Alan Davey: How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness

Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
Published in
15 min readFeb 7, 2022

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Value your ‘true self’ and let go of your ‘false self.’ The true you is the you that you know yourself to be at your core. The true you. Deep down. Not the pretend you that you present to make an impression, committed to the ways of competition and comparison that the world like to go on about. Such a false self is fleeting and ephemeral — it doesn’t really exist. It vanishes like smoke from a fire. A brief flash then it is gone. It is the true self (the real you) which is your gift to the world and to those in your circle of influence. I always get a sense of this ‘true self’ when I hear the song by Cyndi Lauper “True Colors” — the real you — the beautiful you created as a child of God that has incredible worth — loved by God before your birth, loved now in life, and loved after you die. This true you is what your life is all about. Rest in this truth and be grateful for your existence.

As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.

What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?

One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Alan Davey.

He is the senior minister of an inner-city church in Toronto, Canada, and Adjunct Professor of Christian Spirituality and Worship at Tyndale University and Seminary, also in Toronto. He is co-author with Elizabeth Davey of three books — Climbing the Spiritual Mountain, Abba’s Whisper, and The Passionate Bride, all with Wipf and Stock Publishers. His latest book Walking the Line: Embracing the Imperatives of Jesus (Wipf and Stock) has just been released.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?

My undergraduate years were in music studies and I spent a lot of time playing guitar, writing songs, and performing in coffee houses with musician friends and doing solo gigs. I always felt connected to the mystical world so I drifted into spiritual formation studies and ended up spending substantial time in a variety of religious institutions pursuing themes of faith, spiritual growth, and justice related issues. Faith based community building and teaching in spiritual formation studies became a base for my work, as well as teaching abroad (mostly in South America in Bolivia and Peru) in a variety of seminary settings.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Probably my time in Bolivia (spread over 20 years) has been a highlight to me. Over the years I have developed some close friends (together with their faith communities) and we have pursued a variety of intriguing projects. On several trips we travelled to the Bolivian outback to address housing needs to counter the problem of the chagas disease. The process involves working with Bolivian families who are living in adobe structures and sealing the interior of the structures with a cement. The goal is keep the chagas bug from coming out at night and infecting the inhabitants (mainly children). It is a deadly disease and the families are very grateful for the work on their houses. These experiences have been beautiful times of building friendships and the giving and receiving of love. It’s rewarding to see the gratitude flowing both ways between diverse cultures of varying traditions, including different languages, clothing, food, music, shelters, daily tasks, but united by the same human need for the receiving and giving of love.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

John of the Cross shared an encouraging note to a friend in a personal letter which goes, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.” (The Writings of John of the Cross). Dorothy Day who founded the Catholic Worker Movement was impressed with this truth as she spent time in a New York jail cell (for protesting dismal workers’ rights in the 1950s) and was up close with women who were working the Harlem street corners. Day mimicked the mystic’s words in these encounters that ‘hardened hearts were softened when you put love where there is no love and you will indeed find love’ (The Long Loneliness). It is indeed my experience from many years in the local church that hardened hearts are softened when love is sprinkled on and reciprocating love emerges — slowly, hesitatingly — but it does emerge.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?

I think Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation has been one of those books for me. My time in graduate work at St. Michael’s College and Regis College (coming from Protestant circles) and coming into a closer reading of Merton and his work on the true self had a significant impact on me. It made sense to me that if we drill down deep enough we will find our true self which becomes obscured by all of the layers of personal baggage that we carry around with us. If we can get under all of the ‘stuff,’ we will find a beautiful person that wants to blossom and come into full existence.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I have just published a book called Walking the Line: Embracing the Imperatives of Jesus (Wipf & Stock, 2021) and am spending time promoting it at the moment. It is a book that celebrates the power of Jesus’s teaching and shows how Christ’s imperatives will enrich our lives if we allow his words to penetrate our hearts and minds. I am also working on a new book tentatively titled The Upside-Down World of Jesus: The Beatitudes as Jesus’s Core Values. I believe there is a lot of confusion today about what Jesus was actually about and what he was actually promoting. His beatitudes (which begin his main treatise known as “The Sermon on the Mount”) describe his vision for humanity in surprising and revolutionary ways that I believe can help mend our broken world.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was in seminary I had an inspiring Old Testament professor named Dr. Leggett who spoke with passion and zeal on themes of social justice and care for the poor. He also took time out from his own projects to encourage his students. On one occasion I had finished giving a paper in class and he sought me out in private to lift me up. I remember him saying, “Alan, excellent job on your presentation. You have a fine sense of flow and an ability to keep your ideas moving in an interesting and engaging manner.” It was just a throw away comment — just Dr. Leggett helping along one of his students — but for me it was pivotal in terms of discerning the opening and closing of doors. I realized that an offhand word of encouragement can have a profound impact on someone’s life.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?

