You’ve probably heard dozens of times about the need to have an “attitude of gratitude.” I have even talked about that on this blog. But I have come to believe that telling ourselves, “I need to have a grateful attitude” is about as helpful as telling ourselves to “have a dieting attitude” or to “have an exercise attitude.” As with dieting and exercise, so with gratitude: what counts is actually practicing it in a tangible way.
We often think that specific gratitude practices flow out of a prior attitude of gratitude. But usually it works the other way round. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown tells how she used to assume that the people who were naturally joyful were the grateful people. But after devoting countless hours to interviewing hundreds of people about joy and gratitude, a surprising pattern began to emerge. Brown’s research began showing that a conscious choice to engage in gratitude activities is the cause of joy, not the other way round. “Without exception,” Brown writes, “every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice…. When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.”
This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.
Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.
On July 21, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was in the sick bay of the Tegel prison listening to the Nazi radio.
The Lutheran minister had been sent to prison the year before after the Gestapo discovered a financial irregularity stemming from an operation smuggling Jews into Switzerland. Though a prisoner of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer knew he was safe as long as the Nazis did not discover the full extent of his seditious activities. He also knew that long-laid plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler were about to come to fruition. Any day he hoped to receive word that Hitler had been killed.
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.
A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
Archimandrite Fadi spoke about finding joy in the present moment.
This week our church was blessed to have Archimandrite Fadi visiting us and participating in our Lenten services. Fr. Fadi spent some time with the children of our homeschool co-op, sharing his testimony and helping to instruct them. One of the things he shared was the remarkable story of how he went from being a successful law professor in Lebanon to working along side the Orthodox Metropolitan in Mexico.
After last night’s Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts, we gathered downstairs as Fr. Fadi addressed us on many important topics, including the importance of finding joy in the present moment.
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.
Father Gheorghe Calciu-Dumitreasa (1925–2006)
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.
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?