What Good is Gratitude When the World is Tearing Apart?

For millennia, the world has been torn apart and patched together again. A month ago, it felt like something tugged hard at the world and the stitches began to pop. One after another. After another…

gratitude

Photo Credit: Edward Allen L. Lim via Compfight cc

The Week the Stitches Popped

On a Sunday night, I read about Kermit Gosnell, a licensed physician in Philadelphia who is on trial for delivering live babies and then cutting their spinal cords with scissors.

On Monday afternoon, the Boston Marathon was bombed. Three people died. Legs were amputated.

On Wednesday morning, I was brought to a standstill on the highway. A massive accident shut down all six lanes of the interstate in front of me. For hours.

That evening, a fertilizer plant in west Texas exploded. On an ordinary night, it just blew up. Fourteen people were killed. Two hundred were injured.

Around the same time, the rains in Chicago began in earnest. When the sun rose on Thursday morning, Chicagoland was submerged in a historic flood. Our basement and garage were no exception.

Late Thursday night, gunfire broke out on MIT’s campus. One bombing suspect was dead. Another was injured and on the run.

Friday. Chicago remained a town-under-water while from Watertown, Massachusetts, the television broadcast surreal scenes of door-to-door searches. The second suspect was caught around dinnertime and we went to bed with a sigh of relief.

But Saturday morning we awoke to news of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Two hundred more people dead.

Just one week of a world tearing at it’s patched and mended seams. One stitch after another.

And those are just the stitches of which I’m aware. We all had stitches popping that week that will never make the CNN scroll.

What are we to do in the midst of such devastation and heartache? The psychologists and the theologians are both telling us we should be grateful.

Grateful?

What good is gratitude when the world is tearing apart?

Gratitude as a Balm?

For centuries, almost every faith tradition has emphasized the practice of gratitude. And around the turn of this century, in an ongoing effort to bolster human resilience, “positive psychologists” took notice of the ancient traditions and sought to harness the practice of gratitude for the benefit of psychological and emotional health.

In the last decade, psychological research has consistently shown individuals who experience higher levels of gratitude also report higher levels of “subjective well-being”— they are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their life and relationships.

This is good news, and the news is getting out. Countless books have been written, scores of “gratitude apps” can be downloaded to phones and tablets, and everyone seems to be talking about how much better they feel since they started their gratitude journal.

But I think there is bad news lurking beneath all the enthusiasm, because I’m hearing questions like, “I want to feel good, so how do I practice gratitude?”

The bad news is we’re turning gratitude into a tool to get what we want—to feel good. It’s tempting to use gratitude like a metal detector to hone in on comfort and satisfaction—it’s tempting to make it about us.

And when we do so, we strip gratitude of its ultimate power.

Gratitude Like Knee High Boots in Slop

On a flooded Thursday, my wife and I were faced with saturated carpet and warped furniture. Our basement was flooded with water, but even worse, my heart was flooded with despair.

Too many stitches were popping and it felt like a free fall without a net.

Then, around mid-morning, a friend texted me and simply asked, “What time am I coming over to help?” By mid-afternoon, he was hoisting rolls of carpet padding over his shoulders as it rained down dirty rainwater upon him.

On a flooded Thursday, my friend gave me something far more powerful than manpower. He gave me gratitude.

And the power of gratitude is this: it is the way we look outward instead of inward. It is the act by which we remember the world and forget ourselves. It puts our ego to sleep and awakens our sense of connection to everything and everyone else.

On a flooded Thursday, I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy—my toes were ice cubes and my fingers were shriveled prunes.

But on a flooded Thursday, I realized gratitude is like a pair of knee-high rain boots for the heart—when we put it on, we can wade right into the flood waters of sorrow and devastation this life and this world rain down upon us.

Gratitude Doesn’t Just Enjoy, It Joins

The storms-of-life are coming, aren’t they?

Or for some of us, they’ve already arrived and the waters are rising.

I don’t have any magic solutions for drying up the mess. But I do think, when we give ourselves over to a life of gratitude, we will be prepared to wade into the pain and suffering of our lives.

Yet I don’t think a life of authentic gratitude ends in self-preservation. Because when gratitude takes ahold of us, we begin to forget about ourselves altogether, and we start to remember a world that is tearing apart and in need of re-stitching.

You see, to a grateful heart:

The laughter of children is pure joy, and also a reminder of powerless women being taken advantage of by a corrupt doctor in Philadelphia.

A pair of running shoes and an open road is ecstasy, and also a reminder of bombs on a Monday afternoon and legs that will never run again.

Safe travels are a relief, and also a reminder that not everyone made it safely on a Wednesday morning.

A green lawn tipped with dew is suburban satisfaction, and also a reminder of a Wednesday night in a fiery fertilizer plant.

A clear dawn and the rays of a warm summer sun are a caress, and a reminder of a quaking earth in China held by the same Big Light.

I think gratitude might be the place where pain and peace meet. Because when our gratitude propels us into a torn-suffering world, we will be immersed in something other than ourselves.

And that, I think, is the definition of peace.

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Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.