Giving Gratitude

Clinical psychologists have lately been researching the emotion of gratitude.  This is known as the field of gratitude research.  Traditionally, they say, gratitude is felt and expressed when we’re indebted to another person.  If you help me with a painting project or a sewing project, I’m grateful.  If someone helps you by watching the kids, you’re grateful.  This side of gratitude has to do with a feeling that accompanies indebtedness.  Someone has done something for you and you are grateful.  As Christians, we’re grateful for the gift of God in Jesus Christ. 
But that’s not the side of gratitude that’s getting all of the buzz right now.  Instead, it’s the idea that gratitude is an attitude.  It’s a life-orientation toward thanksgiving.  It’s a gratitude perspective.  And this is the kind of gratitude Paul is talking about in Philippians 4 when he says ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God that transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.’  When we pray, Paul says we must have this attitude of thanksgiving.  We’re presenting our requests with an attitude of gratitude toward God who gives us everything we really need.
And a gratitude-directed life, it seems, has many benefits.
Thanksgiving may be the holiday from hell for nutritionists, and it produces plenty of war stories for psychiatrists dealing with drunken family meltdowns. But it has recently become the favorite feast of psychologists studying the consequences of giving thanks. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury.  (New York Times, “A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day” 11/21/11)
Gratitude is also used in therapy situations.  Gratitude interventions in therapy include (a) daily listing of things for which to be grateful, (b) grateful contemplation, and (c) behavioral expressions of gratitude.
The Benedictine Monk, David Steindl-Rast says that gratefulness even makes us joyful.  Typically, we think of it the other way around—that when we’re joyful, then we’re grateful.  But Steindl-Rast says when we’re grateful, that’s when we’re joyful. 
This means that we can be grateful in absolutely any situation or event.  Now, that doesn’t mean you’re grateful for the event itself.  You don’t need to be grateful for cancer or the loss of a job or relationship.  But even in the darkest situation, there’s something for which you are grateful. 
Nine years ago, my mom had back surgery.  She obtained an infection during surgery…a lung infection that almost took her life.  As she was in ICU, the family prayed.  She was in the hospital over Thanksgiving.  We didn’t know what to do.  Rich and I had always hosted, but we all wanted to be close to the hospital.  We already had the turkey, so we decided to have thanksgiving at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, which was closer to the hospital.  We met at the Burlington Mall and handed off the turkey to them.   They put it in their trunk.  We were driving behind them but lost them when we had to make a stop along the way.  Of course, during our stop, route 128 backed up and there was an enormous traffic jam.  Come to find out, my sister and brother-in-law played a role in the traffic.  They had been rear-ended on the highway.  They were fine, but our turkey got whiplash. 
We all got to Sandy and Dave’s and it was a strange feeling.  Mom wasn’t there.  My other sister and her family weren’t there either.  We were worried about my mom.  We felt disconnected.  We were worried about our turkey.  It was roasting in the oven, but it had been in an accident…and there was just something bizarre about a Thanksgiving turkey getting battered and bruised in a rear-end collision.  Is it safe to eat? we asked each other.  I looked it up online, but Martha Stewart said absolutely nothing about the potential risks of roasting a turkey after it’s been in a collision.  We threw caution to the wind and cooked that bird any way.  
Then we sat around the table and gave thanks—for surgeons and nurses; for each other; for the mangled turkey.  Thanksgiving soon turned into laughter.  
We laughed about the turkey.  We laughed about the medication-induced dreams my mom was having in the hospital—insisting that the night nurses brought in a circus and an enormous aquarium and partied all night long…that in fact, she said, the ICU was ‘party central’ after visiting hours.  We gave thanks and we experienced joy.
In the fall of 2000, former megachurch pastor Ed Dobson was diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), a degenerative disease with no known cause or cure.  In 2012 Dobson shared his ongoing struggle to give thanks while living with an incurable condition.   He writes:
There are many things for which I am not grateful.  I can no longer button the buttons on my shirt.  I can no longer put on a heavy jacket.  I can no longer raise my right hand above my head.  I can no longer write.  I can no longer eat with my right hand.  I eat with my left hand, and now even that is becoming a challenge.  And over time all of these challenges will get worse and worse.  So what in the world do I have to be grateful for? 
So much.
Lord, thank you for waking me up this morning.  Lord, thank you that I can turn over in my bed.  Lord, thank you that I can still get out of bed.  Lord, thank you that I can walk to the bathroom…Lord, thank you that I can still brush my teeth…Lord, thank you that I can still eat breakfast.  Lord, thank you that I can still dress myself.  Lord, thank you that I can still drive my car.  Lord, thank you that I can still walk.  Lord, thank you that I can still talk.
And the list goes on and on.  I have learned in my journey with ALS to focus on what I can do, not on what I can’t do.  I have learned to be grateful for the small things in my life and for the many things I can still do. [1]
What will your Thanksgiving look like this year?  Many familiar faces around the table?  Or perhaps some are sadly missing.  I pray that no matter what the circumstance, God will give you an attitude of gratitude.  And I pray that you will experience joy and peace.

Patricia Batten