grateful for them as well.
When I am sick, I am forced to slow down and get back to what things really matter—my relationship with God, and with those around me. There are times when a prolonged illness has helped me see the need to adjust my life and return to core value practices.
And when I am melancholy, or anxious about my finances, taking time to pause and remember once more how cared for I am helps to break that dark cycle of self-absorption.
When I just take a brief moment, and ask myself when was the last time God abandoned me and left me to face my perils alone, I gain the precious gift of perspective. For me, the answer to this question is NEVER! Sure, bad things have happened, and I often do not have an answer why. But, with just a little reflection and hindsight, I come to the realization that I was never alone. There was always a loving presence guiding me and giving me strength to walk through the trouble, even when I was not aware at the time.
There is a world-wide simple demonstration of gratitude that is disappearing in modern times –the act of saying grace before meals. Today, my wife and I cherish the time we sit together before our meals, and pause to thank a gracious and loving God for the food in front of us.
Saying grace is a concrete reminder to me that through the years of having little we always had enough. Food, water, and shelter have always been the basis of life, and what our ancestors worked hard for and cherished the most. By saying grace, we remind each other how richly blessed we are. It is how we acknowledge we are always dependent on a loving God for everything.
Self-reliance in all things is a delusion. I am lost without the moment-to-moment love and grace of God. To cultivate gratefulness as an abiding disposition towards my life, I must remain aware of this fundamental truth. Saying grace is a spiritual practice that helps cultivate this awareness that I need help every day.
Gratitude must Act
I don’t believe gratitude is simply a feeling. Like love, it is only authentic if it is demonstrated—if it can be seen, or when it is returned in charity towards others. I can act “as if” I am grateful, and in the acting become grateful.
Authentic gratitude cries out for expression. It has to act. It is real only if seen in acts of helpfulness and kindness towards others. Like a healthy stream that is fed on one end, gratitude must flow out in love and service to others.
So, go ahead, and make that gratitude list this Thanksgiving. Let the list cultivate within you an abiding awareness that all of life is a gift.
Then, look for the surprises within each moment of your day. Watch as gratitude rises up from within.
Now, pass it on. That is gratitude.