In a board meeting a few weeks ago, Mary Elizabeth, our Fellowship Administrator, shared a chalice lighting reading that really struck me as true. One point of the reading was that gratitude is easy when things are going well. When things are falling apart, well that’s a different story. Why does gratitude only come to mind when things are looking good? What if, instead, we got in the habit of going straight to gratitude when things go bad?
Working as a hospital chaplain this summer, I was given a ten-week crash course on all of the worst things that can happen to patients and their families: diseases, accidents, pain, death and grief in many forms. There are many reasons all future UU ministers are required to have chaplain experience, but I think the most important one is the perspective it lends. It changed my concept of what really is a problem and what is not. I learned that any day without serious illness, pain and/or death is a good day. I learned that physical health is not a given – every day of it is a gift. Mental health is a gift. Being addiction-free is a gift.
On one of my more difficult days in the hospital, I bumped into a patient’s wife in the hallway. I had talked with her extensively the day before. Her husband of 50 years was quite ill. She told me that she had just found out that he only had a couple of days to live. I tried to provide as much comfort and sympathy as I could in the hallway, as she was on her way to call relatives. Immediately after this impromptu visit, I stepped on the crowded elevator. A young woman spotted my chaplain name badge and asked me to pray for her. I said I would, but quickly asked if she would like to talk. We got off the elevator in the lobby and found some chairs. A divorced mother of three young daughters, this healthy-looking woman was suffering from Addison’s disease. Having just been discharged from the hospital, she showed me her heart surgery scar. She told me that she had not much longer to live and would not be around to see her daughters grow up. After an extended conversation, in which I struggled to provide as much comfort and insight as I could in this tragic situation, I returned to the chaplain office to calm down and hide out for a while.
Soon, I received a phone call from my sister. She was checking in with me before leaving to go to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. She shared with me her resentment about having to make seven-layer dip that she would have to transport in a cooler of ice during the six hour drive. Still feeling the effects of that morning in the hospital (trying really hard to be diplomatic and keep my composure), I said, “You know after the people I’ve talked with today, seven-layer dip doesn’t really seem like a problem.” I quickly filled her in on the real problems I had encountered that day – and she was quite surprised and a little embarrassed.
Now, I don’t mean to be hard on my sister, well maybe just a little, but the truth is that I have been the seven-layer dip person many times – failing to see all the good around me while I’m obsessing over a minor inconvenience. In fact, I probably still am a seven-layer dip person several times a week. I think at any given moment, any one of us could easily be a seven-layer dip person – making small stuff into a consuming problem, getting hung up in critique and perfectionism – all the while forgetting about all that we have and all that is good in our lives. We are often blind to the abundance that surrounds us. The abundance that is right before our eyes. The discipline of gratitude helps us remember. It helps us remove the blinders so that our many blessings become visible.
When I think about the presence of gratitude in difficult times, I think of another patient I met at the hospital while chaplaining. This young man was about to be discharged, and it was apparent from his chart (as well as the bandages on his two feet) that he had lost all of his toes due to complications from diabetes. After I introduced myself, he looked me in the eye and said with great conviction, “I am blessed.” Taken aback, I asked how he managed to feel blessed despite what he had been through. He told me that many of his relatives had lost whole limbs to diabetes. In comparison, his situation was so much better. He said he was grateful to God for sparing him from that greater misfortune. He was ready to go home and take on the world.
Well, this man was the direct opposite of a seven-layer dip person. He was going through what I think anyone would call a legitimate difficult situation, but despite all of this, his first expression was one of gratitude. This man is my gratitude role model. He was leaving the hospital with hope and optimism – and even joy. His gratitude helped him put his hard situation into perspective. By living in faith and gratitude, he was able to cope with and rise above a challenge that would have left many others in deep depression. Is gratitude in the midst of difficulty easy? No. Is it worth it? Yes.
There have been many scientific studies proving the benefits of gratitude, making it appear almost magical. People who practice gratitude are happier and healthier. They have less stress. They sleep better; they have better relationships. Put simply, gratitude makes us happier and better people in just about all areas of life. As Unitarian Universalists, I’m not sure we need to formally become the church of gratitude. But we are all missing out if we don’t make gratitude a main practice in our lives, including our spiritual lives and our spiritual community. There are many ways to practice gratitude – journaling, sharing gratitude lists, freely and regularly expressing gratitude to friends, family and others, and taking regular time to contemplate gratitude.
And of course, at times we are in fellowship together, we can hold up gratitude as a value – take time to appreciate the contributions of all in this community and truly celebrate one another’s presence. The world is a very distracting place that often takes our attention away from all that is wonderful right before us. By going back to the discipline of gratitude over and over and over again, we continually feel the presence of the good in our world and the good in our lives. Living in the abundance of our own gratitude, we are compelled to give to and share with others. Experiencing all that is good, over and over and over, creates a life of joy, a life of meaning and a life of generosity. May we all be blessed with life in the constant presence of gratitude.