Once again, life interrupted my best laid plans this week and presented a practice to me that I felt I needed to embrace. Last Saturday, I found out that a cafe I frequent as part of a beloved and convenient routine is closing its doors on weekends. This is obviously not a big deal, but in the moment it felt like a blow and more than that, I felt a deep internal resistance to this simple change and to re-framing it in a more positive way. It quickly became clear that I needed to resist my resistance and lean in to a practice of Radical Gratitude, expressing thanksgiving not only in every situation, but for every situation.
For some basic background on gratitude itself, see my Sacred Practices post on the Three Good Things intervention from a couple months ago.
Radical gratitude has its origins in some monastic circles, where they believe that giving thanks in all circumstances should be lived out as radically and literally as possible. It has also been taught and lived out in some anabaptist communities. One of the most profound Christian witnesses I’ve ever heard was a story from a friend’s grandmother’s old journal. She had lived in an anabaptist colony somewhere in the Russian Empire until the day the Bolshevik army came and burned their whole village to the ground. Her journal entry for that day was entirely about giving thanks to God. It was a great life lesson for me. That is radical gratitude!
What is it?
In every situation, to give thanks. Period. If possible, find a way to give thanks for the situation itself; if that’s not possible — it’s not reasonable to give thanks for a cancer diagnosis or having your village burned by an invading army — find as much within the situation for which you can give thanks.
Because the week started with my resistance to finding positives in a change so minor as to be meaningless, I had a feeling I was going to be in for something this week. For the most part, once I got into the groove of thinking about what was happening around me in terms of the practice, it wasn’t challenging to find things to be thankful for about them.
There was one incident that sticks out as particularly challenging, but also very helpful. I was in a strange mood one day, a mood I get into a few times a year, in which I really don’t feel like myself. I couldn’t read or write or do the usual things I enjoy. At first I scoffed at the idea of radical gratitude while in this mood. But considering any sacred practice is only as beneficial as it is when he’s hard, I forced myself to look through the experience without judging it. And what I discovered amazed me. Yes, I was distracted, edgy, restless, and unable to do the things that I normally do and that make me feel like myself, but I was also full of energy and felt strong and confident. Those are positive things, traits that I could and should feel grateful for and hope to be able to integrate more into my normal life.
Life is never predictable or easy. Every moment has the potential to change our life for ever. And, as the saying goes, we can’t choose our circumstances, but we can change our attitude towards them. A practice of radical gratitude — intentionally looking for ways to be grateful in and for each and every circumstance — goes a long way toward shifting those attitudes in positive ways. And the fact is, we are rarely in a position to know what is ultimately good or bad for us. The promotion we want may be a disaster; the failed relationship may be the door to the right relationship; even, as I can attest, an experience of complete spiritual desolation can end up being a season of beauty.
My biggest concern with this practice is that gratitude has to be real. There may be some degree of ‘fake it till you make it’, and that can be okay, but the last thing I want to do is encourage any kind of falsehood or disingenuous happy mask in the spiritual life. We need the freedom to acknowledge the negative impacts of circumstances even as it’s good and healthy to find ways of being grateful within them. A cancer diagnosis sucks. Being stuck in a season of anxiety or depression is awful. Being single is hard and the loneliness can feel like an elephant sitting on your chest. We need to be able to articulate our pain and hurts, to ourselves, others and to God. To do otherwise isn’t piety or holiness, but denial.
I guess what I’m saying about this is that a practice like this is a good step 2. We must be able to say “this sucks” before we move on to finding the silver linings. That doesn’t lessen the impact of the gratitude, but it makes it real and honest.