Last year I received an invitation to speak at a conference for professionals in the caring professions. The conference, which was attended by doctors, nurses, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, hospital and army chaplains, missionaries, marriage and family therapists, surgeons and students, was on the topic of pain and suffering. The conference organizers asked me to give a seminar on the topic “Gratitude During Times of Suffering” and my marching orders were simple: explain how it’s possible to remain thankful in the midst extreme of suffering.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at being thankful when things are going wrong. If I have trouble sleeping, I grumble the next day. If I don’t have enough money to buy something I want, I whine and complain to whoever will’; listen. If I have a physical injury, everyone in my circle of friends is sure to know about it. So expecting me to give a talk about practicing gratitude during times of suffering would be like asking ask John Wayne to dance Swan Lake, or asking Justin Bieber to sing the part for Count Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro.
To put it bluntly, I found my assignment daunting. How could I teach other professionals a lesson I had not even mastered myself?
When Romania was taken over by the Communists in 1944, they began rounding up Christians and sending them to prison. One young Christian who found himself caught in the communist backlash was George Calciu.
George Calciu was first imprisoned in 1948 and sent to Pitesti Prison. Pitesti was part of an experiment on new torture methods designed to eliminate all vestiges of humanity from the human soul. The goal in these hideous experiments wasn’t simply to pressure the prisoners to renounce their Christian faith; rather, the goal was to break down their entire sense of self, to cause them to forget who they even were. The inmates were compelled to deny that they loved God, that they loved their country, that they loved their mother and father—in short, to renounce everything that made them human.
Learning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.
Since I’ve been posting a lot recently about gratitude, mention of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is way overdue. Bonhoeffer was one of the best examples of gratitude throughout the 20th century. Like Viktor Frankl, Bonhoeffer showed that gratitude is possible even in the midst of unimaginably harsh circumstances. Here is what I wrote about Bonhoeffer on page 264 of my book Saints and Scoundrels:
“Even in the midst of the agonizing circumstances of a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer never ceased to overflow with gratitude to God. Facing the daily possibility of death, he regarded each day as a precious gift from the Lord, to be received with thankfulness and joy. One English officer imprisoned with him later commented: “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.” Thankfulness did not come easy to Bonhoeffer. He had much to be troubled over. His worst torment was the separation from his beloved fiancee, Maria, and the uncertainty of not knowing whether she was safe. During these sufferings, Bonhoeffer’s approach was not merely to refrain from complaining. Nor was it to be joyful in spite of the hardship. Rather, he teaches us that we can be grateful not just in suffering but for the suffering itself. Bonhoeffer believed that difficult circumstances, no less than pleasant ones, come from the hand of God.”
The book is about the consequences for humanity when so many of our tasks – from driving airplanes to keeping medical records – are increasingly being handed over to machines. You can be sure I’ll have plenty to share from this book in the days ahead since it relates to my ongoing interest in how hyper-pragmatism is forcing us to renegotiate what it means to be human.
Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds, by Father Alexis Trader (Peter Lang, 2011). This book, written by an Athonite monk for the American University Studies series on theology and religion, offers extensive discussin of cognitive reframing in the thought of the Patristics.
‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips, Part 4’, available at http://tinyurl.com/zr7rob9. This final segment of a 4-part interview on brain fitness explores the role imagination can play in helping with cognitive reframing.
‘Your Survival is in God’s Hands – so relax’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2604. This article looks at some of the teachings of Dorotheos of Gaza on God’s love and how these insights can help us reframe challenges.
‘Ledgerwood on Reframing and Negativity Bias’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1949. This article summarizes the findings of psychology researcher Alison Ledgerwood who shows that the human mind naturally finds it easy to reframe positive events in negative terms but struggles to convert negatives into positives. This research suggests some ways to overcome the natural negativity bias of the human brain.
Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica (Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009).
The Brain That Changes Itself (Penguin Books, 2007), by Norman Doidge. As a psychotherapist, Dr. Diodge was finding that his clients’ experiences were constantly challenging the centuries-old notion that the human brain is immutable. This led him on a journey of discovery to understand the emerging science of brain plasticity. For those who aren’t scientists, this book is the best general overview available to the latest discoveries on the flexibility of brain structures. This book gives hope for those who are just beginning to develop the skill of gratitude since Dr. Doidge shows it’s possible for a person to literally re-wire their brains and habituate new patterns of thinking.
‘The Neuro Transformers: Culture & the Malleability of the Human Brain’, by Robin Phillips (Salvo Magazine 21, Summer 2012), available online at http://salvomag.com/new/articles/salvo21/the-neuro-transformers.php. This article explores the role that culture plays in shaping our flexible brains. Many of the assumptions that form the taken-for-granted background of our lives are instilled in our thinking by cultural forces that we often fail to recognize.
