On Gratitude

Posted on: October 14, 2020, by :

We think people are grateful because they are happy.  But look closely and you’ll find that people are happy because they are grateful.  [David Steindl-Rast]

I well remember learning in my childhood how important it was to say, ‘thank you’.  I suspect everyone has a similar memory!  When I was a kid, the old ladies at church always seemed to have lollies in their handbags and they’d dole them out to all the children after church (life was so much less complicated back then ), and every time, before I even had a chance to put it in my mouth, my mother would jump in, “What do you say?”  “Thank you,” I’d mumble through the Mintie as I ran off with the other kids.  

Unfortunately, from that moment, and reinforced by countless other moments, our concept of gratitude became skewed.  Of course, it’s important and appropriate to be polite and to say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift. But that’s not the sort of gratitude Steindl-Rast is talking about when he says, We think people are grateful because they are happy.  But look closely and you’ll find that people are happy because they are grateful.

What is in play with the ‘thank you very much’ statement is a ‘transactional’ gratitude: I’m grateful because I get something – there’s a transaction taking place.  At its worst, this transactional gratitude becomes an ‘IOU’ relationship: you do something for me and I reciprocate (say ‘thank you’) by doing something for you.  It’s like I’m in your debt and I won’t be free until I can pay you back with a favour of some sort.  The gratitude may be genuine and sincere, but it’s transactional, conditional, and too often, instead of leading to happiness it leads to a feeling of being forever in someone’s debt.  

Incidentally, it’s the same dynamic at work when we get uptight because no-one seems to appreciate us or the work we do.  We are so conditioned to transactional gratitude that we expect to be thanked for what we do, and when the thank you doesn’t come, we feel like we are short-changed, like we haven’t been treated fairly, like those people owe me their gratitude.  Owed gratitude, or demanded gratitude, is no gratitude at all.  And it really doesn’t make anyone happy!  Not ‘happy’ in the deepest sense of that word anyway. 

The gratitude that Steindl-Rast is pointing us to, the gratitude that promotes happiness and contentment, the gratitude that can actually help us through tough times (such as a COVID19 pandemic), is a gratitude that wells up from deep within, that is not dependent upon external circumstances or events.  It is gratitude as gift, and is given and felt freely without expectation of response or need for recompense.  In the well-nourished soul it erupts without reservation as a response to the beauty and the wonder and the generosity of life!

Because it is not dependent upon the receipt of some personal benefit, this deep gratitude is often best experienced and expressed in community.

You know this gratitude: it’s the spontaneous eruption of delight when your team wins the Grand Final (in recent memory perhaps best exemplified by Tigers supporters in Swan Street in 2017); it’s the mass movement of the audience when they stand as one to applaud a magnificent performance by the orchestra; it’s the feeling you get as a member of a choir when the harmonies gel and the audience is left spell-bound by the sound of the massed voices; it’s the stirring you might feel when communing with the grandeur of nature; it’s the exuberance we feel at the birth of a baby; it’s the squeal of delight from a child on a swing; it’s the deep well of contentment you feel in the embrace of a loved one.  These experiences and expressions of gratitude are not transactional, they do not seek anything in return, they are the pure and simple source of deep happiness.

This is the sort of gratitude that can erupt even in the midst of trying circumstances, that can sustain us in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems.

So how might we cultivate this deep gratitude?  How might we nurture it within our soul?  How can we so integrate it into our being that we can live out of it as our default operating system?  Here are some ideas that may help:

  • The practice of mindfulness is a great place to start: attending to the present moment, cultivating real awareness of place, of people, of sunsets and clouds,  … savour the colours, the sounds, the smells, the smiles, the voices, and be thankful for the myriad gifts that life sends your way, in both the spectacular and the ordinary, the special and the mundane.  (If you want to explore the practice of mindfulness check out the HeartWell Connect group or the other resources available through our website.
  • You can also develop specific prompts or cues to remind you of your intention to cultivate gratefulness.  Simple things like every time you open your computer, let it remind you to be thankful for the world it connects you with; or every time you pick up your fork at mealtime, let it be a prompt to be grateful for the provision of food and for the diversity of nature; every time you open a door, be in the habit of thanking God for the next experience the doorway is opening to you … so many simple things can become prompts to remind you of your intention to practice gratitude.
  • Be sure to create spaces for beauty and wonder in your life: visit an art gallery, take a walk in the bush, feel the sand between your toes at the beach, listen to your favourite music, read some poetry … make room for the things that evoke a feeling of gratitude and savour them.
  • And don’t forget to breathe! Whether in moments of meditation or moments of activity, be aware of your breath giving you life, and giving the energy to enjoy life! Feel gratitude for each breath you take! (At the end of this email there’s a guided meditation that might help you focus on your breath.)

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude really does make a difference to how you experience life, and to how others experience you!

Thank you for reading this!

David Brooker.

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