Let’s begin with the common practice of ingratitude whereby we are a people who are never satisfied and who always want more. Such ingratitude is fostered by our consumerism and our money-addicted society drilling into our heads. We think we are falling behind and live in scarcity rather than the abundance that is there for us. Gratitude, on the other hand, encourages us to live our present day under the sun with a heart and mind of thanksgiving for the good things that we experience in our everyday. We are to live mindfully and with awareness so the gifts of life are observed and appreciated in the moment. Coming full circle, we recognize that the word ‘gratitude’ is linked to the English words ‘grace’ and ‘favor’ or the Spanish word ‘gracias.’ Gratitude is to live with a spirit of thanksgiving for all of the daily gifts we receive and to be truly mindful and empowered by these gracious gifts. To be mindful and thankful for present health, good food, loving friends, new opportunities, invigorating walks, the sounds of the birds and the waves of the sea lapping upon the shore, beautiful music and art. So much is given to us every day, so let’s become aware and develop the practice of saying, ‘Thank you’ to God.

Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?

I think there is a lot of fear in our society. Often we have fear about the past. We live with a lot of regret over poor decisions and how they might come back and haunt us. Or we are fearful about the future so we spend a lot of time anxious about what might happen to us or our loved ones in the coming years. As the eastern teacher of Vipassana Goenka said, “We spend a lot of time rolling around in the past or rolling around in the future.” What we really need to be doing is staying in the present because it is only in the present time that we can truly experience gratitude.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?

The reality is that life does indeed send a lot of challenges our way. Our Covid-19 world has made that abundantly clear. We never experience completely restful or ‘perfect’ days. But we often have perfect moments within our imperfect days. The invitation is to become mindful of these perfect moments and to give thanks for these moments of respite. But we have to slow down and value the present moment, to not race ahead in the future of getting things done. As the mystical writer Evelyn Underhill reminds us (and I paraphrase) ‘We spend a lot of time conjugating the verbs ‘to have’ and ‘to do’ but the most meaningful verb to conjugate is the verb ‘to be.’ Can we value the reality of our ‘being’ and not just our ‘having’ and ‘doing’? (The Spiritual Life). Hence, if we stay with the present moment, we have a better chance of being mindful of the good things that come our way and giving thanks for them.

Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?

Recently a friend reminded me that in any given week ten things will happen of which seven are good and three are bad. Yet we normally focus on the three that are bad and forget the seven that are good! If we could turn that around and be truly grateful for the seven good things that happened instead of dwelling on the three things that weren’t, we would obviously be happier people. As I was walking along a beach recently with my wife I heard the strangest gaggle of sounds coming from above me. I looked up and saw seven glorious white swans flying in a v-formation 50 feet above our heads — beautiful wide white-winged creatures flying as one out into open water. I paused and thought, ‘Alan you have lived many years on Planet Earth and have travelled to a lot of interesting places but you have never witnessed this!” It was an opportunity I realized to give thanks. To say thank you to the beauty of life and the beauty of our Creator. If we can learn to be thankful we will become healthy individuals; conversely, without gratitude it is impossible to become emotionally healthy individuals.

Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?

(1) Begin your day in quiet meditation. Meditation includes the spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude and prayerful presence. Find a quiet corner where you can center. Become quiet end enter your day with a sense of equanimity and peace. It doesn’t have to be a long time — you don’t have to become a monk! 15 or 20 minutes of quiet breathing will open up your day in wonderful ways instead of our usual which is starting through rushing. Jesus would draw away from his disciples early in the morning to achieve a sense of readiness to ‘receive his day.’ There is a Gospel story where Jesus has a successful day, but still gets up early the next morning alone in quiet prayer. His disciple Peter anxious looks for him and politely scolds him for missing his opportunity to win over the excited crowds. But Jesus quietly responds with, ‘Peter we are moving on to the next town because they also need to hear the good news.’ It is not about playing to the crowds but staying true to ‘willing one thing’ — as Kierkegaard insists — staying true to our core vision of abundance and fecundity for all.

(2) Slow down, stop hurrying, and enjoy the moment. If we stop all of the scurrying about we will be less frustrated and anxious about what needs to get done. Develop specific habits that promote your sense of equanimity and well-being. Karl Barth, the great German theologian, listened to the music of Mozart at the beginning of his day to create a mood of internal peace and calm before he started his writings. Other funding practices of deep breathing, yoga, inspirational reading, and quiet prayer will all help nurture a sense of gratitude for the day you are to receive.

