The Transforming Power of Gratitude
July 2, 2014
jennifer Hagler Photography
By Buffy York
Written by Laura DiFatta
If one can be born with a certain propensity regarding being an optimist or a pessimist, then I was born leaning toward pessimism. I came to terms with this in my early thirties. In fact, I realized that I was on a path and I didn’t like where it was taking me. But, this, I thought, was my nature and there isn’t much one can do about that, right? This life path was marked by grumbling and complaining, both in my head and more and more out loud. In my first few years as a mother, I felt the beginnings of a resentful, bitter spirit set in–in spite of the fact that I had comfortable circumstances. This line of thinking was affecting my life, my relationships. Although I knew I had to do something about it, I also knew I couldn’t do it on my own. Deeply entrenched habits are tough to change. I asked God to help me.
I tell my boys–more often than they want to hear–“you become better at what you practice.” That’s easy to understand in terms of sports and music, but how about in terms of attitudes of the heart and mind? We are each “becoming.” Every day we are practicing what we are becoming. So, what are we becoming? A destination is reached by taking one step in that direction and then another and another. I had been practicing grumbling and complaining for a long time. I had some work to do. I began to literally practice gratitude. Throughout each day, when I began to think a grumbling thought, I would confront it with a praise. A statement of gratitude. As silly as it may sound, it went something like this: when looking at a mound of dirty clothes, “Thank you Lord that we have clothes to wear…” This began to produce change in me.
Gratitude is one of those things that is easy to forget to practice, but the benefits of being grateful are manifold! I really believe that the result of a having a grateful heart rarely happens “naturally.” A heart that is grateful is much more likely to have been intentionally cultivated.
I am a physical therapist by profession. Several years ago, when I worked in a local hospital’s long-term rehabilitation unit, I had a patient who made an indelible impression on me. She was very old, frail, wrinkled and…beautiful. It seemed to me that she glowed. Her body was wracked by rheumatoid arthritis from her head to her toes. She had suffered from this for a very long time and could hardly move one joint on her own because of joint deformity and severe pain. To this day, I remember the audible noise her joints made and I distinctly remember feeling the sensation of the bones of her joints rubbing together whenever we moved her. But, in spite of her circumstances, do you know what she did every time I was with her and every time I saw her? She sang praises and she gave thanks to each person who helped her in the Rehab unit and to God for the many ways He had blessed her and for how great He is!! Whenever we would move her–and every single movement was excruciating–her tears would stream down her face and she would say something like, “are you alright? I am so thankful for your help. I appreciate you.” I will always remember hearing her singing and thinking, “she’s making a choice right now.” Her gratitude was consistent and genuine. That kind of gratitude is not accidental. It is intentional and cultivated. I believe that somewhere in her life, she made a decision between a path toward bitterness or a path toward a grateful spirit. We know what she chose and her witness, her message was beautiful, informative and inspirational.
Most of us have a lot to be thankful for. You may be experiencing deep pain right now. Choosing gratitude does not belittle or diminish that. I humbly suggest that you search for something for which to be grateful.
I can still get what I call “grumbly” pretty easily. Every single day, I confront that propensity with a prayer of thanks or a word of gratitude. Each time, I am purposefully choosing to take a step on a path toward a destination. When I think of the love of God that motivated–and motivates still–His grace toward me, my response is gratitude. And I have personally met fellow believers in Christ who live in some of the most desperate places in Africa and Central America who feel the same! They understand and believe what Christ has done for them and they are grateful!
Whether you are a believer or not, you can respect that the Bible is full of wisdom. Flowing throughout the Bible is the theme of encouragement toward gratitude. It is a balm for the bitter soul, it calls the eyes upward when the circumstances around you are hard, it is a drop of cool water on the parched ground of the spirit. I know many people who are going through incredibly difficult circumstances. And let’s be honest (and here’s where my realism comes through) if we live long enough, we will each experience difficulty and pain. Not trying to be negative, just realistic. But, even in those times, each of us has or will have a path choice. Bitterness or gratitude.
I distinctly remember a time when I was on my knees in the cardiac unit of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, in my infant son’s hospital room. We were not sure he would survive and if he did for how long or what his quality of life would be. I will never forget this moment: I was crying out to God on his behalf and then I began praising God. My prayer ended with, “no matter what, I will yet praise you.” That was a moment when I drove an unseen stake in the ground. I was making a choice, a determined step on a path. I felt the pull of bitterness. I could not go there. I have had times of intense grief and anxiety, but gratitude and praise continue to be–by God’s grace–choices I make whether in the deep or the mundane. It is not something always backed up by how I “feel.” At times, it is simply a choice that in turn informs my feelings.
Somehow, in our society, being overtly grateful doesn’t seem cool. But, I suggest true gratitude cannot coexist peacefully with pride, that bitterness cannot flourish in a grateful heart, and depression cannot dig as deep in the mind and soul where gratitude is intentionally and carefully cultivated.
Pride divides, bitterness is a poison, depression sucks you downward. Gratitude calls, leads us outside ourselves. If you are struggling here, do not feel guilty. You are not alone. Do not get mired there. Picture yourself choosing a path and take a step on it. One step. Then another. Whatever your circumstances, you will not be worse off by choosing gratitude. Being grateful doesn’t mean a denial of one’s suffering. On the contrary, it is an intentional decision to choose that the suffering will not define one’s life. This very day, I prayed and spoke Truth into some difficult circumstances. And then I gave thanks. My examples of choosing gratitude were simple: “Thank you God for getting me outside so I could see this sky! Thank you, God for these purple flowers. They are exquisite!”
Gratitude is simple. And gratitude is subtly powerful. Now, I am years down this path. Instead of being a pessimist, I can call myself a “realistic optimist.” My foundational gratitude is rooted in the Immovable Truth that I am never alone and I am loved no matter what.
Will you walk this path with me?
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!…in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (The Bible, NIV. Philippians 4:4, 6-8)
“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (The Bible, NIV. Philippians 3:12)
“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.” (The Bible, NIV. Psalm 42:11) Jesus speaking: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (The Bible, NIV. John 15: 9, 11)
“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly… sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (The Bible, NIV. Colossians 3:16, 17)