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.

———

Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post.                

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “How My Smartphone Paved the Way for Same-Sex Marriage.”

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.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kim

    The power of gratitude is this: it is in the way we look outward instead of inward.

    THIS is beautiful, Kelly, and right. I know I have experienced the peace that mindfulness brings, and I know that for me, mindfulness leads to a sense of a full heart, of peace, of okayness-right-now…which I guess is all another way of saying “gratitude”. I am in a 12-step program and we are often told to make gratitude lists, but sometimes those lists feel so empty. It’s when I get present in the world around me and see it as it is, good and bad, that I really experience gratitude.

    Thank you for this. It will remind me to pay attention today to all of the good that is around me, every moment.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kim, I often think of mindfulness and gratitude interchangeably!

  • Tiphaine

    Sometimes, some days it is difficult to find gratitude and you really did show it for the week you went through, lots of things happened and let us restless. Sometimes, I close my ears to focus on what is good around me. I think the most difficult part of finding peace is what is suposed to come before : remembering to stop and breath and quiet my mind and then yes, find peace,

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think you are so right: a quiet mind is the foundation of mindfulness and gratitude and peace!

  • Jennifer Newell

    Kelly,
    I think when we stop and think about this it is the reaching out that happens when stitching starts coming apart. It is when a friend helps you with your basement or regular people rush in to try to help the victims of the Boston bombing. There are many examples of crisis like events where people have stepped up to try to do all they can to help in a bad situation. The challenge is to recognize the little things around us and to reach out in those moments when it is an ordinary day and someone could really use a friend to step in and step up to help. Having a grateful spirit is key to being able to notice when others are in pain and could use help. It could be as simple as another mom at work juggling too many things and out of the blue you happen to make her dinner for her family just because it might lighten her load. But you can only be in tune to those opportunities if you are not consumed with yourself.

    Thanks for the reminder, and we all need to reach out to one another because in this life we will have trouble.

  • Hansraj Jain

    Gratitude is the out flow of receipt of another’s kindness that we can not return to ’em, ever. But we allow it to flow out of us when we “Carry one anothers burdens…” Galatians 6:2a The joy, contentment and peace this brings words fail me to express…! Blessings for being a blessing.

  • Lobna Sameer

    I don’t see how gratitude is a definition of peace if its a place where pain and peace meet! pain would always show me how torn down this world is. How can I feel at peace with it? yes I’m running on an open road and I feel ecstatic, yet there is a reminder at the back of my mind that some people won’t be able to run again! and this idea is scary. cause it could have been me, or maybe it would be me the next time, or why did this happen to them when they probably didn’t deserve it! I know these thoughts might be reasons that should make me feel grateful that I’m still healthy but they also put pain and fear in my heart. And that is not peace
    I agree with you that gratitude is a way of looking outward, and realizing how my friends help me when I’m in need, or realizing the blessings I’ve in life, but I don’t get what you said about gratitude when you said “it doesn’t just enjoys. it joins”

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lobna, I understand your confusion. It’s a difficult thing for me to articulate. Perhaps I would say it in this way: when we have cultivated gratitude over time, compassion and redemption become higher values than self-preservation. And when the fear that accompanies an instinct for self-preservation no longer plagues us, we are truly free. And peaceful.

  • Cynthia

    Thank you, Kelly. I reflected on your post for quite a while after reading it. I wonder if gratitude is the place where pain and humility meet and it is peace that results when we see and experience the reality of how much we need each other. You received help from a friend and that flooded you with gratitude and a sense that all will be well…peace. Giving and receiving, pain and grace. I am in awe of all the people who ran towards the people standing near the blasts at Boston rather than running from it. They ran toward the pain to help. They were needed and they gave. I was unbelievably touched and grateful for that…and it gave me hope.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Cynthia, Your comment has me thinking, too. : ) Maybe when we are hit with the reality of how much we need each other, it could be an occasion for terror or gratitude. Terror if we sense ourselves to be alone, or gratitude and humility and peace if we find ourselves held up by another.

      • Cynthia

        I ran with a young woman today who had the same experience as you did with the flood. And when she was telling me how she felt about the unexpected help in her need, you could see the tremendous ‘flood’ of gratitude she was experiencing. I immediately thought of you. I agree with you on the terror (or unbearable loneliness) or gratitude.

  • Cynthia

    Thank you, Kelly. I reflected on your post for quite a while after reading it. I wonder if gratitude is the place where pain and humility meet and it is peace that results when we see and experience the reality of how much we need each other. You received help from a friend and that flooded you with gratitude and a sense that all will be well…peace. Giving and receiving, pain and grace. I am in awe of all the people who ran towards the people standing near the blasts at Boston rather than running from it. They ran toward the pain to help. They were needed and they gave. I was unbelievably touched and grateful for that…and it gave me hope.

  • Lisa Bartelt

    I’m reading One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp right now, and your post reminds me so much of what she’s saying. It is so difficult though. Recently on Twitter the phrase #thankyouJesusfor was trending and Ricky Gervais (do you know who I mean? He’s an atheist.) tweeted thank you Jesus for cancer, for cures for cancer, for diseases, cures for diseases (and a few other things like that). I get what he’s trying to say and certain Bible verses don’t make it much easier. We try to simplify it sometimes by saying we should thank God for everything, but I don’t think it’s that easy. There was a tragic fire in a nearby county this week. 4 kids, two adults lost their lives and the mom was down the street doing laundry because their washing machine was broken. Talk about the world tearing apart! I can’t begin to think of what this woman is going to go through. Authentic gratitude leads to action and compassion, I think. As always, you’ve given me a lot to think about!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lisa, Reading that book propelled me into starting this blog, actually! Contemplatives often talk about how contemplation is the foundation of compassionate action. They think of them hand in hand. Maybe it’s the gratitude that arises out of the contemplation that fuels the action? Fun to think about this with you here on the blog!

  • Pingback: What Good Is Gratitude When the World Is Tearing Apart? — The Good Men Project()