Gratitude can be kind of a stale topic sometimes. Maybe because it seems like such a simple principle. Say thank you when you are given something, count your blessings regularly, you know. What else is there to being grateful?
If you feel the same, keep reading. Actually, keep reading even if you don't. I learned a few things this week about how gratitude is connected to agency and our becoming what Heavenly Father wants us to become. It begins with that fact that for most of us it doesn't take long to notice the things that are missing from our lives. It seems to be a totally natural human tendency to readily recognize and focus on what we don't have.
That scarcity can be either real or imagined. The family I am staying with lost an Uncle today. Just 30 minutes before I sat down to write this I was old their uncle had passed away this morning unexpectedly. That is a real loss. These things happen to all of us at some point.
Other times, the scarcity in our lives is conjured up by comparing ourselves to others. I look at Instagram and see my family and friends with beautiful wives, happy children, successful careers, fun adventures, and delicious food. My experience has been that even though I don't always consciously think it, deep down inside I feel this way: "My life isn't like that. Where is mine? Why does everyone else seem to have what I am lacking?"
Well, scarcity is a part of life. In the scriptures and Church history there are soooo many examples of scarcity. Some of these stories end miraculously (the feeding of the 4,000/5,000; the woman who gave Elijah food to eat; Peter and his companions dropping their net on the other side if the boat). In all of these stories, the scarcity that seemed so hopeless was turned into abundance.
On the other hand, we have examples of times things didn't end in miracles. Joseph Smith lost a set of twins at birth, only to be given the care over two other twins, who also subsequently died. His whole life seemed to be an endless chain of things being taken away from him. His reputation, his property, his family, and his friends. Until ultimately his life was taken.
So here is the first principle: You can choose to be grateful, no matter what.
How do I know this? Two reasons.
First, we have been given a commandment to "thank the Lord thy God in all things" (D&C 59:7). God doesn't give us commandments we can't keep! I know you may be thinking "But what about this family that just lost a loved one? Are we really expected to be thankful when that happens?" Here is a quote by President Uchtdorf that helps me with that question:
"Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges. This is not a gratitude of the lips but of the soul. It is a gratitude that heals the heart and expands the mind."So yes, even during the loss of a loved one, I believe it is possible to be grateful. But it doesn't necessarily mean we say "I'm grateful so-and-so died". It does mean that deep down we feel gratitude for our eternal perspective and the hope of a reunion some day.
Second, I know this because I know we have agency. The thing about saying "I can't be grateful at a time like this" is that you are subtly diminishing your agency. You are giving up the power to choose. In a nutshell it is saying "gratitude is something that happens to me because of circumstances beyond my control." Here is another great quote (don't know the source):
“Both abundance and lack [of abundance] exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend … when we choose not to focus on what is missing from our lives but are grateful for the abundance that’s present—love, health, family, friends, work, the joys of nature, and personal pursuits that bring us [happiness]—the wasteland of illusion falls away and we experience heaven on earth.”We always have these two perspectives and it is our choice which to cultivate. This doesn't diminish the fact that there are times when our list of things to be grateful for is small. Like Joseph Smith, or like Job, you may have everything taken from you. But look at this quote by President Uchtdorf:
“Some might say, ‘What do I have to be grateful for when my world is falling apart?’ Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being thankful for things, we focus on being thankful in our circumstances—whatever they may be.”Being grateful for things vs. grateful in our circumstances. This is how I take back my agency. Now my gratitude doesn't depend on what I have or don't have. It's simply a choice I make each day. I think this principle was exemplified by our Savior when he fed the 4,000. In John 6:5-12, Jesus Christ has 4,000 men plus women and children, and it is time for supper. Apparently, not even 200 pennyworth would have been enough to buy food to feed them all. I don't even know how much that is but it sounds like a lot. They find a kid with five loaves of bread and two fishes. The Master takes these and the first thing he does is give thanks.
Give thanks? For what?
Ah, oh yeah, our thanks doesn't have to be tied to things. So maybe he isn't giving thanks for anything. Maybe he is just grateful for the circumstances. But how could he even be grateful for the situation? He has a whole bunch of potentially hangry people and no food. Well look at verse 14, after the miracle had been performed:
"Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world."It's possible that Christ was giving thanks for the opportunity to accomplish the purposes of God. Maybe Christ was grateful because he saw the purpose behind the situation. Maybe he knew that many would believe and some would be converted because of it. And maybe your current circumstances are doing the same. Maybe your situation is nothing less than an opportunity for God to work his eternal purposes in your life.
Another example. Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof sings "If I were a rich man..." and says these lines:
Lord, who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am;
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,If I were a wealthy man?
Elder Oak responded to this question by saying "Yes, Tevye, it might."
It might? What? You mean there is some eternal reason I can't find a job, or have been trying to have children no success, or is the reason I have cancer? Are you saying, Elder Oaks, that my purpose for being here on this earth - that God's whole eternal program for me might be messed up if I just got what I wanted and what made life easy and comfortable?
I'm guilty of asking "Why don't I have what that person has? Why is this so hard for me, but not for them?" How easy it is to forget that there is a much greater purpose to life than ease and comfort.
"Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; … and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good." (D&C 98:1, 3)And that is why I can be grateful in any circumstance. It is precisely because when times are hard the Spirit can touch me and remind me that there is a great purpose underlying these experiences I'm having. Our gratitude is our choice, no matter what our situation is. There is eternal purpose underlying all we experience in this life. Gratitude can help us see that. And when we do, the greatest miracle will be what happens in our heart.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this.