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Gratitude in the Face of Suffering

The outbreak of the coronavirus is likely the most life-altering event most of us can remember. We are generally too young to remember 9/11, and the 2008 financial crisis did not affect daily life to this extreme. It has single-handedly brought the seemingly imperturbable flow of daily life to a grinding halt. Such an event demands a response. The most natural reactions are bitterness for its destructiveness or an apathy that simply waits until it passes, but I would advocate gratitude as the proper response. I do not necessarily mean gratitude for the coronavirus, but gratitude in the midst of the coronavirus. COVID-19 has forced us all to take a step back, and I believe that this new perspective illuminates that we truly do have much to be thankful for.

What is gratitude?

A grateful person is one who is conscious of and appreciative of benefits received. Gratitude is, at its core, a matter of focus, because it is inevitable that we will face both benefits and obstacles all throughout life. While not ignoring the pains and restrictions faced, gratitude chooses to dwell on the blessings received; it sees beyond immediate failures or disappointments to the bigger picture. In contrast, an ungrateful person always compares present circumstances to an idealized future, romanticized past, or someone else’s idolized lifestyle. This tendency does not go away as circumstances change; if ingratitude is unable to be thankful in present conditions, a new set of conditions will not drastically alter its outlook. At the end of the day, gratitude is a choice. A grateful person chooses to give thanks for a meal rather than to complain about the taste and chooses to appreciate the opportunity to learn rather than gripe about a boring class. Gratitude acknowledges that life is presently far from perfect but it is wise enough to know that life will never actually be quite ideal. Instead of fixating on shortcomings, it actively notes the many blessings it does have.

Why should we seek gratitude?

If it doesn’t actually change anything, what good does a mindset do? I would posit two answers: it is better for us, and we have an obligation to be grateful. First, gratitude fosters happiness. This seems obvious, but if we enter an activity intending to not enjoy it, we probably won’t. Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Michael McCullough conducted a study wherein one group wrote down things they were thankful for while another group wrote down things that irritated them. After ten weeks, the grateful group was more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and had fewer trips to the physician. So from a purely hedonistic standpoint, grateful people have more fulfilling lives.

Furthermore, blessing carries with it an obligation to be grateful. Someone who acquires success purely on his or her own merit has no obligation to share or give thanks. A blessing, however, is a gift given regardless of merit. Just as talent includes an obligation to develop it well and resources carry an obligation to steward them well, we carry an obligation to be thankful for those things as blessings. Far too often, we confuse blessings we have been given with rights we have earned, but even natural talents, such as intelligence, athleticism, or a work ethic are largely a product of genetics and the environment we are raised in. By withholding gratitude, we pretend that blessings are rights we earned, thereby cheapening the gift.

How should we proceed?

First, I would urge consideration of how the coronavirus has given perspective on life. Personally, I am constantly thinking of things I would like to do or learn if only I had more time. Now, it seems that time is the one thing we have too much of, so now is the time to read that book, learn that instrument, or start that hobby. I would also encourage remembering this period next semester when we return to Vanderbilt. It will be so easy to succumb to the urge to complain about class, but taking all my classes online has shown me how much of a blessing it really is to physically go to class. Lastly, one of the best ways to cultivate thankfulness is through writing. Whether that entails writing a list of everything to be thankful for or writing down one thing everyday, the act of writing gives definition and reality to ideas that otherwise remain ethereal.

How can we be grateful when it seems we’ve lost everything?

All that being said, such ideas and practices become nothing more than high-minded aphorisms when confronted with real, tangible losses. The loss of a loved one, of income, or of stability in some other way demands attention, and rightfully so. I am not implying that we should focus on gratitude to the exclusion of all else; I am saying that we should not focus on loss to the exclusion of gratitude. Feelings of grief or worry should be tempered with the reality that there are things more important in life than our circumstances. The Christian Gospel asserts that there is a hope more sure and significant than work, education, and even housing and food - that life itself is a gift from God, who offers the even greater gift of eternal life and power to rejoice in the midst of suffering. In this gift, God is not disconnected from our suffering but rather intimately acquainted with the weight of life’s pain. Jesus was born into poverty, a member of an oppressed minority group. He grieved over a friend’s death, felt the sting of a friend’s betrayal, and, ultimately, He chose to sacrifice even his own life for the redemption of ours.

If God can use such a gross injustice to achieve his good and loving purposes, I can have hope even when my circumstances are overwhelming. With a loving God who knows our pain and has power far greater than any virus, we can be grateful.

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