Watch the video above, read the commentary below!
Like many views and opinions I've held, my understanding of gratitude has been affected significantly by my children. More specifically, they've been affected by the process of trying to parent my children.
Here's the situation: your kid has just been given something by someone else. Maybe it's a gift; maybe it's a compliment. Regardless, the social contract to which we almost universally subscribe dictates some sort of positive response, at least from a normal human. But we're not talking about a normal human—we're talking about your kid.
And what does your kid do in this situation?
Nothing. Just...nothing. Not anything. Stares. Blankly. Bereft of any semblance of an acknowledgment of the existence of anything. Who knows? Perhaps, in that moment, they got distracted by the mysteries of the cosmos. Maybe they fell asleep with their eyes open. Maybe they had an acute neurological episode and forgot where they were.
Welp, it doesn't matter, really. You're their parent. And as a parent, you do what all parents do and have done throughout the millennia and inject yourself into the exchange with a singular question:
"What do you say?"
Ah, there we go. All it takes is the simple reminder that "you ought to say something now" and out it comes. Praise the Lord, we did it.
Gratitude for the Good
Teaching children to both be grateful and express it can be a significant challenge, particularly when they have a lot. We've read the Little House series with our kids and, while I'm very thankful for the abundance of stuff we have, I also find myself being somewhat jealous of the Ingalls' family situation.
Those girls had one doll. One. That's it. If they lost that doll do you know what they'd have? You got it. Nothing. They cherished what they had because it was all that they had. This is a situation far different than the one that my kids are in. We've got shelves upon shelves of toys, games, books, and yes, dolls. Their drawers are stuffed with so many clothes I find myself having to fish my arm in behind them to pull out the pieces that got skimmed off the top after being over-filled.
This is #firstworldproblems if there ever were such things. Should we purge? Yes, we probably should. But the reality is that there's no feasible way to recreate the environment of Little House, no matter how much stuff we sell/donate/burn. We have to find a way to teach our children to be grateful even when surrounded by abundance. This is a great challenge but hopefully, over time and with enough practice, we can form their hearts and minds to understand that we ought to be thankful for what we have.
Gratitude for the Not-So-Good
Forming our children to have a heart of thanksgiving may not be easy, but at least it's straightforward. You got a good thing, it made you feel good, you should be thankful. Simple enough.
What I consider to be something of a graduation from that, though, is having a spirit of gratitude for suffering. And not only for whatever tangible fruit I can recognize that is borne out of that suffering. No, the suffering itself.
Here is where the idea of trust enters the arena. In Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth, he articulates this wonderful characteristic of suffering:
"For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort…"
Suffering can bear fruit not only in the life of the one who suffers, but in the lives of anyone and everyone, untethered to a particular time or place. Through trust, we can be genuinely thankful for the gift of suffering. We can find our peace in the hope that, even though I may not be able to see it now, and may not see it before I die, there exists a means by which a greater good can come about.
Full disclosure: I haven't suffered much. If you know me and know my life, you would be well within your right to think, "boy, it's a lot easier to say you should be thankful for suffering when you don't have to do it yourself, especially from underneath that pile of stuff you talked about earlier." And honestly, I couldn't argue with you. I can't say for sure that I'd be singing the same tune at all if I had to endure what millions upon millions of people have endured that has been far worse than anything I've ever encountered.
But I would also say this: whether I've suffered a lot or a little has no bearing on whether or not my point is valid.
And my point is this: gratitude for suffering only makes sense if we trust that we're not the be-all-end-all. Gratitude for suffering demands that we trust that there is meaning beyond our own life. That there is a bigger picture. That the story didn't start when we were born and won't end when we die.
A child is born with a rare, incurable condition, suffers great pain for a few years, and dies. For many, this is entirely incompatible with the idea of God, of greater meaning, of purpose. That such seemingly needless suffering of the innocent exists at all eliminates the possibility of such things, a priori.
But I believe that there is more to our existence than what's immediately apparent. I believe that the story doesn't end there—not for the child, not for anyone. From there I believe we can come to not only understand, not only tolerate, but actually love suffering. To, as Stephen Colbert put it, "love the thing that I most wish had not happened."
Gratitude for suffering bears incredible fruit. Strength. Generosity. Humility. Offering thanksgiving for suffering wrings selfishness out of us, which increases both our ability and our desire to serve others and offer ourselves as a gift. It destroys fear. If we can be truly grateful for everything that we're given, whether we would've preferred it or not, I believe that there will exist in us an unquenchable, undeniable, unignorable, irresistibly attractive joy with the potential to radically change our lives and the lives of those around us.
Perhaps, as the parents of that child sat in the hospital during those last days, their nurse came to know them and know their story. Perhaps he encountered, for the first time, that utterly confounding, almost scandalous joy that comes from gratitude for suffering. Maybe that nurse was suffering in his own life from a sense of hopelessness, fear, lack of self-worth. Maybe he, over time, comes to embrace his cross and carry it squarely on his shoulders, transforming who he is. Maybe he raises his children in and with that same joy, that same humility, and who knows? What might they go on to do? Who might be inspired or affected by their story, even generations from now?
It's a long book. We only get to be part of a short snippet, but good authors have a way of circling back and revealing their purposes later on.
Don't be afraid. He's a Good Author.
Author's note: I drew substantial inspiration from Bishop Barron for this article, specifically from this video on Stephen Colbert and divine providence. His videos are great—you should definitely watch them.