On Gratitude

The very worst part of a terrible day had already happened. Broken furniture, smashed dishes, curtains puddled on the floor, and a heavy, heavy silence. Anne was alternating between shell shock and fury as she watched Dylan packing up whatever possessions he had left. He took something off the floor — to this day, I can’t tell you what — and she just lost it. She jumped up, with her arm extended, finger pointing, shaking and shouting. Then she said, “And I have to thank you for teaching me a lesson I’ll never forget.”

In that moment, I began to suspect I really didn’t understand gratitude very well.

Gratitude’s a thing right now, a virtue enjoying its time in the spotlight. The emphasis in the collective conversation tends to focus on recognizing and acknowledging the good things in life — a needed reminder; our lives have become such that we can be blind to our blessings. But that’s not the entire conversation that could be had. Gratitude is bigger than owning our happiness.

Ignatius of Loyola wrote a lot of letters in his day. In many of them, he talks about gratitude, but not in the contemporary happy-happy, joy-joy way we do. His focus was on suffering. If you’re in pain, hurt, injured, nearly martyred, Ignatius taught, be grateful for this. Suffering is to teach you a lesson and bring you closer to God. If you were out for sainthood, gratitude for suffering wasn’t enough; you would pray that your suffering would increase.

I am not sure Ignatius would have felt this way had he lived in an era with better painkillers. Medical care then was more advanced than you might imagine, but treatment options were limited. With that in mind, I wonder if, boiled down, Ignatius’ lesson on gratitude is ultimately to seek the silver lining; when faced with a situation that can’t be changed or improved, look for whatever benefit might be found within it. In Ignatius case, he’d likely identify the benefit as great; in Anne’s case, equally so — learning to avoid train wrecks before they occur is not a bad life skill to have.

There is another Anne. This one is happier; she’s one of the women who really bought into the back-to-the-land movement of the Seventies, and it stuck. She has the little cabin, chickens, a fairly impressive garden, the whole bit. She does that continual voicing of gratitude thing that some people do; naming her blessings as they occur. It might have sounded affected the first decade or so she’d been doing it, but today it’s just a fully integrated part of her communication style.

The most remarkable thing about this is nothing phases her: Raccoon gets in the henhouse, causing carnage? Well, Anne was grateful to know where the weak spot in the fence was. Goat ate the laundry right off the line? Hooray for a chance to pick out some new duds. And it’s been dry, drier than dry, lately. Anne stands on the crunchy grass, looking upward into a cloudy sky, and says it’s good to have a chance to pray for rain. It’s her example — balancing frank recognition of life’s realities with identifying the actionable benefits of whatever just happened — that I am trying to integrate into my gratitude practice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Being grateful for the good is important, and necessary, and adds joy to life. Don’t despise a practice because it feels good; the Puritans have already covered that ground for you. But being grateful for the bad is also important, and necessary, and adds to life. It can take a lot longer to figure out what the good bit is; think years, decades, lifetimes. And the good you find can be absolutely miniscule when compared to the magnitude of the bad — so faint or insignificant that it doesn’t seem to matter at all. But it is there, and you found it, and that existence, and that experience, is something to be grateful for.