Gratitude is hot these days. That's true in both the secular and religious worlds. A friend who is a psychologist (no, not my therapist) recently told me that the psychological community is paying more and more attention to thankfulness. While psychologists and psychiatrists have long examined what might be called the more painful emotional states, the school of "positive psychology" considers not only happiness but, more specifically, gratitude as a doorway to mental health. An even more specific topic is "savoring," spending time being consciously grateful for what one has.
None of this would have surprised the great religious figures from almost any tradition who, across the board, emphasized being grateful for the gifts that God (or gods, depending on which tradition you're talking about) has given you. Examples are almost too numerous to mention. Just look at the psalms, for example, a whole category of which are called by Scripture scholars "psalms of praise." Basically they're saying to God, "Thanks." Psalm 139 praises God just for the gift of being created: "I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
The psalmist is savoring his existence.
"Savoring" would not have surprised St. Ignatius Loyola either, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, who frequently used the words savor or relish (depending on the translation) to describe dwelling with a powerful experience in prayer. You return to a special time in prayer, and savor it, like you would a delicious meal.
Gratitude is hot in spiritual circles today as well. Several contemporary books point to gratitude as an essential element of a healthy relationship with God. Mary Jo Leddy's book Radical Gratitude strives to move readers from the "perpetual dissatisfaction" fostered by Madison Avenue to an appreciative awareness of what we already possess. One of the most compelling stories in her book recounts a conversation with a refugee who had just moved in with Leddy at the Romero Center, a community center in Toronto.
"Who lives in that house in the backyard?" asked the refugee. "What house?" said Leddy. "There's no one living in the backyard." "That house," said the refugee, and pointed to the garage.
For the first time in her life Leddy "saw" her garage, and realized in what an affluent society she lived--where she had, in essence, a house for her car.
And just this year Charles Shelton, a Jesuit priest and psychologist who teaches at Regis University in Denver, describes the virtue in The Gratitude Factor as a quality that brings a myriad of benefits to those who practice it: enriching love, contributing to both the individual and the community, fighting negativity, relieving stress and limiting our selfish desires. It is not only the doorway to a healthy emotional life but spiritual one as well.
Gratitude is also necessary to counteract our normal human tendency to accentuate the negative, to problem-solve relentlessly, to be hypervigilant about our troubles. This habit, behavior psychologists say, is simply part of our prehistoric brains, which naturally evolved to help us be alert to danger. In other words, while it would have been pleasant for the cave-dweller to enjoy his (or her) meal, it was far more important for him (or her) to be on the lookout for a predator. Thus, we naturally focus on the negative, thanks to evolution.
To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "Not that there's anything wrong with evolution." But while our brain's hard-wiring is good for pointing out signs of danger, it's not so good at letting us enjoy what we have. So gratitude takes work.
Thanksgiving Day is a good time to revisit the virtue of, well, thanksgiving. But are there reasons to be thankful? Sometimes it would seem not. In the wake of persistent unemployment and endless financial woes, after a national election in which the country seems more divided than ever, in the midst of continuing violence in Afghanistan, in view of terrorist threats here and abroad, gratitude may seem not only inaccessible, but a ridiculous thing to suggest. To put it plainly, how can you be grateful if you don't have a job?
Yet in times of struggle gratitude is critical, lest we move into despair. And we need not deny the dark to see the light. Indeed, the darkness can make the light spots more evident.
For most of us, the causes for gratitude are highly personal. Even in difficult times we can be thankful for our families, friends and co-workers. For believers in general, the cause of the greatest gratitude may be the hardest to describe: our personal relationships with God. For those who participate in organized religion, we can relish the bonds of community, and the challenges that our religions call us to, when they are at their best: love, charity and hope All these gifts can be relished, too.
Savoring is an antidote to our increasingly rushed lives. We live in a busy world, with an emphasis on speed, efficiency and productivity, and we often find ourselves always moving on to the next task at hand. Life becomes an endless series of tasks, and our day becomes a compendium of to-do lists. We become "human doings" instead of "human beings." Savoring slows us down.
Thanksgiving Day is the perfect time to recall our blessings, not simply to add them to a list of things that we've seen or done; but to savor them as if they were a wonderful meal. We pause to enjoy what has happened. We stop to enjoy what we have. Deepening our gratitude to God reveals the hidden joys of our days. As the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, noted, "You sanctify whatever you are grateful for."
As we savor the turkey (or turducken) and stuffing (or filling) and enjoy the cranberry sauce (homemade or in a can), believers are also called to relish the gifts that God gives us every day, and to savor the sparks of divine light that illumine the darkness.
Savor it all.
Follow Rev. James Martin, S.J. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