The Two Kinds of Gratitude (And How to Cultivate the Lasting One)

There are two kinds of gratitude. The first one—the kind that happens when the tables are piled high with food and the shopping carts are piled high with gifts—is real and good. But utterly flimsy. The second kind is solid and steady. It doesn’t arise in the midst of passing things; it carries us through them…

Five years ago, on a Friday afternoon, I was on a golf course in Wisconsin.

Summer was just beginning to tip into autumn—the sun was warm on your skin, but you couldn’t sweat if you tried. Golf had been my favorite hobby for twenty years, and I was playing well. The course was uncrowded and the round was relaxed. I was with people I loved. I was overwhelmed by gratitude, and it took the shape of this thought: I’m lucky to be here; this is perfect.

The thought also haunted me, though, because how long can perfection last?

A year later, I blew out a disk in my back, and I haven’t played golf since.

Gratitude, it turns out, is awfully fleeting, if we’re grateful for fleeting things.

In the years since my back gave out, I’ve wondered, what good is gratitude if the thing you’re grateful for can be obliterated by a tiny tear in your lower back? What good is gratitude if it can be blown away like dust in the wind? What good is gratitude if it depends upon chance and privilege? What good is gratitude if the stars have to align to make it happen?

And I’ll question it again tomorrow, as I sit down to a Thanksgiving table that’s opulent by any standard. I’ll feel grateful. But how would I feel if the table was empty? What would happen to my gratitude if I was a little less privileged? And if my gratitude would disappear with the menu, what good is it, really?

Because, frankly, I need a gratitude that’s a little more resilient than that. Last time my back gave out, but what if next time it’s my mind that gives out? Or my business? Or my words? Or one of my kids’ beating hearts? I don’t want to cultivate the kind of gratitude that arises from such passing things. I want to cultivate the other kind of gratitude.

The kind that can see me through them.

The other kind of gratitude doesn’t celebrate things that have changed for the better; it celebrates things that are unchanging. It’s not a welcoming of something new; it’s an awakening to something ancient. It’s not about receiving life as a present; it’s about perceiving the things in life that have always been present.

Last Monday morning, I was driving to work and driving into the dawn—the light foreshadowed by a sky shedding gray into pink. As the burning hump of the sun climbed the horizon—showing itself first as a sliver and then, eventually, as a blazing orb—I felt grateful. And it was the other kind of gratitude.

The kind that lasts.

Every day, the sun comes up. Steady. Unchanging. I can be grateful for that. Forever. On the day my spine works, and on the day it doesn’t. When the table is full, and when it’s bare. I’m grateful I can always be grateful for the light.

And I’m grateful the sun isn’t the only kind of light that is steady and unchanging.

I’m grateful there is a light inside me, at the center of me, in this place called my soul, in this ancient and steady core of me. I’m grateful it’s my true self and it burns bright, no matter how much mess I cover it in. I’m grateful for the moments in which a glimmer of that light finds its way through the cracks in my false self. I’m grateful for the glimpse into an unchanging truth:

I’m good enough.

And so are you.

Because you have a light at the center of you, too.

I’m grateful your light comes from the same Source as my light. I’m grateful we’re all connected by our common heritage and that, once we embrace the brilliance of that brightness, all that will be left to do is embrace each other.

Every year, my family lights the first fire of the season in the fireplace on the night before Thanksgiving. I’m grateful the fire we’ll light tonight will burn hot and then cool into embers but the fire that has been lit inside of and amongst our broken humanity cannot be put out. I’m grateful our only task, every day, is to become more and more aware of those ancient flames.

And then to gather together, to warm our hands around them.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.