Giving thanks anyway

thank-you-140227_640Gratitude is good for you.

So say the proponents of positive psychology, a relatively recent domain of research and practice that emphasizes how human beings thrive instead of how they develop problems.

Among positive psychologists, the one best known for scientific research on gratitude is Robert Emmons. In study after study, Emmons has demonstrated that those with more grateful dispositions are happier, healthier, and even live longer than their less grateful counterparts. Many people stumble into gratitude when they survive a life-threatening ordeal, but it is also possible to cultivate gratitude with intentional, regular practice.

At Thanksgiving tables around the county this evening, people will not only eat until they pop, but hopefully will also take some time to express gratitude to God and to others. Some find the ritual deeply meaningful. But others hate it, especially if the past year seems bleak in review. They feel compelled to make something up, to say that they’re thankful even when they don’t feel that way.

That’s perfectly understandable. I wonder, however, how the Pilgrims might have responded to that way of thinking. Emmons reminds us how much suffering they brought to the Thanksgiving feast:

More than half of those courageous souls who crossed the Atlantic died after one year in their new home. All but three families had dug graves in the rocky soil of New England to bury a husband, wife, or child. But they knew about ancient Israel’s harvest festival: how Israel, at the end of a successful harvest, thanked God for the bounty of creation — and also for delivering them from their captivity, giving them their freedom as a people. And so they did the same. They understood their God to be a God who is to be thanked and praised when times are good and when times are tough. Their gratitude was not a selective, positive thinking facade, but rather a deep and steadfast trust that goodness ultimately dwells even in the face of uncertainty.

Here, gratitude is neither a momentary feeling nor a psychological intervention. It’s a theological commitment, an act of faith.

And boy, do we need faith when looking back on a terrible year.

We are not commanded to feel thankful, but we are commanded to give thanks, in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18). That doesn’t mean feeling grateful for negative circumstances themselves, but giving thanks despiteĀ them. We need to find ways to see past the troubles that dominate our attention, to the God of grace beyond. And we may need the help of others who will help us hold on to that vision. For unless we are able to grasp again of the truth of God’s grace, gratitude may seem too much to ask.

Gratitude can be much more than a feeling; it can be a way of life. But it takes patient practice. Start small. Again, to quote Emmons:

If you find that because of circumstances you cannot pray from gratitude, then I would suggest praying for the ability to be grateful. We can pray to experience the feeling of gratitude, to find gratitude hidden within our circumstances, and to be reminded of our gifts.

May your Thanksgiving be blessed.