Not long after digital books started becoming readily accessible on the internet, I began hearing that one of their advantages was that they enabled key sections of a book to be extracted from the larger context. Instead of having to read the whole book, a person can use search tools and navigational aids to jump straight into the best sections.
What really caught my attention, however, is when I began being told that eventually the context of a book, even a work of fiction, might pass into irrelevancy as an anachronistic relic of our literary past. Instead, sections of literary works might come to be organized according to new fluid contexts that emerge organically from algorithms based on user preferences. In an article on the post-literary mind, Mark Federman called this emerging model “the UCaPP world” (UCaPP stands for “ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate.”) Federman described this as
“a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.”
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.
A few weeks ago I saw that my book Saints and Scoundrels, which Canon Press took out of print, was selling for $2,342 used on Amazon. For those who are struggling financially, I have some extra copies at my office that I’d be happy to sell for only $500 a piece. Just think, you’ll save $1,842!
But seriously, I want to talk about Hillary Clinton. Or rather, I want to share what I said about her 4 years ago when I wrote Saints and Scoundrels. I opened my chapter on Rousseau with a warning about Clinton’s totalitarian tendencies. Would that my warnings had been heeded by the American people! Here is what I wrote….
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.
When was the last time you registered gratitude for clean drinking water?
“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.”
From my article ‘American Pragmatism Comes to Roost in Donald Trump‘:
“…a hallmark of the pragmatic orientation has been to evacuate questions of ultimate meaning as we address only the question ‘What works?’ When one becomes animated by this type of radical pragmatism, the result is to gloss over the ambiguities and confusions that are inextricably bound up with life in the real world, and instead to propose grand narratives that reduce all problems to a single cause or set of causes. Within the calculus of this reality-is-simple paradigm, compromise becomes delegitimized while opposing opinions are demonized.”
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend is always tearing her down and continually telling her that she’s stupid, unable to cope, that nobody likes her and that she isn’t pretty enough. What would you say to your friend?
Obviously you would tell her she should break up with her negative boyfriend, or at least that she should stop paying attention to his continual criticisms.
Even though that is the advice you would give someone else, when it comes to ourselves we pay attention to an incessant negative monologue about ourselves that is just as bad. The monologue of negativity isn’t coming from another person but from our own brain. Instead of “breaking up” with our negative brain, we pay attention to it.
Here are some examples of how we can challenge negative self-talk:
- “Yes, this is a difficult challenge, but I have many resources for coping with this.”
- “Okay, things are going wrong in my life right now, but I still have a lot to be grateful for.”
- “I don’t know how this is going to turn out but I do know that whatever happens I will be stretched and have the opportunity to grow through this trial.”
- “I know from the past that I’ve been able to endure and achieve a lot more than I thought I’d be able to. I have a basis for confidence as these further challenges arise in my life.”
Notice that this type of positive self-talk is not blind optimism or escapism but based on realities that most of us can affirm about ourselves and our lives.
From ‘Gnosticism in the Work Place‘:
Viewing the physical order as spiritually neutral can lead to the “seeker-friendly” posture of accommodation and compromise (what Hunter describes as the “‘relevance to’ paradigm” of adaptation) or to the more “fundamentalist” and “pietist” posture of retreat and isolation, since in both cases the work of redemption has essentially become privatized and detached from the material world. Under both approaches, the arenas of art, politics, drama, film, economics, literature, architecture, education, fashion design, gardening, and the media become “secular” by default. The only disagreement between the isolationism of fundamentalism and the accommodation of the “seeker-friendly” posture is whether one should retreat from this “secular order” or capitulate to it. Fundamentalists will often take the former course while more accommodating and liberal forms of Christianity are often tempted to the second. In both cases, what tends to be left intact is the basic sacred/secular divide. Serious Christian engagement with all of life—including our Monday through Saturday jobs—becomes the chief casualty of this dualistic posture.
From ‘Fiction and the Christian Faith‘:
…one of the important functions of story is that it allows us to vicariously participate in experiences that are not our own, and to gain wisdom as a result. A great story—whether in a novel or a movie—takes us on a journey. If the creator has done a skillful job, the journey becomes our journey, and we feel like we are really there. In the case of a good film, it can engage the emotions so skillfully that we actually have the same visceral response as we would if the events on the screen were actually happening. Our body actually experiences the physical symptoms associated with awe, terror, sadness, suspense, joy, confusion, etc. The physical response means that we have entered into the story and, on one important level, it is happening to us.
I’m not talking about shallow stories that simply manipulate our emotions, but stories that move us because the journey they take us on is so vivid that it feels like we’re really there. In the process of making the journey with the characters in the movie or book, we are able to grow in wisdom, in a way similar to what would happen if we were really having those experiences. Through story we can participate in the same experiential value that we would have if we lived those experiences ourselves.
Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.
The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’Connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?
Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.
From my book Saints and Scoundrels, page 14:
“…the greatest defense against evil is to enjoy the good…the strongest bulwark against unbelief is our capacity to love what is beautiful…the surest support against the lies of the devil is to be attracted to what is true.”