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.
Complaining is one of those things we do without even thinking about it. Some researchers have suggested that during an average conversation we complain to each other about once a minute.
From a health perspective, this should be concerning. When we complain, stress hormones are released that harm healthy neural connections in the brain. This also occurs when we aren’t actually complaining ourselves but are exposed to someone else grumbling.
In his book Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, Trevor G Blake shared some Stanford studies showing that being exposed to 30 minutes of complaining each day physically damages the brain by peeling back neurons from the hippocampus (the part of the brain used for problem solving and higher cognitive functions). Over time this can actually lead to the hippocampus shrinking, resulting in decline in memory and adaptability.
It had been a particularly unpleasant day at the office for Ranald.
It was only after being promoted to management six months earlier that Ranald realized how stressful his dream job actually was. Sure, it was nice to be getting a larger pay check and finally to pay off some debts. However, managing a team of people who insisted on being disorganized was taking its toll. Sometimes Ranald looked back wistfully on the days before he was put in charge of the entire department.
These were some of the thoughts going through Ranald’s mind as he drove home one Friday evening. He wanted nothing more than to just go home, switch on the TV and tune out. He knew that wouldn’t be possible. His wife and kids would have demands. They always did. The children would need help with homework, his teenage daughter would need to talk about her day, and his wife would expect his undivided attention as she shared about her own struggles.
In my recent TSM post ‘Gratitude as a Way of Seeing‘, I suggested that the areas we should be the most grateful for are often the things we easily overlook:
“Consider that much of what we think are justifiable grounds for complaint, and many of the circumstances that we become unhappy about, actually occur against the backdrop of lifestyles that are unimaginably prosperous and blessed from the perspective of all human history. The normal things in our life that ought to be occasions for profound gratitude are often overlooked precisely because they are so normal.
“For example, when was the last time you registered gratitude for clean drinking water? When was the last time you were grateful for the absence of enemies on the border of your town? When was the last time you experienced gratitude for the accessibility of books, music, tools and comfortable transportation?
“We’re naturally grateful for the things that are out of the ordinary—a bonus from work, a warm comment from a stranger, an extra special meal, an appreciative letter from a friend we haven’t seen in years, and so on. But we have to really work to cultivate gratefulness for the ordinary things that we tend to take for granted—our normal paycheck, routine kindness from family members, not having to go hungry every day, having a warm place to sleep at night, to say nothing of cultural advances that are ubiquitous. When you think about, these ordinary things ought to occasion the highest levels of gratitude. We ought to be grateful for these things precisely because they happen frequently enough to become normal.”
In the video below, Dr. Kerry Howells talks about the way gratitude practices (beginning with acknowledging and repenting of our resentments) are transformative in educational contexts and are at the root of all the other virtues teachers try to cultivate. Everything she says also applies to families. Her notion that it is impossible to fix other people’s problems without an inner attitude of thankfulness reminded me of St. Seraphim of Sarov’s oft quoted words, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
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 root of anxiety is the illusion that we are separate from God.
I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me. Shut your eyes and imagine that every single person on earth is thinking about you right now. Moreover, imagine that every person is not only thinking about you, but loving you and working to arrange all things for your benefit. Of course that could never happen, but just imagine for a moment that it were possible and what it would feel like. In this thought experiment, everyone in the world feels the same protective love towards you that a father and mother feel for their young child.
Now I want to ask you a question: in the state of affairs I’ve asked you to imagine, would you ever have reason to worry, to feel anxiety or be insecure? Would you need to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not.
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.