12 November 2012

The Power of Gratitude

Below is the text of a talk I gave in church last year about the power of gratitude.  My mom thought I should send it to the Ensign.  I never did - it's so long and not personal experience centered enough for a non general authority to send in.  But I thought I'd post it again here, as a reminder to myself, if nothing else.  Happy holiday season, dear blog reader. 

Between the 7th of September 1940 and the 10th of May in 1941, the city of London was bombed every night by the German Air Force.  Before the air raids ended, over 40,000 people were killed and more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed in the city.  Other important cities all over the UK were effected by the air raids as well.  It was a terrible, frightening time that left the city of London in a state of crisis.  

In an attempt to keep families safe, children were sent away from home and into the country or overseas where they would be protected from the attacks.  Those left in the city built shelters under ground and covered their windows with thick, black fabric so that no light would come in or out of the houses.  If the German Pilots couldn’t see where to hit, the chances of the city being damaged went down significantly.  There were few options - it was darkness, or certain death. 

In our lives today we are not being threatened with physical bombs but spiritual ones.  It is easy to look around and see the evil in the world as overpowering.  But this lifestyle - hiding away - is an extreme.  We are not meant to hide the light inside of our houses, the Savior commands us to be a city on a hill and He has commanded us to be grateful.  If we watch only the news, it would be easy to respond: “grateful for what?  This world is dark, people do terrible things to one another and die early deaths - I am going to stay inside my home without any technology at all for the rest of my life and hope that it all goes away.”  This attitude, however, is contradictory to the spirit of gratitude.  We need to engage with the world around us if we are to be truly grateful.

As I have thought about and read about the topic of gratitude in the last several weeks, I have seen from every source the constant theme of gratitude being more than an attitude but a lifestyle.  Sincere gratitude is more than saying “thank you” - though that is certainly a good thing to do.  A person living a life of gratitude sees through the literal and spiritual “air raid” climate and is able to find an abundance of peace and joy in the blessings of the gospel.  It is very tempting to hide from the darkness in the world, but the result of hiding means turning away light as well.  Hiding from the world is a symptom of ingratitude.

In a talk given in the April 2007 General Conference, former Relief Society President Bonnie D. Parkin describes gratitude as a “spirit-filled principle.  It opens our minds to a universe permeated with the richness of a living God.  Through it, we become spiritually aware of the wonder of the smallest things, which gladden our hearts with their messages of God’s love.  This grateful awareness heightens our sensitivity to divine direction.  When we communicate gratitude, we can be filled with the Spirit and connected to those around us and the Lord.”  Gratitude, then, is more than just a brief expression of thanks.  It is an enabling force.  When we live a life of gratitude, it becomes easier for us to see how many things we have to be grateful for.  Gratitude becomes a shield against the vices of pride and selfishness, and the key that unlocks the doors to faith, charity, and other virtues.  In other words, gratitude allows you to engage the world and shields you from its vices at the same time.

This is, I believe, why the Lord asks us to be grateful.  In fact, living with thanksgiving is a commandment.  Why might that be?  Personally, I find it hard to believe that the Lord commands us to be grateful because he selfishly wants our acknowledgement that He has given us everything.  Although I am sure that the Lord appreciates hearing our gratitude, I think He appreciates even more the effect that our gratitude has on us, and on others.  

The Doctrine and Covenants talks about this principle most clearly.  In section 46, the saints are told that doing all things with “prayer and thanksgiving” prevents you from being seduced by evil spirits.  In section 59 we learn that if we fast and pray with thanksgiving, the fulness of the earth is ours.  Living a life of gratitude empowers us to experience the world in safety.  When we give thanks, our blessings multiply literally, but our eyes are also opened to the wealth of blessings we have already had access to. For instance, when Christ fed the people on the hill with the loaves and fishes, he gave thanks before he started distributing the food.  It was after he had given thanks that the loaves and fishes were multiplied.  Living a life of gratitude multiplies our physical blessings, and opens our eyes to the blessings we already have in our lives.  When we are grateful, we see the hand of the Lord in the world around us, and the perceived power of wickedness diminishes by comparison.

