The Problem with Gratitude
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Giving Thanks: An Outward Sign
Rev. Lynn Thomas Strauss
River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, November 19, 2000
The Problem with Gratitude
It's a spiritual shame, really, that (in most people's thinking) Thanksgiving is limited to one Thursday in November. Over the centuries, many wise religious teachers and traditions have observed that one of the most important spiritual qualities any one of us can bring to our daily living is simply that of GRATITUDE. L.P. Jacks went so far once to simply declare, "True religion is primarily an affair of gratitude," and our faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, fully understands the importance of regularly reminding ourselves how very blessed are we human beings (just plain LUCKY really) to find ourselves here on this earth -- alive, aware and engaged in such a rich, beautiful and curious world.
But there is a problem - a big problem - when it comes to gratitude in our daily living. And that problem functions like a kind of double-edged spiritual sword in our lives. Let me see if I can make both sides of this problem clear to you.
On the one hand, gratitude is difficult for us to find and express when things are going pretty smoothly and well in our lives because human beings are cursed with the propensity to take life's calm, quiet and ordinary times FOR GRANTED. And on the other hand, gratitude is difficult for us to find and express when things are going painfully and problematically in our lives because the difficulties we encounter tend to naturally blind us from "all that which yet remains" to bless us. Because of the way we human beings are built, gratitude is hard to find both in 1) the ordinary and 2) the excruciating times of our lives...the problem with gratitude is that it is hard to find...period.
Let me first address the problem on the one side of the spiritual sword we all so readily fall victim to - taking the miracle of human being for granted when things are bumping along (fine and ordinary) in our lives (as they unspectacularly are most of the time, for most of us). Of all the sins we commit against life -- of all the largely unconscious ways we act to diminish ourselves...squander the life that is ours...waste the precious days and years that are so miraculously given to us...and miss life's profligate little blessings -- TAKING OUR LIVES FOR GRANTED is the most grievous and insidious. It is grievous and insidious because taking the ordinary, unspectacular rhythms of your life for granted takes no real effort, gives us no warning, has no real symptoms, and does not appear (to those around you) to be evil, obvious or startling. No one is going to be horrified if you quietly commit the sin of taking your life (and all its mundane miracles and daily treasures) for granted. If you're just spiritually moping through your days, dragging yourself out of bed each morning with no amazement or delight, not feeling grateful for (as one poet puts it) "The [astounding] liberty of another day," no one is going to try to stop you, correct you, rehabilitate or reform you. There are no 12 step groups called "Ungrateful Anonymous." If you fall into the spiritual and emotional stupor of routinely taking your life for granted, there is no one who can or will rescue you from that life-robbing state!
Theologian Matthew Fox talks about this sin of taking for granted, listen, it's a wonderful few lines:
Philosopher Josef Pieper defines the essence of bourgeois living as "taking for granted." It is true that those who live in homes where the water always runs through spigots take water for granted. And when people always have money they take their next meal for granted. Our lives are filled with assumptions about the universe serving us all the time. This is false thinking. Will it take catastrophes to awaken us to the truth that all [life] is a gift? An earthquake reminds us that not even the stability of the ground underneath our feet can be taken for granted. Death reminds us that not even breathing itself can be taken for granted. Gratitude changes our lives. It fills us with energy and vitality. When I was twelve years old, I had polio and could not walk for six months. The doctors could not reassure me that I would ever walk again. As it turned out, I did get my legs back. But I learned a lesson in the process that I have never forgotten. DON'T TAKE FOR GRANTED. I had taken my legs for granted, legs that work, legs that run and play ball, legs that take me exactly where I want to go. When my legs returned to me, I was filled with gratitude - not gratitude for the "miracle" of my legs being healed, but rather gratitude [simply] for having legs at all, legs that work. I was filled with energy and promised myself that I would not waste my legs for as long as I lived.
