“Give thanks in all circumstances.” Paul (1 Thess. 5)
“You’re blessed when you are ravenously hungry.” Jesus (Luke 6)
Gratitude is getting a fresh make over these days. What could be mistaken for a Sunday School lesson theme from a pious old lady has become all the talk among the hip. Doctors, therapists, NPR, even scientists are coming to the party. Don’t call it a comeback.
The benefits of gratitude are undeniable now. From combating depression to lowering our blood pressure to boosting our immune system. Gratitude is like some awesome multi vitamin for the whole person, without the giant horse pill.
I happen to be on a new kick with gratitude myself. Its becoming a regular practice. A few months ago, my wife and I had a particularly bad day. I don’t quite know what happened. But we put the boys to bed and found ourselves talking in our bed as we do most nights. This night felt miserable.
Somehow the conversation melted into a venting session about all the things we were disappointed about. Which is fine and sometimes plain necessary to be an authentic, honest person. But that night we couldn’t get out of the nose dive of misery.
At some point, one of us attempted to pull up on the yoke to bring us out of this downward spiral. “Yet, there are so many good things in our life.” And what followed was a long riff on all the good stuff in our lives.To say it turned us around, would be a misnomer. It rescued us. We felt immensely better, saved from a tailspin of melancholy.
I’ve learned gratitude makes a surprisingly good pain reliever. It has helped me endure suffering with something more than just grit and gut. It tempers disappointment with pleasure. I am always startled by how even a simple slow walk around the block to breath air and see the mountains can ease a ton of struggle for me. Even gratitude for a good burrito can help.
Just Don’t Use Gratitude for This
But here’s a little word of warning: Don’t ever use gratitude as a substitute for desire.
Don’t ever tell yourself that gratitude should be enough, that if you’d “just be grateful”, everything would be okay. Gratitude isn’t meant to take away your desire, its mean to temper pain and keep your heart soft and open through suffering.
In this way, a person can’t live on gratitude alone. Its a wonderful traveling companion, an essential one even. But gratitude isn’t going to get you far by itself. It can’t drive the train. We can’t make it our North star. Desire is always the thing aiming our lives. We are made to want more, to desire more. Its the design of our hearts to ask, seek, knock. To hunger and thirst. Always.
You can be grateful for the meal you just ate. But you will get hungry again and need to eat. And it doesn’t mean you weren’t grateful for your breakfast.
Gratitude gets used to shut down desire all the time. Take Sarah’s story as an example.
Sarah started her marriage in love with her husband. As the years blossomed into years of child rearing, she began to struggle with how her husband left all the parenting to her. She also noticed how often he stopped talking in hard conversations. He became very withdrawn as a person. And her loneliness grew deeper by the day.
She attempted to handle it with gratitude. Not a bad choice at first. Look at this beautiful place you get to live, she would tell herself. She happened to live in a small Colorado mountain town. And besides, he is such a good provider. He really was that. It could be worse. Yep, that’s also true. So what do I have to complain about. Wait, what?
All true, stuff. All fodder for good gratitude. But again, the intention though was to shut down her desire for more from her husband. It was like some gratitude magic trick. If I’m grateful enough, I can make my loneliness go away. She felt like this was what she had to do, that this was even the right thing to do.
“I felt so selfish in that season because I wanted more. I wanted my husband to be more engaged, more my partner. But that felt critical and wrong because he was a good man in many ways. So I tried to just be grateful. And it backfired. Now its all coming up, all the disappointment I never owned or grieved. And its got me on the verge of being done with my marriage.”
This kind of gratitude sounds more like a guilt bomb than anything. Gratitude like this is more an ether soaked rag over the mouth of your desire. It shuts down desire. And gratitude is never meant for this.
Lets call it gratitude shaming.
Gratitude shaming is anytime someone tells you you should “just be grateful” when you’re going through something hard. That someone could be a friend. Or it could be the way you talk to yourself.
I just overheard a conversation at my co-working space. It went like this.
Woman: “How’s it going?”
Man: “Ah okay, been having some car troubles today. The check engine light just came on again while I was driving to work.”
Woman: “Well, at least it runs. Better a car that runs than a non-working one.”
Man says nothing for a second. Woman realizes her mistake and attempts again.
Woman: “But yeah, that’s a bummer. Car problems are never fun.”
Can you hear how easy it is to shut down desire with false gratitude? This woman was totally telling this guy to “just be grateful” for a working car. But it shut him down. Why? Because it lacked any empathy. He still has a broken car, even if he is grateful it runs. She realized this soon enough on her own.
Salve for the Journey of Desire
You should never try to “just be grateful.” That word “just” is where the harm comes in. Gratitude doesn’t work so well by itself. Gratitude actually only works well when we are on the journey of desire.
Desire is the journey. Gratitude is salve for the journey.
God wants your heart to grow bigger, not smaller. He wants you full of desire. He wants you to want more. He wants you to ask, seek, knock. That takes desire. He doesn’t want you to settle for what you have, even though he wants you content.
Contentment and satisfaction are different. Satisfaction is desire fulfilled. Its getting the thing you want. That’s pretty easy to understand. Contentment is desire tempered by gratitude. Its wanting something but being able to be okay, to cope, to still have a heart full of joy, even if you don’t get what you want. Which is only possible when we can thank God for the other good things we have. You aren’t a slave to your desires.
Our hearts are made for so much fullness. And desire is always the plot of our lives. So be grateful as often as you can for as much as you can. Especially when life gets hard. But don’t ever stop wanting more.
Be grateful always. Never just be grateful.