By Ginny Schaeffer
…give thanks in all circumstances…
-I Thessalonians 5: 18
It was a frequent exchange between my mother and her four girls. Whenever someone offered one of us the slightest compliment or the smallest of gifts it would go something like this:
Mother: Whadda say?
Child: with head bowed and eyes to the ground, almost in a whisper we would reply, “Thank you.”
Thank you – a simple expression of gratitude. The importance of saying these two words were drilled into our little heads over and over again. We learned to give voice to them before we knew how to count, read or tie our shoes. They were that important.
Over the years, I am sorry to say, that although I did not lose my training, I did seem to lose that attitude of gratitude. It is so easy to do. The very act of saying “thank you” becomes rote, just another societal expectation to fulfill without any real thought of what had been given, the cost to, the effort by or the affection of the giver.
In other words, I also began to take things and even people for granted. Again, easy to do. Our consumer culture works very hard to convince us that it is our right to receive and get whatever we want, and our egos are just delighted to go along with it. Add that to the reality that we live in a country where many of us have what we need and a good bit of what we want (whether we are willing to admit it or not) and it is easy to see how we can slide into the mindset of taking people and things for granted.
I am not proud of this. I am rather embarrassed by it all. I wish I could tell you that gratitude has flowed from my heart since I was in my mother’s womb but, it just ain’t so.
The awareness of my lack of gratitude began to dawn on me several years ago. I was working in public mental health on a team that worked with people who were severely mentally ill (think: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, personality disorders, etc…) as well as being chemically dependent. I would sometimes accompany these folks to a 12-step meeting for support and to make sure they got there. It was in these meetings that I began to hear the importance of having an “attitude of gratitude” to obtain and maintain sobriety.
It was apparent to me that this was an attitude that needed to be cultivated and was more than counting your blessings or writing a gratitude list (although these are good ways to start). It required the effort and time to look back over your day or week or life and to ponder that for which you are grateful, to relive the experience or event in all its fullness that might have been missed in the moment, and to allow yourself to feel the gratitude and express it.
In the 12-step world, individuals would be encouraged to practice gratitude when they were on the verge of drinking or using or having a “pity-party” or when they were giving into the sense of being “terminally unique”. In other words when they were suffering and at their most vulnerable.
The “old-timers”, those with long-term sobriety, knew that nurturing an attitude of gratitude will, over time, change the way a person thinks and perceives reality. It is not just about putting on the proverbial rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is hunky-dory and peachy-keen. It is about learning to accept life, all of it, with clarity, just as it is.
Melody Beattie, well-known author, has this to say about gratitude:
Gratitude unlocks the fulness of life.
It turns what we have into enough,
and more. It turns denial into acceptance,
chaos into order, confusion to clarity…
Gratitude makes sense of our past,
brings peace for today and creates a
vision for tomorrow.
Learning to be grateful causes us to pause and take a deeper look at our lives. We intentionally look back over our day to see what is good, what is right, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. What we see may not be headline material, but it does not have to be. It may be as commonplace as hearing the birds sing in the morning, the kindness of a stranger letting you merge into traffic, the technology that allows us to stay in touch with loved ones during this time of being physically distanced, a good laugh, a thoughtful gesture, children playing or the touch of a loved one.
If we were ever in need of gratitude it is now. As we continue to face the four great crises of our day (the global pandemic, racial and economic inequality and climate change) it might be easy to give in to cynicism, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness and finally despair. In his book, Riding the Dragon, Robert Wicks names gratitude as one of the virtues necessary to foster the spiritual resilience necessary to face all of life. (The other three are trust, openness and courage.)
During this season of Thanksgiving I am recommitting myself to nurturing an attitude of gratitude within myself. I invite you to do the same. Thank you.
- Take a moment to quiet your mind and heart.
- Invite the Spirit of God to guide you as you look back over your day. Notice what is right with your day, your life. What goodness did you experience? What kindness did you receive or extend? What moment do you want to linger over?
- Ponder and relive this experience or encounter in as much detail as possible. Notice the feelings that arise. Allow yourself to experience them.
- After taking time to sit with this experience, express your gratitude to God, your higher power, the universe and/or the giver.