In addition, expressing gratitude is the quickest and most efficient way I can think of to spread the love of Christ to others.  When a person expresses sincere gratitude for another, both leave the experience happier and more likely to repeat the action to someone else, and so on down the line until our homes, schools, and communities feel the lasting effects of a more optimistic and positive outlook.    

I have often been frustrated when a person has come to me and told me that I need to be grateful for my trials.  Although they are not wrong, this phrase is often used in a context that means we should look past a trial and move on or we are not being grateful, but I don’t believe that this is true.  Sincere gratitude is not synonymous with ignorance and naivety.  We do not have to be afraid of acknowledging when things are hard or sad.  In fact, our trials must be hard, or they are not a true blessing.  We should not gloss over our trials, or use gratitude as a way to belittle our trials.  In the Book of John, the Savior’s good friend Martha expressed concern for the health of her brother Lazarus.  Christ was on his way out of town and told Martha that Lazarus would be fine, even though he knew that Lazarus was already dead.  Upon his return to the city, Mary approached the Savior in tears over the death of her brother - although Christ knew that Lazarus would be brought back to life soon, he did not tell Mary to stop crying or ignore the pain she was feeling.  Instead he cried with her.  If he had ignored her feelings of pain, I do not doubt that she would still have been grateful for the return of her brother, but I do think that acknowledging both emotions gave greater credibility and strength to Mary and Martha.  

Joseph Smith and his companions experienced something similar in Liberty Jail.  By this point in Joseph’s life, he was very well versed in the language of persecution.  He was 33 years old - 19 years had passed since he had the first vision.  He had been tarred and feathered, driven out of several cities, jailed before - he was no stranger to trials.  But the conditions at Liberty and the persecution of the Saints outside was so bad at this point that even Joseph begged the Lord to release him.  The Lord’s response to Joseph was that his trials would give him experience and be good for him.  The Lord knew, and Joseph learned again, that if trials are not hard for us, we do not grow, and the power of our gratitude is less potent.  

To ignore feelings of sorrow, pain, or frustration, then, creates a shallow expression of gratitude - gratitude becomes an anesthetic; a numbing force that hides you from the opportunity to feel both sorrow and joy.  Our gratitude becomes more meaningful when it is not an escape, but a choice.  The Buddhists would call this “Right Mindfulness”.  To be in a state of right mindfulness means that you have obtained the ability to gain greater control of your thoughts so that your perceptions are less impulsive or naive.  Without right mindfulness, a person is quick to judge and assume that their immediate judgment is correct.  This might encourage us to see darkness where there is really light to be found, or not to experience the darkness in favor of a dimmed light.

In the 13th Article of Faith we read that “if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”  Gratitude works as a tool to help us find those things in a dark world without being overcome by evil in our search.  As members of the church, then, we should be working to bring anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy into our lives.  We cannot be afraid of the world.  We must trust that our Heavenly Father sent us to this world knowing that it would be good for us, and good enough for us.  Hiding from the world He has given us can be a form of ingratitude.  It is true that we are surrounded by literal and symbolic wars against living a righteous life, but when we live a life of gratitude we gain confidence in the power and protection of the Lord, and begin seeing how everything that comes in our life is an opportunity to be sincerely grateful.


Nanakat said...

Rather than being grateful for our trials, perhaps what we should be is grateful for the support and lovingkindness of the Lord during our trials.

At least, that's what I thank Him for when I am struggling.

Joni said...

Perhaps it could be a bit of both? During our trials I think it's definitely easier to be grateful for the support of the Lord, but after we look back on the trial - even if it is years later - I think we'd be pretty ungrateful not to have gratitude for the lessons we learned from our trials.