In hearing the gratitude sentiments that Cindy and Bill read for us, did you notice a hint of admonishment? People should be grateful and if you’re not, well, you should change your attitude – a gratitude attitude! It’s as if gratitude is not the norm of human experience and people have to be cajoled into being grateful. It’s like we’re little children having to be reminded by our parents to say ‘thank you’. “What do you say, Johnny?” “Thank you.” It’s as if gratitude is the exception in human experience rather than the norm.
That seems to be the perspective of our gospel reading today. Jesus heals ten lepers and only one returns to say, ‘thank you’. One out of ten – not a good percentage. The lesson is we should all learn to say ‘thank you’, first to God and, by extension, to others. Which is why, of course, this passage shows up for Thanksgiving.
What keeps us from having an attitude of gratitude? Why do we have to be reminded to be grateful? In thinking about it this week I’ve came up with two different angles. I call them the glass-half-full syndrome and the glass-half-empty syndrome.
The glass-half-full syndrome is for people who are basically optimistic about life. Things will work out even if they seem momentarily difficult. I think I am one of those kinds of people. I cruse along in life just assuming things will work out.
The danger of this glass-half-full approach is taking things for granted. As a result, I can quite easily forget to be thankful. Oh, I might claim that I’m grateful, in sort of an under-the-surface kind of way. But I’m often remiss in expressing gratitude openly, verbally. Yes, I am the kid whose mother has to say, “Did you remember to say, ‘thank you?’” OK, I am the husband whose wife has to sometimes say, “So, how’d you like your dinner, dear?” Yes indeed, I do need to be admonished to be grateful, at least more openly and more often than I am prone to do.
The glass-half-empty syndrome is for people who, you might say, are more pessimistic about life. Things probably will not work out. The potential for things going badly outweighs the potential for good outcomes. However, this isn’t pessimism as much as it is about fear and anxiety. Now, even as I acknowledge that this perspective doesn’t describe me it might very well describe some of you. And because this isn’t my personal experience I don’t want to try to talk about it with my words. I’m going to let the words of someone who experiences this everyday tell it. This is from an anonymous posting on firstname.lastname@example.org:
For me, anxiety and panic attacks are rooted in fear, mainly the maternal fear that a catastrophe will strike when I’m away from my child and I won’t be able to take care of her. An earthquake. A school shooter. A wildfire or a mudslide. She might get lost on a school field trip, and her teacher will leave without her. She could wander away from the playground and get kidnapped by a predator in waiting.
The list goes on and on, and every day I practice not dwelling on disaster. It’s a conscious effort: I remind myself that I am safe and that everyone I love is safe. Everything is going to be okay because, in fact, it already is.
She says she has developed a practice, a spiritual practice if you will, of looking for moments to be grateful, moments of bliss or grace. If she can she’ll take a picture of it and send it out into the universe on social media. She has to work at. She has to pay attention, but she has found it to be incredibly fruitful. She says,
Thinking about the things that go right during the course of a day helps take my mind off all the things that could go wrong. It’s impossible to think about how scary life is when you’re focusing on all the ways it is beautiful. It’s like trying to keep your eyes open when you sneeze. You couldn’t do it, even if you wanted to.
She concludes her post with this observation:
I know I’ll always be anxious to some extent. If I can’t make it go away completely, I can at least adjust my perspective. Gratitude helps me do that. Gratitude shines a light on hope, and hope drives away fear.
Wise words! Paying attention seems to be the key. Note to self: This is a lesson especially for a take-things-for-granted kind of person. Amen.