Why does it so often seem that we human beings need the wake up call of some medical, physical or psychological crisis to jar us back into an attitude of spiritual and emotional gratitude for the intricate blessing of an ordinary, uneventful day? Time and again (as a minister) I have watched individuals (who were, like most of us stupored citizens of this creation, mostly taking the ordinary rhythms of their lives for granted) go through a life-threatening bout with cancer, or a heart bypass operation, or a close call in a car accident). Time and again, these people come out on the other side of the life crisis (when their very being was truly threatened and in doubt) with a renewed appreciation of and intense gratitude for the chance to hang around this planet for awhile longer. Have any of you had this experience? Why do we human beings seem to require a knock on the side of the head before we realize the holy obvious? We are so blessed, we should be so grateful, just for the gift of human beings that has been so miraculously bestowed upon us. So when we fall into those pernicious patterns of taking our lives for granted (and thus fail on a daily basis to tune our hearts to the beauty of nature...open ourselves to the glory of love and family...notice the unending charm of persons...and wake up to the miracle of having a front row seat in the theatre of our lives) we sin against life itself.
My colleague Richard Gilbert writes,
Life is measured in years while it is lived in days. Life tales are told in generations of past, present and future, while life is lived one day at a time. The gift of life is not a gift of great sweeps of years, but in the exhilaration of a single day - the day which we live now. It is tempting to [try to ] live off the capital of yesterday, or the anticipation of tomorrow - but it is today that the hands of the clock measure...and it is the presence of time within us that tells its significance. Why must we live in the past that can never again be, or the future that has not yet come? WHY CAN WE NOT LOOK AT THE GIFT OF TODAY, AND FALL ON OUR KNEES IN GRATITUDE?
And so the first problem with gratitude is that when things in our lives are plodding along (in predictable, calm, non-threatening ordinariness) we fall spiritually asleep, and forget altogether how to sing appreciation (in our hearts) for the simple gift of life.
And the second problem with gratitude (the other side of the double-edged sword which often threatens us spiritually and emotionally), is how hard gratitude is to find when life's hard and troubling times come along (as they inevitably do). It may be easy for Orphan Annie to sing in the midst of danger and difficulty, [Scott Sings...] "The sun will come up Tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun..." but for most of us, when life's difficulties descend it's pretty hard (if not impossible at the worst of it) to just command the heart back into a grateful or cheerful place. And yet it's precisely during life's difficult and demanding times when we most need to spiritually do the work - the hard work I admit -- of cultivating gratitude in our hearts.
I want to tell you about somebody I've been acquainted with. I see him regularly on the Capital Crescent trail when I'm taking my noon hour bike rides for exercise. I don't really know him, but I think I know something about his spirituality. He's a fairly young guy, in his 30's probably, and he flies past me on his recumbent bike, pedaling feverishly...with his hands. Yes, I did said pedaling feverishly with his hands, he pedals with his hands not because he wants to, but because he has to. This guy (who has obviously had this special, one-of-a-kind handicapped bike built for him) is obviously paralyzed from the waist down (his crippled and atrophied legs are always tightly strapped together so they won't get in his way. But he has not let that rather difficult disability slow him down, or end the joy he takes from biking and exercising out in nature. Every time I see him, this guy has a grin on his face the size of Texas! Even though managing such a vehicle must be more than a little difficult, he is quite clearly having the time of his life (he's my kind of stupid, let me tell you!). The open and eager grin on his face tells me not only that he is happy (which I also am every time I'm on my bike these days flying through the autumnal wonder of our world) it also tells me he is GRATEFUL...genuinely grateful...not (of course) for his paralysis and all the very real life difficulties that come with it, who could ever be grateful for such a terrible limitation? He is grateful, rather, for the freedom that with a little mechanical (and, of equal importance spiritual) ingenuity of his part, he has been able to return fully and faithfully to life, exercising with a full and passionate smile on his lips and (I can see it...I know it's there) in his heart.
You know, the last time I saw my disabled friend (obviously enjoying the ordinary miracle of having hands that can pedal him through the autumnal splendor) it occurred to me that the gratitude that matters most (in our living) is not that we manage when things are going pretty smoothly in our lives (as important and enriching as that is). The gratitude that matters most is that which we manage to find (in our trembling hearts) when things are difficult, demanding and dispiriting. Speaking metaphorically for a moment, it is when you're obliged (by difficult, unwelcome circumstance) to "pedal with your hands" that you will discover the true meaning of thanksgiving.
