Gratitude Journals are all the rage these days, like the Marie Kondo decluttering of things that don’t spark joy, bullet journals and Instagram themes. Some took the form of an actual journal, while others take part in photo challenges on Instagram. Therapists often suggest it to patients with depressive tendencies. I have tried it all, and it really doesn’t work for me. Make no mistake, I am not advocating being ungrateful: as a Christian, I firmly believe in thanking the Lord for what we have. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if this emphasis on looking for the positive that is overflowing from secular culture is really as good as it sounds.
Today’s verse of the day was from Psalm 107: Give thanks to the Lord for He is good; His love endures forever. So far so good, right? The Lord is good and we thank Him for His blessings. We do that when we say grace before a meal, or do a morning offering or our evening prayers, or at least we should (no judgement here, I am guilty of taking photos of my lunch more than I give thanks for it). Yet things aren’t quite as simple. 39 verses later: Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow; he who pours contempt on nobles made them wander in a trackless waste. Despite this which is not an #blessed kind of situation, the Lord is called good and ever-loving. This puts the idea of counting my blessings into a perspective that has made taking part in these popular initiatives difficult.
You never see someone posting on the hashtag #100daysofgratitude about the joy of being in chains for the sake of the Gospel, but that’s joy that St Paul experienced. I guess in a way making a list of the mundane (I woke up and I was alive, I had ibuprofen in the house to soothe the horrible pain I felt in my left shoulder, I have food to make breakfast, and I don’t have to be in an office at 9am) are what we are encouraged to see as positives of our lives, so that we don’t chase the extraordinary, but what happens when we see (or know anyway) the people who get the extraordinary? The friend getting married when we are single and longing, the woman who got pregnant easily while we struggle with conceiving or had a miscarriage, the people going out with friends when we are lonely, the friend celebrating something with their parents when we have lost one, the person running a marathon when we are bedridden with a chronic illness, heck, even the person with the same chronic illness as us who copes without the cocktail of medications we need even to cope lying in bed. Does writing things down in a journal truly help you keep at bay the very human envy and resentment that we feel when God appears to have blessed everyone else but us? Alas, not for me.
Instead of seeking a saccharine and trite view of life as a list of things to be grateful for, I try to shift my focus away from the things and onto Jesus, as I pray for the mirage of the joy and peace that surpasses all understanding, the joy that makes you happy to die for the Lord. I seek to detach myself from things, materials or otherwise, and take every day with its blessings and its challenges as they are, trying to put my trust in God’s timing. The Gospel for this Sunday was the one that talks about woe onto the rich, which unleashed the usual fight between those in the Church who take it literally and those who try to explain it away as not being really saying woe to 90% of the Western World but only the greedy. For me, there is a truth in the middle, because Jesus also talked about multiplying God’s gift in the parable of the talents. It’s our attachment to money and riches that will be our downfall. It’s not just greed, it’s mostly the fact that we try to provide for ourselves, that we hide the talent for fear of losing money and having to be accountable for it. It’s holding on to something instead of radically trusting that God will provide, even when you have nothing and cannot see how possibly that can happen.
Part of this journey to detachment looks, for me, as not making lists of things I am thankful for, but rather fostering a grateful heart whatever my circumstances, knowing that God is there walking with me through thick and thin. Ironically, I have yet to embrace the journey to minimalism that everyone seems to be on. Maybe that’s an area of my life in which I am still holding back, or being attached to objects (I’m definitely emotionally attached to my teddy bear!), but maybe not: maybe I genuinely have ditched the need to buy new things, and I’m trying to minimise the impact of my existence on Creation by holding on to things as long as I can, making use of them until they are beyond repair or really would be better off in the hands of someone else who is doing the same thing and could put to use for many years something that I don’t. It may not look like it when you look at the amount of things I own, but with a small place and poor health I find that I need enough clothes to spread out the laundry loads (which is also better for the environment) and so I can’t really live on a tiny capsule wardrobe. I run out of clean clothes enough as it is! In a way, I am grateful to have this many clothes still in good conditions after many years to rely on.
As I said, I’m all for cultivating a grateful heart, but I find the pressure to do it a certain way to be problematic for many people because as with any routine it forces you into a mould. It seems to me to go hand in hand with much of the social media culture that expects us to be always positive and always happy, which leads to feeling guilty for experiencing very natural emotions in response to bad situations, and has made it much harder for us all to deal with people who are ill or grieving in a way that isn’t patronising at best and damaging at worst. Being grateful for what is bad in our life is a level of spiritual maturity that marks a saint, and we should aspire to it, but it’s OK if we’re not there yet and we need to stop and pray for the grace of a grateful heart. I don’t feel like it’s OK to have a gratitude journal and just write nothing on today’s page, because that defeats the point of the whole exercise and so, while I do pray for that grace, I don’t want to feel the pressure to name things in my life every day.
This blog post is part of the Love Blog Challenge on the topic of gratitude.