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Practice gratitude

Like hope, trust, and love, gratitude is both a feeling and a spiritual practice.
By Christine Robinson And Alicia Hawkins
Fall 2009

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It has been said that religion is primarily an affair of gratitude. You may have always thought that religion is primarily an affair of believing, and if you were not sure how a person goes about “believing,” you may have thought you were not a religious person. Gratitude, on the other hand, is something that all of us can practice, and that makes us all religious.

Whatever one’s beliefs about faith and grace, gratitude is basic. Like hope, trust, and love, gratitude is both a feeling and a spiritual practice. Though we have little control over our immediate feelings, we can decide to cultivate the ground in which those feelings thrive.

We are taught as soon as we can speak to say “thank you” when we are helped or given something. A young person who does not say “thank you” convincingly is considered spoiled, and an older person who does not have this habit is considered arrogant. Why? Words of thanks signal acknowledgement of another’s part in benefiting our lives. “Thank you” adds a human connection. It says, “I noticed you were there, and I am glad.”

Our thank-yous remind us that we are dependent on those around us. The words acknowledge the web of relationships in which we live. To neglect one’s thank-yous is not only rude; it is out of touch with reality, an implicit claim of independence and privilege. The practice of saying “thank you” is good for our souls and a reality check on our tendency to think we don’t need others. This is not only important in our relationships with other people, it is important in our relationship with God, the universe, our life.

When there is no one to thank. If you don’t believe in a “thankable” God, you may wonder how to develop gratitude. But you don’t have to believe that there is a Divine Someone out there collecting praise to experience gratitude. The important thing is to notice your gratitude and express it, if only to yourself. “Thank you, Universe!” you might say, if “Thank you, God” doesn’t work for you. We notice our full hearts when a grandchild rushes into our arms, when we are struck by the beauty of a sunset, or when we experience one of those wonderful moments when we connect deeply with someone. There may be nobody in particular to thank, but we can practice gratitude all the same.

When things are awful. Sometimes we are suffering too much to feel honestly grateful. There are days, even weeks or months, when we are overwhelmed by problems or pain, tragedy or disappointment. At those times, we don’t feel lucky to be alive and certainly don’t feel like celebrating. In their desire to make us feel better, good-hearted people are likely to say things like “You should be grateful that . . .” (your older child is still alive, the cancer was only in one breast, you still have a spouse even though you lost your job). But when we can’t feel grateful, we can’t. At least, we can’t right now. (Note to good-hearted people: You are right, the suffering person in front of you surely still has some good things in his or her life. But this realization has to come from within, and it will come more quickly if friends simply listen with open hearts and don’t try to give advice.)

Sometimes when things are hard, especially if they are awful for a long time, we resolve to make a practice of gratitude—to really work at reestablishing our sense of thanksgiving. This is a very healing practice. In the midst of grieving for a loved one, we can be grateful for the care of friends, for the flowers that are still blooming, for the kindness of strangers, or even that the car still starts and the sun still rises. Being intentional about noticing these things is a deep spiritual practice.

The Jewish people have a beloved song that is sung at the Seder, the service that takes place during the Passover season. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, when Hebrew slaves were freed and escaped into a difficult forty years in the wilderness. In the song, called “Dayeinu,” the leader lists all of the things that God did during the Exodus story. After each, the congregation sings “Dayeinu,” which means, “It would have been enough.” It goes something like this:

Had God brought us out of Egypt
and not divided the sea for us,
     It would have been enough.

Had God divided the sea
and not permitted us to cross on dry land,
     It would have been enough.

Had God permitted us to cross the sea on dry land
and not sustained us for forty years in the desert,
     It would have been enough.

You get the idea. In spite of the considerable suffering involved in an entire community’s uprooting itself to escape into the wilderness, there is also gratitude for all the ways things turned out well. “Dayeinu” is a way of saying, “There are gifts even in the midst of this hard time.” So a new mother might say to herself:

If my baby had been born healthy, but not beautiful,
     It would have been enough.

If he had been born healthy and beautiful, but I
had to struggle to care for him,
     It would have been enough.

If he had been healthy and beautiful, and my
mother came to care for us both, but I had to
return to a nine-to-five job,
     It would have been enough.

But I have a flexible job, a loving mother, a beautiful and healthy baby, and it is so much more than enough.

Practice gratitude. Perhaps most insidious to our sense of gratitude is the great demon, busyness. There are times when we simply get too busy to notice all the wonderful things and people and relationships around us. Because it is so easy to get revved up to such a pitch that we neglect to notice our gratitude, it is best to find ways to make gratitude a routine. The child’s “God bless Mommy and Daddy and my brother, even though he’s a pain,” is an elementary but beneficial practice. Sometimes people keep a gratitude list, have a wall of photographs of people and places for which they are grateful, bring their gratitude to mind each morning over their coffee, or begin the evening meal or bedtime prayers by naming something for which they are grateful.

W. H. Auden once wrote that on the dull days of life, we must practice our “scales of rejoicing.” A musician practices scales for many lonely hours so that when it comes time to perform, the music will flow naturally from the fingers. Likewise, we can make a practice of our gratitude that will sustain us in both the wonderful and difficult times of our lives.


Reprinted with permission from Heart to Heart: Fourteen Gatherings for Reflection and Sharing, © 2009 Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, published by Skinner House Books.

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