Striving to be Grateful in a Thankless Society This Christmas Season: a therapist’s perspectives (Part 2)

This post is Part 2.  Before you read this one, you might wanna read Part 1.

Why Is Gratitude So Hard?

Gratitude is difficult because being grateful requires me to let go of control–control over how much money I make, how healthy I am, the stuff I have, the relationships in my life… everything.  We are required to let go of control of those things and be thankful to our God who *is* in control.  Gratitude requires trust, and the need for control runs right into the face of trust.  We must trust that God is good and that He wants the very best for us.  Trusting a good God may be very difficult if you harbor resentment or bitterness toward Him for things in the past.  We sometimes think that if we stop trying to control all the variables in our life for even two seconds, life will fall to hell immediately.  We would do well to remind ourselves that our being in control of our lives is but an illusion in the first place.

Gratitude is hard because true gratitude goes against our culture, and anytime we try to act against the culture, we get some fierce blowback.  We live in a culture that values stuff–money, toys, houses, cars, boats, etc.  The American dream is almost always conceptualized as getting and keeping stuff.  But we have this false romantic notion that immigrants to our country will be successful and attain our American dream.  But what I’ve noticed is that often immigrants *do* achieve the American dream, and it looks a lot like materialism when they do.

Gratitude is hard because we are so damned self-sufficient.  We feel like we need nothing from God because, with adequate effort, we can get everything we need on our own.  Here is a passage from Revelation that I think is so befitting of our current generation of Americans:

Revelation 3:15–20

Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:

I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

We strive and strive toward material things and neglect to collect treasures that come from God and cannot be taken away… Ultimately communion with Jesus.  Just like in the Scripture passage, we trade a life that relies on God and fellowship with His son for a busy, stressful life of trying to stay one step ahead of the game–and all that striving leaves us exhausted.  That kind of living is fragile and can be derailed in a blink.

Gratitude is also hard for one other oh-so-obvious reason.  We are ungrateful people.

Gratitude is hard because it is an emotions and emotions can’t be easily contrived.  Exchanging our materialistic attitudes and feelings for grateful ones is a tall order.  It requires a transformation of how we think, relate to each other, and make decisions.  I think for most of us, achieving an attitude of gratitude is a lifelong pursuit.  Romans 12 tells us to battle conformity to the world (our culture) with allowing God to transform our minds.  The passage says that we are to present ourselves as a living sacrifice to God in that process of transformation.  Gratitude requires a recognition of the problem and an intentional effort to join the Spirit in His transformational work.

Gratitude is challenging because we go through life, oftentimes, looking for a perfect plug.  Plugs are what Larry, my long-time therapist, calls anything that we use to self-medicate the empty feeling that we experience as human beings because of our separation from God.  I have come to abhor the phrase, “happily married.” I hate it because in just two words it assumes that it is possible to find a perfect plug in the form of a perfect spouse who will make us “happy.” Looking for the perfect plug is incompatible with trying to find gratitude.  And the pursuit of that perfect plug is futile–you’ll never find it.

Judging ourselves and criticizing ourselves for our lack of gratitude actually gets in the way of feeling grateful.  It gets in the way because it adds one more thing to our lists that we are unsatisfied with.  Becoming more grateful requires us to be more gracious and patient with ourselves.  God’s posture toward us is not judgmental.  He simply wants the very best gifts for His children and patiently works within us to give us those good gifts.

Gratitude Blockers

Busy-ness.  Our lives often are moving too fast to allow time to “smell the roses.” Even our “vacations” are often more stressful than when we aren’t on vacation.  We try to fit everything in.  Meals are often on the go so much so that we forget to taste our food.  We use commutes to catch up on phone calls or review our daily tasks in our heads until we get to our destination.  True gratitude requires us to take time away from the grind so we can appreciate the blessings that we otherwise fail to notice.  We often take for granted incredible blessings in our lives, not because we aren’t thankful for them but because we never think about them.

