Such expression does not always come easily for me. Too often, I see the glass’s half-emptiness. It takes a deliberate, conscious effort to pull out of I-want mode and enter the I-have state of mind. As I have put it to my colleagues, I am much better at making to-do lists for the Ground of All Being than I am in simply expressing my appreciation for what is.
Usually, when my turn for devotions rolls around, I turn to a couple of trusted sources for inspiration. Henri Nouwen in particular never disappoints, and his words have an eerie way of fitting precisely what I wish to express. Here’s what I shared with my colleagues the other day. It’s from Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (1992).
In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realise that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.Well put, and well worth remembering, on this day especially—although, as Ebeneezer Scrooge discovered in regard to the Christmas spirit, it is good to keep Thanksgiving in our hearts all year ’round.
Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticised, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly. I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and see grimaces of hatred.
There is always the choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection: “You are with Me always, and all I have is yours.” Indeed, I can choose to dwell in the darkness in which I stand, point to those who are seemingly better off than I, lament about the many misfortunes that have plagued me in the past, and thereby wrap myself up in my resentment. But I don’t have to do this. There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude.
The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until finally, even the most normal, obvious, and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace. There is an Estonian proverb that says: “Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” Acts of gratitude make one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.
My late mother was possessed of what I came to dub the Habit of Complaint. That glass I mentioned earlier? Always half-empty. Always. As I look back, I can see that habit developing in her even when she was a young woman; as the habit became more established in her later years, complaint simply became part of the fabric of her life. Conversation, small talk, was little more than a string of petty complaints—about the weather, about people at church, about the news, about the infrequency with which she saw her children and grandchildren, about this neighbor’s tree or that neighbor’s dog. It was all inconsequential and probably unconscious on her part—it was, after all, a habit, and a habit, I find, that is all too easy to slip into. As mentioned above, I find I must make an almost constant effort to avoid sliding into that vein myself.
And so one works to be grateful for what is and what isn’t. This may take on a spiritual aspect, if one is—as Father Nouwen—so inclined. But I would argue that it needn’t necessarily hinge on any particular belief system. Regular readers of these irregularly produced pages know that I tilt toward what I think of as healthy agnosticism on most days of the week, but that in no way interferes with my fitful attempts to be grateful for what I have (and for what I have not had to deal with). Thank God, thank the Fates, thank good luck, thank the universe—but thank.
That said, if I hear the expression “An Attitude of Gratitude” one more time, I will not be responsible for my actions.