Cultivating tough gratitude

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
28 Jun 2009

“In life we receive more than we give; therefore it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and gratitude: forget all the shining goodies you can get down the shops, these are the things that make life really worthwhile. What's more, they are free and abundant. That's the good news. The difficult news is that while they may not be limited by the means of supply or exchange, they can still cost us an enormous amount in terms of effort, persistence and endurance.

Pastor, theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, reflecting in the looming shadows of 1930s Germany, recognised divine grace to be free but costly. Likewise, the gratitude he spoke of as foundational to experiencing life’s richness is something that can only be cultivated through the building of character. Given the way the world is and the way human beings often are, it is not naturally easy. And often, it is really tough.

Much public life runs on the assumption that things like love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and gratitude are ‘soft’, personal attributes, rather than ‘hard’ corporate ones. That’s because we have become accustomed to living in a society of strangers where people feel they have to make claims on one another in order to get their due, rather than in a community of companions where the joys and woes of others may be felt as our own – not as intrusions on our ring-fenced interests.

How to move from the mindset and structure of ‘official anonymity’ to one of loving relationship is the big spiritual, social, psychological, cultural, economic and political challenge of any age – though it is not often perceived as such.

At the end of his book After Virtue, the moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre suggests that in a time of global dislocation and darkness, one important priority is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained.” Faith groups, civic bodies, neighbourhood networks and families – both nuclear and extended – are among the places where the core recovery, repair and renewal of ‘life together’ can take place.

As it happens, this reflection on how life can be more gratefully received and shared has been written and delivered from the setting of a family re-union. If being part of a family teaches us anything, it is that while there are hopefully going to be many moments when we are overwhelmed by gratitude, there will be just as many times when we need to be reminded of what we would do well to be grateful for: people, occasions of generosity, the sheer beauty of a day, precious memories, and gatherings of those who give us a sense of belonging to the past, the present and the future.

This is so because the many difficulties of life can act like magnets, drawing us towards problems rather than solutions, pain rather than possibility. In this context, gratitude is something that has to be worked at. It is more than just a ‘feeling’. This may seem obvious, but it is very easy to forget. Therefore gratitude and all it brings with it is easy to miss out on, unless you have the right kind of apprenticeship and encouragement.

When I was seven years old, one of my grandmothers, now long since departed, gave me a bright green sweater. I loved my grandmother dearly, but I had rather different feelings about that sweater – which, as my father reminded me, had taken her a very long time to produce, because, well, she really wasn’t any good at knitting.

The outcome was that this green sweater embodied a great deal of effort and care for me, while not being over-encumbered by what we might conventionally call design, shape or fashion. (Indeed, if someone had set out to manufacture a garment deliberately equipped to produce mockery among a young boy’s peers, it might have been difficult to better grandma’s ungainly green pullover!)

Nevertheless, I was instructed to be grateful for this gift and to express that gratitude in a short note. I cannot remember, but I suspect I had to be given some guidance and encouragement because I may not have been wholly willing when I started out writing it. What my parents were very good at explaining, however, was that although I might indeed have to be uncharacteristically tactful about a certain green garment, my letter was really about something much more important: showing my gratitude for grandma herself. Needless to say, the longer I have lived the more important I have realised that early lesson in true gratitude to be.

My own blood family is very, very small these days. In fact it’s pretty much restricted to cousins who I have mostly seen at weddings and, increasingly, funerals over the years. But now, as result of my marriage in 1995, I have found myself part of two new and very large families - the Roths and the Metzlers. These are the families I never chose and which never chose me, but have nonetheless welcomed me and nurtured me in a whole host of ways. I have ample reason to be grateful to these strangers-become-friends, including those who are similar to me and many who are not, because I did nothing to deserve them. And they certainly did nothing to deserve me!

I realise that this is not everyone’s experience, of course. Unfortunately, families can be places of multiple wounding and grieving, too. They carry both the best and the worst of what is possible for human beings in relationship, and much in between. But the point is that whether it is through organic family or not, we all need to be in, or to find, networks of people who can show us what gratitude really is: the experience and awareness of how life-enhancing it is to give and receive without calculation or control.

Being a dissident, Anabaptist type of Anglican, I’m not the kind of person who automatically seeks validation in the pronouncements of archbishops. But I do have a particular gratitude for the current incumbent at Canterbury, Rowan Williams. This is because, aside from all the ecclesiastical politics (to which, maybe to his credit, he is not necessarily well attuned), he possesses genuine grace and wisdom.

To most who have crossed his path, it is evident that Rowan Williams’ outlook on life is decisively shaped by gratitude. That is, by recognising that the life we share is beyond possession. To see the world and everything in it as God’s creation, he says, is not to propose a particular theory of origins (certainly not one in unnecessary conflict with the gifts of scientific endeavour and knowledge). It is, rather, to receive the world as sheer gift – specifically, the gift of a God who, having absolutely no need to get caught up in our quarrelling and jockeying for status and influence, is able to love without condition, manipulation and limit.

In this sense, the invitation at the heart of the Christian message is to let go and give thanks. Simple, but incredibly difficult without good teachers, encouragers and exemplars. So, apart from shelter, health and sustenance, what we need most of all in life is people and relationships founded on the recognition that love is not about gaining control, it is about setting free; and that gratefulness is not about being glad we got our own way, it is about being glad that often we do not.

For those of us who are Christian, this is what being joined to the Body of Christ is (or ought to be) all about. Others may discover the same spirit of liberating gratitude is different ways and places. But the light of recognition in our eyes tells us that though our labels may be different, the truth – God’s truth, some of us would say – remains the same.

When I first saw my grandmother’s garish green gift my initial, youthful response was indeed gratitude – but gratitude as in ‘attitude’ with a ‘grrr’ in front of it. Those of greater experience gently encouraged me beyond that first reaction, and indeed beyond the ‘thing’, the ‘product’, altogether. It was the heart of love which generated the gift that really mattered… and when I began to see that, the gift itself, strange though it appeared to me, was transfigured. I even wore it one Christmas for my grandmother. I looked absolutely terrible (in my mind, at least), but it was the best feeling in the world to see her face and realise what it meant to be connected to her.

All of which provokes one concluding thought. Recently I saw a sign in someone’s house that said, "home is where your story begins". What if you haven’t got a home, I thought? Maybe that is because I have spent so much of my life moving, and because I couldn’t readily name one single place as my ‘base camp’. Then I realised that what is being said here is something far deeper. “Be part of a story that connects,” we are being advised, “and then you will know what it means to feel at home.”

Of course the “story that connects”, whether it is a family story, a Christian story, a spiritual story or some other kind of narrative, is bound to have its fair share of annoyance, trauma and tragedy. But if it really does connect – if it really is a place where you are able to love and be loved (the proof is in the practise) – you will find that you can be grateful not in spite of those difficulties, but in, through and beyond them.

This in turn, will free you to see all the light and hope which no amount of darkness can hide and to discover that there is plenty of it already close at hand, if only you can be equipped to look in the right way and in the right places. For that, too, you need other people, not just yourself and a bit of abstract reasoning.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His web resources are at www.simonbarrow.net

This article is developed from an address in the context of worship and reflection at the 2009 re-union of the A.J. and Alta Metzler family in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. See: Paul M. Schrock, Metzler, Abram Jacob (1902-1996). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopaedia Online, 1987: http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M491.html

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