Comparisons.  We have a phrase in our culture that reflects how we compare ourselves and what we have or don’t have to others and what they have or don’t have:  “Keeping up with the Joneses.” As soon as we start trying to keep up with other people we give up something very special–community.  In other cultures where private citizens have precious little, they tend to have a greater sense of connectedness to each other.  Each other’s welfare is determined at least in part by their being a part of a community that supports and cares for each other.

Unforgiveness.  Withholding forgiveness keeps us caught up in anger and resentment, and we feel as though life cannot be good until that so-and-so has gotten what s/he has coming.  Unforgiveness puts an indefinite hold on gratitude, because it puts gratitude on hold until something out of your control is done.  Waiting to move forward until somebody else finally does something they have thus far refused to do will almost always leave you out of control, because you have in essence yielded control of your emotions and behaviors to someone else.

Entitlement and self-pity.  This point needs little explanation.  In our culture people often say things like, “I deserve to be happy.” Or, “I deserve to have my needs met.” As long as I maintain that attitude, I’ll always be unhappy with what I have because in my mind I deserve more.

Fear and Anxiety.  Fear and anxiety ask the question, “What if?” It is hard to experience gratitude when you are busy trying to make sure all the bad things that could happen don’t happen.  You can’t experience gratitude when you are scared to death that you might lose something.  Fear and the excessive need for control often occur together.  Mind you, fear is not always a negative thing.  Sometimes fear functions to get you away from dangerous situations or it motivates you to defend yourself or those you love.

Anger.  Anger frequently accompanies or quickly follows a loss.  Being angry demands that what was lost be returned–that, contrasted with what you still have despite the loss.  It should be noted though, that anger is a natural part of the grieving process and isn’t always a negative.  The Scriptures tell us to, “Be angry, and sin not.”

Resentment.  As a wise man once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.” Resentment could be anger that has stayed around too long.  It could also flow out of entitlement and self-pity.  Resentment often focuses on a loss, while gratitude, again, focuses on what you still have.

Isolation.  Gratitude is best practiced in community with others.  Group prayer and sharing of testimonies in corporate worship come to mind.  When your spirit, the spirit of others, and the Holy Spirit come together, the result is unfettered power.

Expectations.  Having expectations is not necessarily a negative.  When we set goals we also set expectations.  However, when unmet expectations (for example:  when my expectations that a spouse meet my needs don’t happen) lead to resentment and bitterness, that creates a problem.  It’s hard to be truly grateful for that loved one in your life when you are busy being pissed off because s/he isn’t meeting your needs.  It gets particularly problematic when the expectations you set could never reasonably be met by someone other than God anyway.

Blaming.  Busying ourselves with blaming other people for what goes wrong in our lives while taking credit for what goes right sets us up to feel resentful.  It also sets up an us-versus-them frame of mind.  We trust ourselves while we distrust everyone else.  And trust is necessary to experiencing love…. a common ingredient in gratitude.

Closing Thoughts

I have been referred to often in the past as a cynic.  I get that a lot less these days.  However, cynicism can often look like gratitude.  As a cynic, I stop trying to change all the wrongs because there are too many of them, and I can’t do anything about them anyway.  Life is destined to suck, and most people are too.  Gratitude also doesn’t try to change everything that is wrong.  However with gratitude, the motivation for not trying to fix everything is a sense of satisfaction and contentment, not defeated resignation.

I have a surgeon friend who has told me several times about the experience of telling someone that s/he has cancer.  He says it’s like a switch gets flipped and all of a sudden the patient’s priorities experience a dramatic shift.  Things that used to be important are no longer important.  Things that they used to take for granted suddenly become very precious.  I had a similar experience as I faced down death for several years after suffering a stroke.  My way of thinking now bears little resemblance to what it was pre-stroke.  I think it’s actually easier to be grateful when everything has been stripped away.  We could become bitter, or we could realize that our God and the people we love all of a sudden become front and center in our lives. And we start noticing the small stuff, realizing how quickly it can be taken away, so we should enjoy and appreciate it *now*.

Finally, we need to become satisfied with imperfect gratitude, both in self and in others.  Gratitude is something that grows as we make changes and address our shortcomings.  Be patient with yourselves, and stay engaged with God as He works on changing you from the inside out.



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