While giving thanks can be practiced whether it is truly felt or not, gratefulness cannot. Being thankful is not the same as feeling grateful. The experience of gratefulness is rarely a choice, but is, instead, more often a serendipitous result. We can desire gratefulness with all our hearts and minds and souls, and desire it for others as for ourselves, and it still eludes us. We can try to choose gratefulness, but moving from despair to gratitude during hard times goes against our humanness. Look at the prevalence of mourning, depression, and suicide in a world that yearns for contentedness and gratefulness. We can be surrounded by love, realize a long-held goal, or be financially secure, and not experience gratefulness.
The feeling of gratitude cannot be pretended or forced, often showing up in the middle of tragic suffering. Most people express thanks for a kindness extended, but some people have known terrible cruelty and feel deep gratefulness just for having lived through it. Some people experience thankfulness for good health, but there are those who experience gratitude even though their bodies and minds are wracked with illness. We are thankful for our homes and the food we eat, but some people have a grateful spirit although they are hungry and unsheltered. How can this be? Because gratitude is the human response to the kindnesses, relationships, and greater spirituality experienced during a time of suffering.
Perhaps gratitude is more about finding hope in the face of hopelessness. Many who face death will tell you stories of gratitude for the sheer miracle of a new day. Those who have lost someone say that even though they wish they had appreciated their beloved more deeply, they are grateful for the time they had with their loved one. Those who have been hungry know that bread and milk and rice are sacred manna. The eyes of those we love, a bite of food and a safe home take on new meaning when it is elusive.
It is in response to the elusiveness of gratitude that some people say that gratitude is a gift. But there are those who, despite their best efforts, do not receive this “gift” and live their entire lives in despair. Such a characterization might suggest that God refuses not only their efforts but answers their despair with indifference. At one time I believed God to be indifferent to my own circumstance – visualizing my prayers hitting the ceiling, falling to the floor, and not being heard. In spite of the good intentions of doctors, the downward spiral of my own health eventually required me to stop teaching. This began an inner struggle with guilt because I had to walk away from my career, leaving much undone. Angry with God, family, and friends whom I perceived to have abandoned me, I struggled through a deep depression. But I eventually surrendered to and became grateful for the quiet solitude of my days. As I started to relax, my creative skills returned to me – talents long ago abandoned for the whirl of a busy career. In the new stillness of my days, in my acceptance of my circumstance, I have been able to reconnect to God and to myself. One door closed, many others opened, a sense of gratefulness filled my heart, and I have found a sense of peace even in the midst of adversity.
When so much of our lives is affected by strife, hatred, violence, pain, and suffering, gratefulness sets us free to love wholeheartedly and to discover a fullness of life not found in the material world. The feeling of deep gratefulness allows one to recognize the small gifts that most people take for granted... the profusion of color in a flower garden, with perhaps an emerald green hummingbird dining on nectar... the wonder and splendor of a blue sky speckled with billowy white clouds... the sound of birds greeting the dawn... the sun and shadows dancing on the lawn... the spirit of God, who dwells in the depth of every human heart, whispering in "a still, small voice."
The inner contentment that survives the roller coaster ride of life has its roots deep within ourselves. The source comes from finding and embracing who we are as a person, and accepting circumstances that cannot be changed. Acceptance and peace leads to a sense of gratefulness, which, in turn leads to fullness in life.
Fullness in life follows gratefulness. And there's no reversing the order.