“Be Grateful! It Could Be Worse”: ReFraming North American Attitudes of Gratitude

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Social media is replete with jaunty memes meant to spur on our need to be grateful — for our goods, for our relationships, for our jobs, for our everythings. Some of them seem to express some necessary truths, while others are downright obnoxious in their push to make us see the light.

I’m not bashing our need to be grateful.

What I struggle with is our North American tendency (dare I say human tendency) to be grateful at the expense of someone else’s dire circusmtances. There are memes, videos, blogs, sayings, prayers, poems and op-eds all expressing how badly we need to take gratitude more seriously than we do (agreed) because someone else always it worse off then we do (disagree).

Be grateful you have a roof over your head. There are 3 million people in Syria who would give anything to have what you have.

Be grateful for those awful veggies on your plate. There are starving children in Africa who would give anything to eat those.

Be grateful for your health. There are dying people who would do more with their lives if they had the chances you’re squandering.

Be grateful for clean water that flows right out of your tap 24/7. There are people around the world who walk for miles just to get a bucket full of water — clean or not.

Be grateful for all of your utilities. War-torn regions don’t have any electricity of wifi and have to suffer without fridges, stoves or cell phones.

See what I’m trying to get at?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be grateful for housing, food, health, clean water or access to utilities (and on and on and on…). What I am saying is that by holding up our lives against the lives of people with less, we create an inverted sense of pride rather than gratitude, while at the same time dehumanizing the people we are comparing ourselves with. By saying our material goods — which, by and large, make our lives easier — define what lives are better and what lives are not, we grab away the gift of gratitude from those with less material wealth.

I-cried-because-I-had-no-shoes.-Then-I-met-a-man-who-had-no-feet.

 

While this meme attributes the quotation to Denis Waitley, I have found it to be attributed to many others also. If you know the original author, let me know!

This “man with no feet” gratitude, I believe, began with good intentions. In countries that are considered predominantly consumer-driven, it made sense to encourage people to quit complaining about petty things and take a hard look around them.

Here’s where this kind of gratitude sometimes falls apart:

1. It tries to shove gratitude into the tight box of physical/material health and wealth. If we ‘have’, we believe God has blessed us or that we’re somehow more endowed/gifted/loved than those who have not been likewise ‘blessed’.

This mentality twists what God means by ‘blessing’, while keeping our focus on the material world. There are rich people in this world ‘blessed’ with big houses, many cars, high-paying jobs, and many good friends. Yet in their eyes, they have been ‘blessed’ with huge mortgages, car loans, taxes, and lots of people around them but no one really knowing them deeply. Some would say “Suck it up! You have everything!”

Not so.

We know better than that.

2. The “man with no feet” type of gratitude limits us to what we can see, touch, hear, feel, taste and, ultimately, make our own lives better in our estimation. We make the grievous assumption that those with no feet have nothing to be grateful for; that their hardship is so hard, they have absolutely nothing to look forward to.

Those with no food have nothing to be grateful for.

Those with no clean water have nothing to be grateful for.

Those with no shelter have nothing to be grateful for.

Do you see what I’m saying? We assume that because others don’t have what we have, or that others are suffering in ways we aren’t, these people are abandoned by gratitude or blessing. In terms of kingdom living, this seems

Jesus says in Matthew 19: 13 Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

We know Jesus loved the rejected, despised, marginalized and forgotten. We know he delighted in the faith of small children, and wished for all of us to learn such faith. Children, while bearers of family names and legacies (if they were male), were by and large nuisances until they could actually contribute to household management or family procreation. Yet the Great Rabbi shoved his own surly disciples out of the way to bless these forgotten ones. The kingdom of heaven belonged to the forgotten ones!

Wha-???

In true Jesus-like fashion, He inverts our perspective of the kingdom and challenges us: material wealth does not necessarily blessings make. And there are wondrous, beautiful characteristics and attributes to be grateful for in the most lowly, impoverished places.

Do we idolize poverty?

No.

There is a place for us to see our abundance and the scarcity of others. But instead of developing a proud gratitude within us, it should spur us on towards radical compassion, hospitality and sharing. If you see a child with no food and you have two apples, the answer’s pretty clear: share.

But when you see a man with no feet, ask him his name! Perhaps he was born without them, but because of the devout love of his parents, he learned to embrace his lack of feet and travel the world. He might just have some gratitude to share with you.

When you see a man with no shoes, as him his name! Maybe he felt so disconnected with the earth that he already gave away all of his shoes so he could wander field, mountain and stream in order to reconnect with a world he thought he lost.

Yes… be grateful for the furnace in your house and the food on your plate. But be grateful because gratitude is a growing, living being inside of us — an outflow Spirit. Release trying to be grateful because someone else is suffering without the things you have. Someone else’s poverty needs to move us to action, not false piety. Furthermore, we only expose our own material pride.

Would it hurt our pride to understand and know that those without material wealth are still moved to share with us, the “haves”, because what they have to offer is more often than not far more precious?

More than all of that, let’s learn that no matter who we are, no matter our station in life or circumstance, gratitude is possible! Dare I say inevitable? How often have the most important things in life been found amidst those with the least to give materially?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22). 

No law.

Rich or poor, fulfilled or lonely, housebound or homeless, God calls us all to learn gratitude. Spirit nurtures her qualities within us so that we are able to see and experience those things (material and non-material) that are most important. This gratitude can melt hostility, bitterness, anger, sadness, grudges, and more. It’s not a magic wand (I can certainly attest to that!), nor was it meant to be. Spirit takes her time breathing into us light and love, giving us the ability to discover the depth to which gratitude can take us — as individuals and together as one people.

And we give thanks.

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