‘Do What Comes Naturally…But Work at it’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2052. An abiding myth in our culture is that the more effort something requires, the less genuine or authentic is the result. Accordingly, it is often assumed that gratitude is more genuine when it exists as a raw emotion that simply comes upon us independent of effort and struggle. This article shows how the habits, attitudes and impulses that are natural to us can be trained and altered. Through difficult effort and habituation we can actually rewire the neuro-circuitry of our brains so that virtuous patterns of thinking and acting—patterns that once felt artificial and contrived—start to become second-nature to us.
‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill that Can be Developed With Practice’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://tinyurl.com/hvp8c6o. This article shows that peace of mind is a skill that anyone can develop with practice. The article offers 6 steps for keeping a positive mindset without being escapist.
‘Gratitude is an Emotion and a Skill’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2750. This article looks at the 3-fold nature of gratitude and the relationship between our minds, our behavior and our emotions.
‘The CBT Triangle and You’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.taylorstudymethod.com/blog/cbt-triangle.’This article looks at the history of cognitive behavioral therapy and why the CBT triangle provides a framework for overcoming disordered feelings and cognitions.
The Psychology of Gratitude, edited by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (Oxford University Press, 2004).
‘My Pilgrimage Towards Gratefulness’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2077. This article is a testimony about what I learned regarding gratitude from my time at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex England.
Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, by Robert Emmons (Mariner Books, 2008)
‘Gratefulness and the Rising Baseline’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1796. This article is part of a series exploring the relationship between technology and gratitude. Household technologies have created the terrible burden of making everyone feel that the baseline for normality is a lifestyle once appropriate only to the rich. Rising expectations have meant that household technologies have not been accompanied by an increase in the net gratefulness among those who reach that baseline.
Gratitude: An Intellectual History, by Peter Leithart (Baylor University Press, 2014)
‘The Grateful Brain: The neuroscience of giving thanks’, by Alex Korb Ph.D., available online at http://tinyurl.com/pg3deov.
‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.taylorstudymethod.com/blog/gratitude-and-eppp-prep/. This article explores the way human beings instinctively impose meaning on experiences through a process of disambiguation. The contexts that we unconsciously attach to our experiences affect how we perceive those experiences. However, because such contexts are often relative, ambiguous and misleading, this leads to inaccurate perceptions. Gratitude emerges when we train ourselves to disambiguate in a way more aligned with truth. Gratitude involves learning to “see” our life in a new way and to perceive the good that may be obscured by the familiar context of the ordinary. When we come to appreciate how the normal things we take for granted are unprecedented (historically speaking), then we can learn to perceive everything in our lives, including trials and struggles, against a more accurate backdrop. In this way, we can begin to find meaning in the ambiguity of our lives, a meaning suffused with occasions for profound gratitude.
‘A Medical Perspective on the Mind, Body, Soul Connection’, Dr. Trent Orfanos, Ancient Faith Radio, available at http://tinyurl.com/zgwppcr
The HeartMath Solution, by Doc Lew Childre and Howard Martin (HarperOne, 2000).
Transforming Stress: The Heartmath Solution for Relieving Worry, Fatigue, and Tension, by Doc Childre and Deborah Rozman (New Harbinger Publications, 2005).
‘The Coherent Heart: Heart–Brain Interactions, Psychophysiological Coherence, and the Emergence of System-Wide Order’, by Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., Mike Atkinson, Dana Tomasino, B.A., and Raymond Trevor Bradley, Ph.D., Integral Review, 2009, available online at http://tinyurl.com/jca9bvv
‘Electrophysiological Evidence of Intuition: Part 1. The Surprising Role of the Heart’ by Rollin Mccraty, Mike Atkinson and Raymond Trevor Bradley, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, available online at http://tinyurl.com/zoxh64m
Historical Examples of Gratitude
Saints and Scoundrels, by Robin Phillips (Canon Press, 2011). Chapter 15 is devoted to the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with particular emphasis on his grateful attitude to life.
Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2010).
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl (Verlag für Jugend und Volk, 1946).
‘Viktor Frankl on Reframing Suffering’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=1981. This article summarizes Viktor Frankl’s example and teaching, drawing implications for each of us as we struggle to cultivate gratitude in the midst of life’s difficulties.
Problems with “Positive Psychology”
‘The peril of positive thinking – why positive messages hurt people with low self-esteem’, by Ed Yong, available at http://tinyurl.com/9nnk8r3. This article summarizes research that was published in the journal Psychological Science showing that for people with low self-esteem, using positive self-help statements can backfire and make them feel worse.