Friends...my spiritual message to you this morning could not be any clearer, simpler, or more heart-felt. Of course enjoy your thanks giving day this week. Enjoy the turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie...enjoy the dinner table banter with your family and that leisurely post-feast walk with your favorite cousin in the leaf strewn woods, even enjoy that televised football game if you must! But that day (and everyday) please remind yourself how spiritually important it is for you to make everyday a "THANKS...GIVING" day. Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart once wisely said, "If in your life you manage only one prayer, and that prayer is simply "Thank You," it will be sufficient. He was right. Simple gratitude (when things are running smoothly, as well as when they are rough) is a spiritual key that unlocks the door to a meaning-filled, contented, joyous life. So cultivate a grateful, open, eager heart...cultivate it in the calm times...cultivate it in the calamitous times when you have to pedal with your hands. Every day...this day...let there be a simple and gentle whisper on your hearts. Say "Thank You." Remind yourself of what a miracle you are in. It will be sufficient.
Giving Thanks: An Outward Sign
Like Scott, I want to encourage you in gratitude. I want you, as you gather with friends and family over a special dinner, to hold hands or look into one another's eyes, I want you to go around the table and name the joys for which you are grateful.
Call it a prayer, a reflection or a blessing, just don't look away, don't minimize the significance of each miraculous day.
Giving thanks can be an outward sign of an inward blessing. When we feel blessed, when we feel good fortune has provided -- then we are moved to expressions of profound gratitude.
Scott has reminded us that gratitude can be difficult either when life is too good, or when life is too hard.
What is it that keeps us from feeling grateful?
Often it has to do with feeling undeserving. It is hard to say thank you for a gift you feel you have not earned.
At times I find I am embarrassed by my riches. When I sat down to write this sermon, I sat at a well-worn, but beautiful table, I realized I could go to the refrigerator to get a glass of juice, I could chose to take my shoes off. At times, I am embarrassed by my riches. I am unsure of how to respond to my abundant good fortune.
When I fully acknowledge how rich in gifts I am, I feel tears rising, and I learned early that crying is a problem, a feeling to be controlled. So to control my tears, I deny my gratitude.
How can we not be overwhelmed by our riches. By the beauty of each day. By the fact that someone loves us. By the simple pleasures of sight and sound- of smell and touch. If we were fully aware of our blessings, we surely would fall on our knees in gratitude as Dick Gilbert suggests.
Most times we simply cannot take in the magnitude of our blessings. Most times we struggle to feel worthy of the gifts of life. This question of earned or unearned blessing is a theological one. It is a question of inherent worth and dignity. In Anne Lamott's book Traveling Mercies she writes of the day of her baptism. It was one year after she had gotten sober, and at 8:00 in the morning she called Reverend Noel and told him she didn't think she was ready, she wasn't ready, she said, because she wasn't good enough yet.
We will never be ready. We will always want more time to prepare to receive our blessings. We need more time to get better as human beings, to be truly deserving of the love of our families, or the trust of our co-workers, or the sight of an amazing sunset.
But lucky for us, life's blessings keep coming whether we're ready or not.
Christian theology suggests that we don't have to be good enough for our blessings, because Christ was good enough for all of us.
Jewish theology suggests if we follow the law and love God and our neighbor, we will be good enough.
Universalist theology assures us that we are, each one, loved and lovable. We are all saved from our very human imperfections by divine love.
Our Unitarian Universalist message of today affirms that each person is unique and precious. That all of life is sacred.
I once heard a colleague say that someone has already paid for me, for us. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I've thought about it a lot over the years. Perhaps she meant that my gifts come from a source beyond myself. That it isn't about me. That all the women ministers before me have made a path that I follow. That all the social justice folks before me have made a path that I follow. That my mother and my grandmother made a path -- as women who worked on and stayed in long marriages, they made a path for me.
Perhaps the person who planted the beautiful trees in my back yard, made a path of beauty, for me.
