We have all had times when it felt as though our prayers hit the ceiling. Heartbreak has a way of making cynics of us all, and in those moments practicing gratitude feels like an insufficient platitude that has no space when yet another prayer goes unanswered, or when our dreams are delayed yet again. In the Christian sphere, gratitude has become the litmus test of our faithfulness. The encouragement to “be grateful” can feel weaponized in the face of sadness, mental illness, and depression, a judgement that lets you know that you are not taking advantage of your blessings. This episode of ANN InDepth, Heather Thomspon Day will join Jennifer and Ruben to discuss the complex benefits of gratitude and how it can be applied.
Gratitude is a powerful practice. Endless studies have proven to us that practicing gratitude has major benefits on a generation that is crippled by one of the most intense mental health crises in documented history. But, as noted by Thompson-Day, gratitude, for all its benefits, is not natural to our post-edenic minds. Our default as humans is not to count our blessings, but to count our burdens. We create our self concept through comparing ourselves to others and social media has widened the pool of comparison. In observing the highlight reel of others, gratitude seems impossible.
But what if we corrected the narrative? Rather than applying gratitude as a bandaid for symptomatic issues, use it as the cure. Yet in any treatment, in order for healing to begin, the illness must be acknowledged. Rather than harboring guilt that we as Christians experience sadness, remember that we are human, and such sadness and disappointments are normal. We must remove our misconceptions about gratitude and take ownership of our thoughts, and our surrender. It has been believed that gratitude is a natural mindset that, when done once, forever corrects our problems. But what about when our pain remains after the amen? What about when prayers of gratitude do not flow from heavy hearts? Are we “doing it wrong”? Has God forsaken us? Is it our fault?
The answer is no. We are not failing Christians, but sinners in need of Christ. In order for the misconception of gratitude to be corrected, we first must recognize that we are allowed to admit to God, and ourselves, that we don’t feel grateful in the moment. Next is to take ownership of our thoughts. Optimism, like all healthy habits, is learned. Gratitude is a discipline that disrupts our natural thought patterns through observing and appreciating small things that can slip our notice. Clean water, a safe space to live, a warm bed, food, windows, toothpaste, and others are a few small things that can ground us in gratitude.
Another and more important facet that is ignored in the hedonistic spin of gratitude, is learning to be grateful for others. Find joy in others' successes, even if they are absent in your own life. This is a difficult, and sometimes painful, portion that comes with practicing gratitude, yet spiritually, it has immense benefits. Because of its difficulty, we learn to depend on God to supply that gratitude allowing ourselves to lean completely on his provision. The benefits of this form of gratitude have been proven scientifically through a study done by Berkeley University. Out of three psychotherapy groups, one with psychotherapy alone, one with expressive writing, and one with gratitude writing, the group that wrote letters expressing gratitude to others experienced significant improvement in their mental and physical health after 3 months.
Finding gratitude for and in others successes is an exercise in the dichotomy of human emotion. In this practice, we learn that experiencing joy for others' progress and sadness in our stillness can not only coexist, but is normal. We are better when we recognize our sadness and mournfulness, looking to the answered prayers in the lives of our loved ones, not just as a silver lining, but as proof that we serve a God who listens. Christ himself was not allowed perfect peace; even his birth was immersed in conflict.
It is easy to believe that gratitude is the “open sesame” which unlocks answers to prayer, and that God’s delivery of our wants and needs in our timing is a right. But what if that is not gratitudes purpose? What if God is providing an environment in which we can appreciate his presence and provisions, and practice faith that will better prepare us? What if we are meant to use gratitude not as a means to an end, but the end itself? Practicing gratitude alters the perspective through which our lives must be lived, connecting us to others and improving our relationships by reminding our loved ones that they’re successes are just as valid as our own.
Gratitude in suffering is an act of bravery that intentionally addresses the pain and allows it to connect us to others. We cannot see our hurt or pain as something to be avoided in order to practice gratitude, but as a facet of the practice. Without acknowledgement of gratitudes difficulty, we are doing ourselves a disservice, reducing its richness to a platitude. Gratitude is more than frivolous interaction but a discipline that brings us closer to God and our loved ones, creating a ripple effect that touches every aspect of our lives.