A couple of years ago, in conversation between classes, a student said to me, “I used to try to learn about God, but searching made me feel unhappy. Now, I don’t believe and I don’t try to believe.”
Faith in God, like breathing, is essential to me, and has been as long as I can remember, so the student might as well have been saying: I tried to breathe and I couldn’t, so I just stopped trying.
I wondered how he stood talking, quite lively, rather than slouched, blue and limp, along life’s way. I was intrigued and wanted to know more about his approach to life and how it differed from mine.
My faith often influences my thought life. Throughout my day I think prayers like: Thank you. Or, help! Or, I’m really worried could you calm my thoughts? Or, I really messed up that interaction—I’m sorry.
I wondered about someone who didn’t practice faith. When he encounters various life situations, what are his thoughts like?
The day the student and I talked was an unseasonably spectacular fall day. Sunlight warmed us and bounced on leaves that pivoted in the breeze showing off vibrant colors. The breeze playfully rearranged my hair and nudged my skin with playful taunts that seemed to say, I can touch you, but you don’t even know how to try to touch me.
Many people were outside, walking, sitting on benches, sprawled on the grass, enjoying the display of Pennsylvania’s outdoor features—like the day was autumn’s grand finale and everyone wanted to experience it. More so, because we knew drab winter was on the way.
I asked the student what he thought about that day’s fine weather and he agreed, “It’s a magnificent day.”
“On a day like this, I feel striking feelings of gratitude that I want to express,” I said.
“Absolutely. Me. Too.” he said.
“So how do you express your gratitude? What do you say?” I asked.
“I say, Thank God!” He exclaimed.
“But you don’t believe in God, or an entity who will accept or recognize your gratitude.” I pointed out.
He shrugged. He didn’t seem to find his expression of thanks perplexing, but I did.
As I think about this week’s Thanksgiving celebration, I set aside time to express gratitude. For me, gratitude is a prayer of response and the circuit of gratitude isn’t complete unless the message is expressed to the being who created my reasons for gratitude.
Throughout my life, I have wanted to become more adept at expressing gratitude and I have experimented with practicing two types of gratitude.
One of the types, intentional gratitude, is the practice of directing my thoughts into a pattern of thankfulness. Depending on the perspective I choose, I can always find aspects of life to grumble about (Pumpkin pie and other traditional Thanksgiving desserts have too many calories.) and aspects of life to appreciate (Thanksgiving desserts taste so good—especially with an extra dollop of whipped cream). When I practice intentional gratitude, I don’t ignore the things that make me feel like grumbling for they have their place (Thinking about calories reminds me to exercise self-discipline as I eat), but I focus on, enjoy, and give thanks for the positive aspects of life.
More than once, I’ve read articles on gratitude that say to give thanks for anything you’d miss if you woke up tomorrow without it. Sometimes, that way to gratitude seems morose, like a warped version of FoMO (fear of missing out).
However, I’ve learned from experience that the comparisons that are possible when I expand my context make room for gratitude. For example, our house is situated right next to the base of a steep, well-treed hill, so inside, the house often seems dark and cool. In the middle of day, I’ve been known to grumble and march around turning lights on because the rooms are too dim.
A few years ago, during the almost-summer, I spent a week in Haiti at a compound working and playing with the kids who lived there. Every day, as noon approached, and the sun sucked the energy from our bodies, we’d jostle for a place in the shade of a very, skimpy tree. Trees are scarce in Haiti and it was the only tree in the vicinity.
I gained a new appreciation that week. Since then, when the thought crosses my mind that my shaded house is too dim and cold, another more powerful thought that touts the benefits of shade takes over.
An expanded context makes room for me to compare my situation with other situations, and to compare and appreciate different stages of my life–like now compared to a darker more difficult time–and gratitude grows.
Another way to practice intentional gratitude is to participate in a gratitude challenge. More than once, I’ve participated in that type of challenge and learned subtleties of expressing gratitude. One challenge tasked participants to notice and write down specific benefits they enjoyed due to something someone else had been or done. That type of gratitude made me feel connected to the people around and those who’ve been here before me.
Intentional gratitude is a great discipline that leads to a healthy attitude and fortifies us for generous participation in life.
But the best thing about intentional gratitude is that it leads to stints of voluntary gratitude. Voluntary gratitude is when thoughts of thanks and feelings of gratitude just multiply, exude and prompt joy. It’s high quality gratitude.
Each year, Steve and I have a small garden. One of my favorite parts of gardening is noticing the plants that spring up after a drab, cold Pennsylvania winter without being planted. Every year, there are two or three of them that just, like a surprise, appear. A tomato plant in a row of beets. A zucchini adjacent to the green bean row. Steve calls those plants the volunteers.
But if we hadn’t ever planted, the volunteers wouldn’t grow.
Like those plants, voluntary gratitude springs unbidden in our thoughts. We don’t plan for it. We don’t work at growing it. It is a happy surprise for us to enjoy.
Like gardening, intentional gratitude takes work, focus and diligence. But if we work at it, we’ll soon see voluntary gratitude spring unbidden in our thoughts and that is one of life’s sweet pleasures.