We don't have to earn our blessings, but I believe we must give thanks for them.
There is a definition of ministry that says that ministry is how we bless the world.
To make an outward sign of inward grace - to give thanks, is a way of blessing the world. No matter how clumsy or inadequate we may be in our giving of flowers, in our creation of ritual, in our finding just the right words, in our lighting of our chalice.
To make these outward signs of gratitude is to enter into communion and a blessing of life.
Too often we feel undeserving because of our very human limitations.
It's like Scott said, the spiritual work of gratitude is hardest when we have to learn to peddle with our hands.
There is a way in which we are all disabled. All of us have limitations of body and spirit. All of us are wounded by life, and these wounds can keep us from seeing the joy and the meaning. We carry around old hurts, old resentment, old ways of being that dampen our gratitude and our hope.
It is hardest to feel grateful when we are full of despair.
It is hardest to feel grateful when we are consumed by envy.
But I believe that the only sure way to gratitude is through our tears.
We must go deep inside ourselves- it is not necessary to deny our wounds, in fact it is our very fear our envy our anger which are the source of our humanity, the edge upon which we grow. These wounds are like windows in the house of the soul, windows that will let in light, if we would only open them.
Sufi Mystic Poet, Rumi teaches the welcoming of all aspects of our humanity in a poem titled "Guest House", he writes;
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorable.
He may be clearing you our for some new delight.
The dark thought the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door, laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
It is only when we stand with open hands and hearts, open to the healing breath of life on-going....open to our limitations and to our gifts...only then can we begin to pedal fully into the world in all its magnitude, in all its beauty.
Scott sees his biking friend with the wind at his back, but no doubt there were some very difficult times....struggles with pain and failure...we often don't see the tears that lead to wholeness. But there are always, for all of us, some days of grief....days in which despair is our guide...days when we have to follow our anger, our envy, our sense of unworthiness. For we each find our way to gratitude slowly.
There are many ways to fall on our knees and give thanks. Now is the time to prepare. There is much that can keep us from awareness of our blessings, much that can keep us from gratitude. I urge you to follow your interior journey, follow your guides, however difficult it may be.
Open the windows of your soul, give in to your tears, follow your grief, seek the help of a friend and follow your fear out into the daylight....and into the house of thanksgiving.
The message of liberal religion is at its heart a message of acceptance. You do not have to earn your blessings, they are freely given. You do not have to pay for gifts of the spirit, they appear as grace. You do not have to be perfect, to be lovable.
Our very humanity in all its possibility and all its frailty ...is for us, rational liberal religionists, a source of hope. For there is a sustaining promise embedded in each day, a promise that we will all find ways to pedal with our hands, we will all find pathways to being more fully human. May we give thanks, for our wounds as much as for our blessings...may we follow our inner guides to wholeness and to joy.
As you offer thanks this week, remember that you are accepted, you are unique and precious, you are connected to the ministry of River Road UU congregation: a ministry that blesses you and blesses the world.
Meditation for Thanksgiving
To the Source of All Creation, to the Spirit of Life
We give thanks this day.
Each morning we rise and are filled with gratitude
for the blessings of life.
For the sun and the earth, for water and grain, for love
and for companionship, we give thanks.
We come with joy and humility to this season of celebration, to this time
of gathering with friends and family.
Even as we feel the absence of those who are not with us this year,
we are grateful for their presence in our hearts.
As we enter into a moment of silence together, think of a person or two or three who will not be around the table with you on this Thanksgiving. Think of their smile, remember the sound of their laughter, hold them for a moment in your awareness; hold them with gratitude for times past.
Let us also hold close those with whom we share our daily lives. Let us in the silence, give thanks for those whom we deeply love, and who in their steadfast presence make our lives more full, more meaningful, more joy filled. Let us name in our hearts the persons for whom we are most grateful.
May we also hold dear the knowledge that we are missed, that we are loved...that someone in the quiet of their own hearts is thinking with gratitude of us.
Thus, in gratitude, do we become one family; brothers and sisters of one community. So may it be