“What if life itself was meant to be one long alleluia moment?”
–Sister Joan Chittister
Apparently, gratitude is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that researchers say keeping a gratitude journal for two weeks can positively affect your outlook for months. Choosing to be grateful can alleviate anxiety and depression, or improve physical health. Gratitude can transform our relationships with family, friends, even co-workers, by demonstrating appreciation and strengthening connections. Oprah even keeps a gratitude journal.
These benefits are not surprising when we consider that gratitude, in its essence, is a spiritual discipline. It is something we need to practice. As Henri Nouwen wrote, “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.”
But here is where I get hung up on practicing gratitude: when it comes to thanking God for something that others lack. I can be grateful for existence, for the beauty of nature, or for the benefits of emotional connection with others—but once I move away from more abstract thoughts to tangible provisions I run into nagging thoughts from the other side of my consciousness that worry away at my thankfulness.
If I kept a gratitude journal, some of my recent expressions would read like this:
I’m thankful for the pleasure of cooking and eating a hot meal.
[But families are going to sleep hungry, or dying of hunger]
I’m grateful for the experience of walking my dog in the snow and watching him bound around after snowballs.
[But for the homeless, the snow makes life much harder than it already is. And what about the privilege of having and feeding pets when people are going hungry]
I’m thankful for eight hours of solid sleep in a warm and comfortable bed that my husband and I built ourselves.
[While refugees fleeing conflict in Syria sleep on the ground]
I can understand—inhabit, even—the idea that everything in life is a gift from God. My problem is, why do I have gifts that others don’t have?
The practice of gratitude runs into the problem of suffering.
I think there is a reason that these thoughts of human suffering flow through my meditation of gratitude. Humanity is interconnected in relationships that are social, economic, and spiritual. It is difficult for me to find wholeness when others are not whole. Because of our interdependence, gratitude and compassion are necessarily intertwined. We have to be careful to not let concern for others’ suffering chip away at our thanks; rather, the spiritual discipline of gratitude becomes the fuel for acts of generosity.
How can actively being grateful make us more giving?
It makes us mindful. Practicing gratitude pulls us into the present moment, allowing us to notice what is happening around us. And just as we become more mindful of the thousands of moments and interactions to be grateful for, we simultaneously become aware of all of the ways we can show compassion.
It convinces us how much we have. When we realize we have enough, in fact more than enough, we have freedom to be generous as we become aware of circumstances of need rather than guard our own resources.
It combats paralysis. Being grateful for the times we have come through suffering, worry, or fear with the help of other people helps us to see that we can be those people. We can be the reason for someone else’s gratitude as long as we take action, however small. We know something can be done, because someone has done something for us!
This is the gratitude-generosity loop—we are thankful for the generosity of God and people, and that thankfulness inspires our own compassion and generosity.
As we choose practices to cultivate gratitude and meditate on God’s graciousness in our lives, let us allow our thankfulness to comingle with compassion to nourish a continuous outpouring of generosity.