(3) Practice mindfulness throughout your day. Limit your time rolling around in the past or future — highly unproductive! Break your day into manageable, doable parts, and enter into each segment of the day with a spirit of thanks for the opportunity to live productively and with a sense of purpose. This means being aware of your surroundings and using all of your senses to engage the moment and fully live your day as a gift from God. One of the great examples of such mindfulness is found in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God. He was a humble monk who worked in the monastery kitchen. He muses at one point that one can simply wash dishes to get them done or one can wash dishes mindfully for the glory of God. On a sabbatical year I worked in a group home for differently abled children and youth and throughout the year I washed a lot of dishes! Brother Lawrence’s refrain on ‘mindful dish washing’ as well as Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on living mindfully were often on my mind as I carried out my household chores.

(4) Value your ‘true self’ and let go of your ‘false self.’ The true you is the you that you know yourself to be at your core. The true you. Deep down. Not the pretend you that you present to make an impression, committed to the ways of competition and comparison that the world like to go on about. Such a false self is fleeting and ephemeral — it doesn’t really exist. It vanishes like smoke from a fire. A brief flash then it is gone. It is the true self (the real you) which is your gift to the world and to those in your circle of influence. I always get a sense of this ‘true self’ when I hear the song by Cyndi Lauper “True Colors” — the real you — the beautiful you created as a child of God that has incredible worth — loved by God before your birth, loved now in life, and loved after you die. This true you is what your life is all about. Rest in this truth and be grateful for your existence.

(5) Decide you are not a victim. Become a chooser and not a non-chooser. A lot of stuff happens in life and what is critical is how you respond to it. As Henri Nouwen suggests, you might be involved in an accident. The key question is how do we respond to it? Is it the end of my career or is it the beginning of a new vocation? The invitation from life is to live a life of love — not the drudgery of being a victim. Gratitude chosen in your everyday will enable you to live your best life in love. So nurture your gratitude in a daily holistic manner. Feed your mind (good reading); feed your emotions (good music, poetry, art); feed your body (healthy food, exercise, yoga, walking, swimming); feed your spirit (prayer, meditation, adoration, silence, solitude). I have a congregant who lives in a tenement walkup in a rough part of town in the city of Toronto. Eleanor has made a career of taking care of other people’s kids while their parents are trying to get by on minimum wage jobs. She cares for the kids in a spirit of love, devotion, pride and a no-nonsense practicality. When she says ‘do it’ — they do! At the same time, they know they are loved, and they keep coming back to her years later as adults because of the love she has shown. Eleanor lives gratefully and happily in her true self without having a lot of stuff, money or prestige. She loves and is loved and does it all in a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude. Whenever I visit Eleanor my life is enriched and I leave a little better than when I arrived. Gratitude has that impact on others.

Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?

From my perspective as a faith leader I believe the best help is really prayer. This response of prayer may not be part of your practice and I get it, but it is worth a try. It flows from the recognition that I am not alone but have a Creator who knows me, values me, and loves me. Nothing can ever change that reality. Not even when I have messed up and things are crashing down around me and it is all my fault. Everyone else may be calling me a loser but in God’s eyes I am still his child and precious in his sight. A specific practice: Sit in quiet meditation and repeat the mantra “I belong to God.” Say it quietly or just repeat it slowly in your mind. In spite of the chaos, “I belong to God. . .” Let it sink down deeply from your mind into your heart.

I encourage you to hold on to your ‘true self’ — the ‘true you’ — the ‘you’ not measured by titles, salary, position or power. Remember it is about ‘being’ not ‘having’ or ‘doing’. In Vipassana we keep coming back to sensation — the true you–not reacting in craving or aversion but just observing, being ‘you.’ Slow down. Here now. Breathe in and out. You are priceless and you will get through whatever you are dealing with in the moment. Remember new life is percolating in the subterranean depths of your soul that can bubble up into newness and zestful vitality.

Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?

Yes, I have a few books that I can wholeheartedly recommend on the theme of gratitude: Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer; Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life; Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation; and Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life. All of these books are worth your time and effort and will fund your life as you look ahead to growing your practice of gratitude and closing your circle of giving thanks.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :)

Years ago in one of my music lives we used to perform the song “Try a Little Kindness” (made popular by Glen Campbell who by the way was a very fine guitar player!) which includes the lines, “Don’t walk around the down and out / Lend a helping hand instead of doubt / And the kindness that you show every day / Will help someone along the way” — simple lyrics which resonate with the compassionate love advocated by such individuals as Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jesus. The action: every human performs one action of simple kindness to another human every day and if we do that together we will be moving forward as a mighty river in the imitation of God who is defined as love.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Our website daveybooks.com highlights the books of my wife Elizabeth Davey and myself and provides a clear summary of our books to date and gives links to our Facebook page, and our publisher Wipf & Stock.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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Authority Magazine
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