Gratitude is a funny thing. For many of us, it’s foundation is obligation.

The bank teller handed you a lollipop – “What do you say?”

In the days after your birthday – “Have you written your grandmother that thank you note yet?”

There was an edge of guilt in the reminders, even while parents who loved us were trying to build good habits in us. At its worst, the obligation to be grateful extended to something unintentionally abusive – the expectation to be thankful for things that were forced upon us, even if sometimes “for our own good.”

There’s a lot to rescue gratitude from.

For me, it’s had to be rescued from the misuse of the biblical injunction to “be thankful in everything, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Combined in good faith with Romans 8:28 (“And we know that all things work together for good to them who love God and are called according to his purpose.”), this command to be thankful resulted in an all too toxic approach to life.

Your daddy died? Be thankful.

Your child has cancer? Be thankful.

Your marriage is miserable? Be thankful.

You lost your job? Be thankful.

You long for a partner and yet remain single? Be thankful.

You’re being bullied in school? Be thankful.

Your friends are moving on and leaving you behind? Be thankful.

We learn that grieving is bad, and even worse, that we must name evil as an illusion – it is merely good in disguise. This kind of gratitude demands we be unfaithful to our own hearts, a “death to self” of the entirely wrong kind.

True gratitude need not be forced. It is a right and natural response to good things, good gifts. To love itself, in all its forms.

Which doesn’t mean discipline is not involved, but it’s not a discipline of learning to force thankfulness. It is the discipline of noticing, of seeing, of being open to being surprised.

There are many things I want, good gifts I long for that are delayed or denied. That is real and I have learned to make space in my heart to grieve them. But that doesn’t mean I cannot be grateful for other things too. The sunshine streaming through an eastern window in the morning. The Lake in all its moods. A smile of greeting from a stranger and their dog. The warm welcome of a friend. The finicky coziness of a persnickety cat. A song that puts words to my pain and longing. An unexpected hope.

These are gifts. They may not be the ones I was looking for, but if I learn to keep my eyes and heart open to them, they can draw forth gratefulness. 

And learning that openness has shaped and changed me. It has grown patience in me – not much, but exponentially more than I started with! I have learned not to just wait for the gifts I want, but to go looking for them with my eyes open for unexpected treasures along the way.

It has made me realize that sometimes the unexpected treasure is worth more than what I knew to look for.

It has taught me to be open to being surprised. My imagination for goodness continues to be expanded and stretched.

It has taught me that both hope and disappointment are alike adventures. Enter into one and you will always find the other. And there is always more.

It has taught me that I do not have to stop walking, stop moving forward, to grieve. That, in fact, grieving is itself a way of moving forward – if I find myself stuck in sorrow or anger, I am no longer actually grieving, and there is work to be done.

And as long as I am moving forward, I can be surprised into gratitude.

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