One of the most intriguing characters in all of literature is Dr. Alexandre Manette from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.
For eighteen years, Dr. Manette had been imprisoned in the Bastille, during which time he progressively descended into a state of chronic depression. The trauma of almost two decades of solitary confinement eventually resulted in Dr. Manette losing his mind and becoming merely a shadow of his former self. Upon his release, the doctor’s senses gradually returned to him under the gentle care of his daughter, Miss Lucie Manette. Even after being restored to health, however, he continued to struggle against the fruit of his long captivity, a struggle that involved occasional relapses. Throughout his quiet and relentless struggle, the doctor was completely absorbed with serving his family and friends, and even risking his life to meet their needs.
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.
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?
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.