‘What Gratitude is NOT’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2834. This article explores how gratitude differs from escapist approaches while offering a solution to the twin evils of sentimentalism and cynicism. In contrast to feel-good models of positive psychology, true gratitude involves acknowledging and accepting sufferings while interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way. This article also suggests that when our pursuit of comfort leads us to numb ourselves to the pain and hurt happening around us, or happening to us, we’re also inadvertently numbing away our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including the emotion of gratitude. Gratitude is important because it gives us the ability to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. When we do this, the research shows that we actually become more resilience to suffering. The resilience that gratitude makes possible is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to help others who are going through difficulties. Instead of pushing people away because we can’t cope with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves so we aren’t touched by another person’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize and to identify with those who are in pain.
‘Positive Think Can Make You Too Lazy to Meet Your Goals’, by Renuka Rayasam, available at http://tinyurl.com/jjx3kux. This article shows that false optimism, including a wrong emphasis on “the power of positivity”, can prevent people from reaching their goals and cause people to underestimate risk, in addition to leading to unrealistic ideas about the future.
Christ the Eternal Tao, by Hieromonk Damascene (Valaam Books, 2012). Chapter 3 has an excellent summary of Patristic teachings on watchfulness and is a valuable contribution to contemporary discussions on mindfulness.
Switch On Your Brain, by Dr. Caroline Leaf (Baker Books, 2013). In the course of her career as a neuroscience researcher, Dr. Leaf found that new scientific evidence on neuroplasticity was supporting Biblical teaching on mental, emotional and physical health. Dr. Leaf offers step-by-step guidance on using scriptural practices like mindfulness, gratitude and inner prayer to eliminate the toxic patterns of thinking that weigh us down.
‘The Most Important 10 Minutes of Your Life’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2621. This article explores the relationship between gratitude and meditation.
‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention (Part 4)’, by Robin Phillips, available at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=2256). This article is the fourth in an ongoing series on attentiveness and defends the following 6 propositions:
Attentive awareness of our own physiological and emotional is key to developing self-mastery.
Emotional maturity involves the ability to watch both our thoughts and our feelings as they occur and thus to increase the gap between stimulus and response.
The same mental muscles involved in attentive perception of our own moods and feelings are also utilized when we are attentive to others. Ergo, by coming to truly know ourselves, we increase our capacity for knowing others.
Developing habits of meta-attention, mindfulness and emotional intelligence enables us to exercise the type of self-donation that lies at the heart of Biblical love.
Loving attentiveness to another person validates their experience and enables them to flourish in their humanity.
There are many pressures in the modern world that decrease our capacity for sustained attentiveness. However, this can be reversed through specific exercises.
This week I was doing some Google Searching about the ancient origins of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and here are some interesting tidbits that stood out to me.
“Stoic philosophers, particularly Epicetus, believed logic could be used to identify and discard false beliefs that lead to destructive emotions, which has influenced the way modern cognitive-behavioral therapists identify cognitive distortions that contribute to depression and anxiety.” (From Wikipedia)
“CBT is based on a model or theory that it’s not events themselves that upset us, but the meanings we give them. If our thoughts are too negative, it can block us seeing things or doing things that don’t fit – that disconfirm – what we believe is true. In other words, we continue to hold on to the same old thoughts and fail to learn anything new.” (From Psyche Central)
The resilience that gratitude makes possible is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to help others who are going through difficulties.
I’ve recently been posting a lot about gratitude and cognitive reframing. In this post I want to say a few words about what gratitude is not.
It’s important to emphasize that true gratitude is not a type of Pollyanna, everything-is-happy optimism. Sometimes in the self-help literature, people are encouraged to just assert they are happy even when they aren’t. There are some interesting studies showing that for certain types of people this false optimism not only doesn’t help, but actually makes them more miserable. So gratitude isn’t just gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they aren’t. True gratitude is the opposite of this since it involves acknowledging and accepting one’s sufferings, but then interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way.
How can we cultivate the virtue of gratitude when it is lacking? Can a person train themselves to actually feel grateful? Is gratitude even a feeling, or is it an act of the will.
These are some questions I want to briefly address in today’s post.
Much of the contemporary research being done on gratitude was published by Oxford University Press in their 2004 book The Psychology of Gratitude. The book brought together scholars working on gratitude from diverse fields: biology, history, spirituality, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, etc. I looked at all the various perspectives to try to see if some kind of synthesis or common thread that could be traced through the various perspectives. And the one thing that became clear is that gratitude involves the whole person: the will, the mind and the feelings. That might seem like an obvious point. But understanding the three-fold nature of gratitude is key to answering the question of how an ungrateful person can go about cultivating gratitude.
It will be helpful to discuss all three of these aspects, starting with the mind. I am beginning with the mind for purely organizational reasons and am not implying any psychological or logical priority in this way of ordering things. The mind, the will and the feelings all work simultaneously in a web of multiple reciprocities, but for organizational purposes it is necessary to treat them separately.