Practicing Gratitude

Ask any group of small children what they are thankful for, and you’ll likely get the same responses: my family, my friends, my pet, my home. You may get one or two kids who have interesting things to add, like my brother-in-law who once famously told his whole 3rd grade class that he was thankful for Kermit the Frog!  But for the most part, the answers will be pretty standard. It’s easy to be thankful for the good things in our lives.

But can we be thankful for things that are difficult?

Gratitude is more than just ticking off the checkboxes of good things in our lives. It can be a daily practice of looking for good in all things, especially those things which don’t appear to be that good on the surface. 

I work at a university, and when we returned from the pandemic lockdown, our campus post office stopped delivering mail to our offices every day, sticking to once a week. There were a lot of valid reasons for this decision, but it meant that on the other days, I had to walk across campus to pick up the mail myself.

Here was my initial reaction to this new situation:

This stinks! This is NOT in my job description. At my age I have to schlep all the way across campus and lug the mail back all by myself? This isn’t fair! What if the packages are heavy? I shouldn’t have to carry them!

After a few weeks, I realized that my grumpy attitude was not serving me, and was in fact seeping into other areas of my work. I had to figure out a way to be ok with this new situation. And I found the answer in the practice of gratitude. Each time I made a trip to the campus post office, I challenged myself to find something to be grateful for in the experience, and to write it down when I returned to my office. Here were some things that made it onto my list:

The pretty blossoms on the flowering trees
Running into a co-worker I hadn’t seen in a long time
The fresh air and warm gentle breezes
Getting to know the mailroom staff a little better each time I visited
The chance to stretch my legs after sitting at my desk for so long  

The list kept getting longer and longer and it changed my whole attitude toward this aspect of my job. Being grateful for things that are difficult doesn’t come naturally. But if you work at it, practicing a little bit each day, it will become an automatic response.

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I challenge you to think of something that really bugs you. It can be something small and silly, or something bigger. Try to find some way to be grateful for that thing, and see how that act of gratitude changes your perspective in a way you might not have thought possible.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In My Father’s Eyes

Scale Samuel
What are some motivations that you may need to confess?

This was the question posed by my writing prompt this morning. It immediately made me think of this past Thanksgiving. After starting a new health regime in September, I had lost a bit of weight. I was feeling pretty good about myself and bought a new outfit to wear for Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house. I played the scene out in my head. I would enter the house, take off my coat, and everyone would be amazed at how great I looked. I would be showered with compliments and admiration. It was going to be a great holiday.

Imagine my surprise when no one seemed to notice at all.

It was a humbling lesson in pride and vanity. If I had kept my focus on either the real meaning of Thanksgiving—being thankful for my loved ones and all our good fortune—or the true benefits of losing weight—improved long term health—I would have felt incredibly blessed that day instead of vaguely disappointed.

I won’t beat myself up about it. It’s perfectly human to want praise and compliments. I don’t believe it’s a sin to want people to think well of you. But it’s a slippery slope when it comes to motivation. In the wise words of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation— “Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.”

When I first started giving spiritual retreats I was desperate for positive affirmation. Like Sally Field at the Oscar’s (“They like me! They really like me!”) I drank up praise like it was the most addictive drug on the market. I told myself it was affirmation from God I was searching for. If people keep telling me how good I am, then I know this is what God wants me to be doing.

I’m not sure how sound my reasoning was. The truth is, I just liked the feeling.

Again, it’s not the worst thing in the world to enjoy some praise, as long as I didn’t lose sight of the reasons I was doing this in the first place. My desire to please God by helping others had to trump my desire to please myself by helping others. Fine line of distinction but it feels important.

It’s a good idea once in a while to examine why we do the things we do. Are there motives that are preventing us from living in a real and authentic way? Is it more important for me to get a hundred “likes” on this post than to reach one person who really needs to hear God’s message, even if I never know about it? Social media leads us down this path to “madness” like nothing else. It’s all about the numbers. Followers…hits…page views…likes…friends. Everyone wants to be “famous” or “popular” in whatever platform they can. For the most part, this can be harmless fun (and I’m not suggesting that everyone uses social media in this way!) but chasing applause is a race we’ll never win, because we’ll always want more. If we measure our success by the numbers, we’ll always be left feeling dissatisfied.

What do you place at your center? Validation from outside forces? Or the love and adoration of the God who created you? “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7b). I can think of no better audience that that, and God is always going to be our biggest fan. The One who knows us best. The One who sees us for who we are and still loves us.

In the words of songwriter Francesca Battistelli, “I don’t need my name in lights, I’m famous in my Father’s eyes.”