What Good is Gratitude?

The following is an essay from Janet Hagberg of At River’s Edge. She gave us her permission to share this with you. We encourage you to check out her site At River’s Edge for other reflective essays and resources like this one.

When I get into really tough places–caught in a deadly addiction, ready to jump ship in a precarious work situation, leaving an unhealthy relationship, facing financial crises—I get paralyzed with anxiety. When I can sit down and calm myself for a few minutes I usually find that a few simple things help me begin to sort out my crises. These are the first things I do and they usually lead me to the more life-giving actions or decisions.
These things are deceptively simple yet they calm my soul enough that I can think more clearly. I wrap myself in an afghan that was a gift from a dear friend. I can feel her arms around me as I do this. Along with that I drink soothing tea and just sit down for a while. I may call or email an understanding friend or get my feelings out on paper, especially my fears. I always pray and I can be assured that this will quiet down the clamoring voices inside me that are vying for my attention.
Over the years, though, I’ve found two other things that are equally important but not so obvious ways to ground myself and help me more forward. One is to recount what I am grateful for and the other is to reach out to others, to be of comfort to them. These both seem counter intuitive, especially when I am so afraid, but they almost always work.

One indelible memory I have is of a very low point in my life. My mother had just died, suddenly and at a young age. I needed desperately to go back to school and I had not been accepted into the program I wanted. My marriage was in stress and I had a bad cold. I was walking across a parking lot from my car to a class at the University. I remember feeling despondent and hopeless. As I walked I heard this inner voice say, “Well, is there anything you are grateful for?” I had to pause for a long time. What a powerful question. Was there anything I was grateful for? Slowly a very short list began to form in my mind.

  • I was grateful for the sunshine
  • I was grateful for my mind
  • I was grateful that I was alive

That was about all I could muster for that first try but it got me moving slowly on a new track—a track of focusing on what I had rather than on what I didn’t have. It did not change my situation but it allowed me to consider a different perspective, a way to balance the things that were changing with the things that were stable.

Gratitude & A New Perspective

One other time I remember the role gratitude had in giving me a new perspective. I was in a very stressful work situation and I was about to jump ship. I do this because I don’t want to fail and I’m afraid to stay with something and be part of the stabilization. This time my spiritual director helped me stay the course by asking me to consider staying but with this assignment. She asked me to cut a lot of quarter sized circles out of paper and then write each day, the thing I was most grateful for, and put them all in a box. At the end of a month I took them out to read them all. And at the end of two months I read them again. I was amazed, not only with the simplicity of the things that I was most grateful for—a phone call from a friend, my cat purring in my lap, a cup of tea—but also the miracles I experienced that I may not have noticed, like new sources of funding, forgiveness from a friend, standing firm in conflict, or visions of peace in my heart.

Gratitude List

Now when I get into a difficult place it helps me to just start a list of all the things I am grateful for. Over time I have come to a new experience of gratitude. I call it my deep truth. My deep truth is that out of my painful experiences I have gained things that I am very grateful for. These experiences were not all bad, not all loss, not all to be avoided. I can even see, on my good days, that most of what has happened to me has allowed me to grow, to change, or to have more compassion for others. Failing in a work project taught me to go forward in spite of not succeeding; being in an abusive work relationship has taught me how to have healthy boundaries and how to find my own worth. Giving up a life style taught me more dependence on God. From all of these difficult circumstances I can see ways in which they formed me into a more whole and compassionate person. Some people experience bankruptcies that save them from the rat race; cancer brings some people to their feelings in new ways.

Do I want to repeat my most painful experiences? No. But were they worthwhile? Absolutely. And now when I write my gratitude list it is considerably longer, even when I am stressed. Here are a few things on my list:

  • The faithful love of God
  • Friends who laugh with/at me
  • My cat, Mr. Nelson
  • The richness of not wanting
  • Challenges that draw me to God
  • Generosity of others
  • Quilting and the quilt group
  • Letting go–on my good days
  • Youth and young adults in my life
  • The sunshine
  • Baseball
  • Hope, in difficult times
  • Recovery
  • Cultural diversity
  • Dark chocolate
  • Prayer and quiet
  • Mentoring/meaningful work
  • Healing and forgiveness
  • Tango dancing
  • The gift of writing this essay

Three Different Kinds of Gratitude

MJ Ryan, writing the last essay in her wonderful book, Attitudes of Gratitude, cites three different kinds of gratitude. The first is the wonder and simple response to a gift. Thank you. It is gratefulness for getting what we like or what we want.
The second form of gratitude is what I have been describing here, being grateful for the unexpected gifts or lessons that come along with hard times or experiences of suffering. It is a more subtle and, perhaps, deeper form of gratitude which begins a journey of transformation within us and changes the lens through which we view the world.
The third form of gratitude is the most elusive. This is a life lived in gratitude and undergirded with pure joy—no matter what happens. Ryan says it is like a breath of thanksgiving with every inhalation of air, no matter what is going on in the world. This type of gratitude is usually reserved for saints but who knows, perhaps if we pray and ask for this approach to life, this attitude of trust in the ultimate benevolence of all things, we could catch a glimpse of what God is waiting to do when our lives and hearts are open.

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What are you most grateful for in your life now?

What helps you the most when you feel yourself getting “down?”

What situation in life taught you the most about being grateful?

Which of the three kinds of gratitude do you most resonate with and why? getting things from others, lessons learned from pain, or pure joy no matter what is happening?

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