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Gratitude

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God the Creator through him.

Colossians 3:15-17

One of the genuinely remarkable aspects of human existence is that so often, much more than we would like perhaps, the way our life unfolds will have everything to do with the story we tell ourselves. We are truly a narrative species, one that needs, in large measure, to fill the gaps in our experiential ramparts with the mortar of narrative perspective. When we only know “A” and “C,” we invariably construct “B” for ourselves, and how “B” turns out, just as invariably, has to do with our narrative attitude and perspective.

In our culture the ready-made and well-advertised narrative attitude is one of endless competition and egocentric appreciation. We are encouraged to imagine that everyone else is out to get what we have, to take advantage of us, to take us down a peg. This is an attitude evident in everything from popular TV shows to our political debates, in some ways even quite deeply rooted in American consciousness. Say, for example, I am standing in the check-out line at the grocery store. The person behind me has far fewer items than I, and I decide to let them in ahead of me because that just seems fair and polite. But what if this person simply steps forward, lays down their items, checks out, and hurries on, without so much as a simple nod of appreciation? What story do I tell myself? Is it about their moral and intellectual failings? Their deep character flaws? How do I get from event “A” to event “C”?

Comparing ourselves to others is not often a conscious act. We tend to do it automatically, and often. Yet it can so color our narrative attitude, our perspective on the world, that we begin to question the motives of everyone we encounter. It also makes our happiness almost entirely dependent on the actions of others. When the writer of the Colossian epistle suggests “be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God,” they are promoting a very different way of structuring the narrative of our lives. It is to the “Attitude of Gratitude” that they refer.

In part, when we fill in our narrative blanks from a place of gratitude, rather than competition, we are much more able to experience our true interdependence with the world around us. Gratitude means, among other things, not taking for granted the very gift of breath, of being alive. To see ourselves as connected to others, and really, to all of Creation, is exactly the kind of gift we can give to the rest of the world, as well as to ourselves. That is not to say that we ought not be upset about the tragedies, the disasters, the pains and hurts of our lives (though in so many cases they are occasions of great learning and growth), but those hurts would be largely meaningless were life itself not worth so much. More than this, cultivating a deepening perspective and practice of gratitude lessens by far the hold that the vicissitudes of life have on us. The intentional practice of filling in the gaps with thanksgiving, as absurd as it may strike us, is one of the most powerful of paths to a transformed and transforming life.

 

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”

Cicero

“Gratitude is an opener of locked-up blessings.”

Marianne Williamson