I am not sure this writing ended up in the place I started it, in the dark five days ago, but I feel like it would be counter to awful first drafts not to allow it to be seen. It also doesn’t have a great ending, but maybe you all could help me?
It is 2:26 am and I am awake. My body is fighting a cold and I am frequently overcome by coughing spells, so sleep is intermittent at best. There are so many things that I simply do not think of when I am well, when everything is running as it should. I guess it’s the old sentiment that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone (or gone and got gunked up with mucus). Much like breathing, gratitude is an essential function for health, but how do we come by it if the only it seems to be to catch hold of it is in the absence of things we need and love? Perhaps the work in gratitude is just lifting our gaze? To pay attention to the ever present number of blessings that are around us? But how do you give thanks for things that are unclear until their absence? Also how do we do it with out shaming myself into feelings that I should feel? Here are my late night thoughts on gratitude and gratefulness, in no particular order.
Let your thoughts rest on the (good) small things. Meditating or internal processing starts here for me, in the tiny permissions I give to feel what it is I am feeling and then to let that feeling run it’s course. In the practice of meditation this is acknowledged that you will have thoughts that demand your attention and just to acknowledge those thoughts and let them pass out of your awareness. When at times I have been buried under the weight of depression and anxiety, I did not have space or energy to consider any of the things and nothing seemed small. (Everything is an existential crisis when you are just trying to convince yourself that getting out of bed is worth the emotional and psychological risk.) The risk of spending time in your head is we can build false gratitude on the rocky soil of should-bes, I should be grateful-I had a good childhood, I should be grateful-I have these children/relationships/material possessions (this one is especially harsh when you are trying to convince yourself to be thankful while grieving). I have never been able to really get to gratitude through shoulding on myself. Instead when I am sad, I found I just needed to give myself permission to be sad, to grieve and to mourn. It is important to note shame when thinking about gratitude–after all the reality of the feeling is best when a work that is not buried in our sense of obligation.
Listen to the others’ story. Listening to others is a work in allowing the holy imprint that God has placed on all of us to reflect back to us the truest word about all humanity–that we are deeply loved, a delight to God and covered in grace. Community also is where my rough edges, bad habits and wrong beliefs can be tried and tested. When I invest in the other I find that I am given windows into my own self, my blind spots and the places I take for granted. The caution is when that the mirror that is held up, it is not used to pray the prayer, thank you God that I am not [what I believe to be an undesirable person, race, social location, ability, income level]. (And before you say, “no one says that.” When was the last time that you heard someone talk about a recent time of “helping poor people” showed them just how much they have to thank God for?) I want to emphasize this exercise is not: being thankful based on the it-could-always-be-worse reasoning. Listening deeply is a practice of letting the other’s story speak for itself, not listening for validation of my own story and understandings. Gratitude should not build off what I deem undesirable in the experience of the other, but should let the other reflect the image of God back when I have not placed my gratitude within its proper location.
Find a location for gratitude that is outside of material possessions or transient ‘good.’ I will admit to my own struggle with this: I know intellectually and theologically that God’s blessing is not equivalent to my creature comforts. When I have been particularly depressed I have wondered why God is doing this to me, but conversely I am not sure I blame God for promotions at work or unexpected gifts. If I am ill it does not mean that God has struck me down, if I am well it does not mean that God is so very pleased with me to reward me with clear lungs. But this reward/punishment understanding is centuries older than I am and is supported by fire-insurance evangelism, prosperity theology and commercialism–Jesus’ disciples even asked, “who sinned–this man or his parents?” Religion is in the business of making sense out of the world, but God’s name has been given to somethings that are no better than dumb luck, genetic predisposition and socioeconomic loci. Likewise marketing’s business is to make any of us nearly religious in our gaining of markers of material status. Everything ages and wears out–bodies start to fail and iPhones get replaced–and my gratitude cannot rest in the things or the markers of normalized human existence.
Now, just to also address a couple of semi-related things. I do confess that God is good and working for good, because of this I think prayer about health or our needs is appropriate, even biblically recommended. And I do believe that I should give thanks for the things I have–I just can’t use them as indications of God’s merit or the reason to be grateful–the location of gratitude is in the confession of God’s goodness–even when circumstances in my life change.