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This Joy That I Have: The Pillar of Gratitude

I think there is no more effective antidote for a down-in-the-dumps day than the practice of gratitude. Feeling anxious, uncertain, overwhelmed or afraid? Feeling dissatisfied with life, or a touch of envy when you compare your lot with that of your neighbor? Try writing down three things that you are grateful for. It doesn’t take long. For me, three things usually multiplies into more, and when I am finished, I find that my whole mental state has changed.

A parishioner in a former congregation told me some years ago that she spent a difficult season in her life (I think she was battling a physical illness or depression) keeping a daily gratitude journal. Every night, she wrote three things, even when she had to force herself to do so. She said that practice got her through — really, that it saved her life.

After taking a course called “The Science of Happiness” online through UC Berkeley a couple years ago, for which a version of the “gratitude journal” was one of the one-week homework assignments, I found myself continuing that practice for months on end, and I frequently come back to it whenever I find I have strayed into fretting.

Theologian Brian McLaren, in his book Naked Spirituality, calls gratitude a practice that “raises its fist against” the “insanity” generated by our consumerist culture — a culture whose economy is built on reinforcing the message that we do not have enough, that we are not attractive enough, that we are not enough (p.52). Simply “counting our blessings” allows us to step off the hamster wheel, and recognize that God has blessed us abundantly. It gets us into our right mind, so that we can move more clear-mindedly into the other practices of joy, even the ones that take more discipline, like perspective, and forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk who has, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, spent much of his life engaged in Christian-Buddhist dialogue, and who curates a wonderful website called www.gratefulness.org, has said, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy” (quoted in The Book of Joy, p. 242).

The Dalai Lama counsels: every day as you wake up, think, “I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it”.

Doug Abrams, the co-author of The Book of Joy, observed, during that five-day visit chronicled in the book, how often the Archbishop responded, to new people and new experiences, with the word wonderful, and he reflects, “It is indeed that ability to see wonder, surprise, possibility in each experience and each encounter that is a core aspect of joy”.

Reflecting on the Dalai Lama’s advice and the Buddhist focus on life’s impermanence, he writes: “All things are slipping away, and there is a real danger of wasting our precious human life. Gratitude helps us catalog, celebrate, and rejoice in each day and each moment before they slip through the vanishing hourglass of experience”.

Bitterness, envy and resentment are among the most powerful poisons in the world, leaching the human soul of life and health.  But forgiveness, gratitude and generosity are the most powerful medicines.  The amazing thing is that these antidotes are always at our disposal; we always have the ability to choose them.  They even can coexist with pain. In fact, as beautiful as joy is when gratitude goes hand-in-hand with blessing, it is even deeper and more fiercely, more breathtakingly beautiful when forgiveness, gratitude and generosity arise in us in times of pain and sorrow and in the face of injustice and evil.

Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians from prison in Rome — a powerful thing to remember when reading his positive words.

Keith Wagner recalls an old legend about a man who, lost in storm in a dark forest, found refuge in an old barn.  As his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the man discovered that he’d stumbled upon the devil’s storehouse of seeds — seeds that his helpers sowed in the hearts of human beings.  Each bin was labelled, and the largest pile was labelled, “Seeds of Discouragement.”

One of the devil’s helpers then entered the barn to pick up new supplies.  And the man plucked up the courage to ask him, “Why are there so many discouragement seeds?”

With a laugh, the helper replied, “Because they are so effective and they take root so quickly.”

“Do they grow everywhere?” the man asked fearfully.

At this, the helper scowled.  “No,” he said.  “They never seem to grow in the heart of a grateful person.”

May our hearts always turn to gratitude. And may our neighbors find in us a garden of encouragement, hope, and joy. Amen.

Creative Commons licensed photo by Martha T