Online Conversation | Practicing Gratitude with Diana Butler Bass
Online Conversation | Practicing Gratitude with Diana Butler Bass

How do we practically cultivate and sustain a life marked by gratitude? On November 19th we hosted an Online Conversation with Diana Butler Bass to explore the transformative, subversive power of gratitude for our personal lives and communities. Through her book, Grateful, cultural observer and theologian Diana Butler Bass untangled our conflicting cultural understandings of gratitude and set the table for a renewed practice of giving thanks.

“Bring in the Light” by Abby Gundersen.

Online Conversation | Diana Butler Bass | November 19, 2021

Cherie Harder: Good afternoon and welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with guest Diana Butler Bass on practicing gratitude. I’d like to particularly thank our co-hosts who are partnering with us: Hearts and Minds Bookstore, led by the beloved bibliophile Byron Borger, and just really appreciate their partnership. You can find out a little bit more about Hearts and Minds in the chat feature right now.

If you are new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space for leaders to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and in hopes of coming to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope the conversation today will be a small taste of that for you. 

As we look forward to Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving holiday next week, tis the season for gratitude, for thinking about thanking as it were. It’s a subject that’s inspired reflection from some of what might be called the thought leaders of history. G. K. Chesterton claimed that “thanks are the highest form of thought.” Cicero asserted that gratitude is not only the greatest of all the virtues, but the parent of all others. And Martin Luther called it “the basic Christian attitude and the heart of the gospel,” while Jonathan Edwards listed it as “the sign of true religion.” More recently, gratitude has been the focus of numerous psychological and even medical studies, which have found that gratitude can lower stress, improve one’s immune function, enhance cardiovascular function, sharpen memory, deepen sleep, increase energy levels, boost reported happiness, increase productivity, and strengthen relationships: a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia of life-giving benefits. Yet for all the reasons for and advantages of gratitude, it remains a struggle, both in attitude and practice, for us personally and corporately, and even as the popularity of measures such as keeping gratitude journals and the like has grown in recent years, so has what our guest today has called the gratitude gap: the gulf between the private feelings of thankfulness that we might try to cultivate and our public life, which is increasingly marked by anger, division, and alienation. So what does it mean to be a grateful person or a grateful people? What practices help reorient our perspective to more clearly see and appreciate the gifts that we enjoy? And what would such a reorientation mean, not only for our individual lives, but also for our civic life?

Today, we have the opportunity to talk with a scholar who has literally written the book on exactly that subject. Diana Butler Bass is a sociologist of religion and award-winning author of 11 different books on American religion, including Grounded: Christianity After Religion, Christianity for the Rest of Us, A People’s History of Christianity, her most recent work, Freeing Jesus, and the book we’ve invited her to discuss today, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. In addition, she’s also a former university professor and a current independent scholar, has served as a columnist for the New York Times syndicate, a blogger for Huffington Post and Washington Post on the issues of religion, spirituality, and culture, and has recently launched her own new newsletter, entitled “The Cottage,” available on Substack.

Diana, welcome.

Diana Butler Bass: Thank you. I am so excited to be here to talk about gratitude today.

Cherie Harder: It’s really great to have you here. We appreciate it. So of course, I have to ask. You mentioned in the introduction that you’ve always struggled with gratitude and even talked about flunking gratitude. So just at the outset, one has to ask, why does a scholar and a professor write a book on a subject she claims to have flunked?

Diana Butler Bass: Well, sometimes it’s the classes you fail that wind up being the classes that teach you the most. And so, you know, that’s, I think, part of being a professor. But it came from a pretty personal place. In 2015, I was, you know, in a moment with my career where I was looking ahead, you know, what’s the next book going to be about? And I wanted to write something about Christian practices, and so I had thought about doing an entire book on the whole list of practices that you find in the New Testament. You know, that joy, hopefulness, all of those, that long list of the nine things that are the marks of a full Christian life. And so I was talking to my agent about that, and he said, “Well, that’s a lot, you know? You know, that’s not writing a book about one thing; that’d be writing a book about nine things.” And he said, “Why don’t you pick one? And we can focus a book on that, whatever one you think is most important.”

And so a couple of weeks later, I was back on the phone with him again, and we weren’t really talking about the book, but I was griping, and what I was griping about was something that I think all of us who are professionals are a little shy about maybe sharing in public. But I was griping about how was it that I was in my early 50s and there were women who were in their late 30s whose writing careers were more successful than mine? And so I was like, really, just like, oh, full of sort of anger and envy and all kinds of negative emotions. And my agent, who is also my friend, finally just said to me, “Well, Diana, you know, we were thinking about Christian practices and which one you might want to write at.” And he says, “Maybe you should try thankfulness.” And he was trying to point out to me, of course, that I had tons to be thankful for and that I was measuring myself in the wrong ways, you know, by stacking my gifts and my contribution to the world up against those of other people. And it really sort of knocked the wind out of me. When someone you work with and it’s a really good friend, someone you’ve trusted for nearly two decades actually says, “I don’t think you’re grateful enough,” that was the moment to look in the mirror. And I thought, “You know, I really should explore this practice,” and that’s what kicked it off personally. And I don’t share that in the book. So that’s, anybody who reads the book, you will not find that story. That’s new for you all here at Trinity Forum.

Cherie Harder: Well, thank you for that. I mean, one of the things you mentioned at the outset is not only, you know— The struggles that you faced are fairly common. A lot of us struggle with thankfulness, but there’s the struggle about the practice of it, but there’s also misconceptions about the understanding of it. One of the things I think you mentioned right off the bat is that there is a common misconception around what gratitude is. I think you claimed that it was a sort of secular prosperity gospel at one point. And that there’s other forms of our understanding of gratitude that are wrongfully rooted in what you call kind of cycles of duty and demand. So it seems only right to kind of start with definitions. What is gratitude?

Diana Butler Bass: That might be the most important question. A big part of my struggle to be grateful is that I had no idea what it was. You know, throughout my life, people have usually said things like, “Well, you know, be thankful.” It’s sort of a directive. And like my friend, “You sound like an ingrate” or what-have-you, and you don’t want to be one of those. And so I had gotten caught up in the idea that it was just, you have to, whatever happens to you, you’re supposed to be thankful for those things. And I recognize other things we shouldn’t be thankful for: you know, cancer, injustice, violence in the world, people who have experienced abuse. All those sorts of demands for gratitude seem like they add to those problems instead of solving them. And so that made me sort of reluctant to engage it. But as I got into this subject, there were sort of two amazing moments and we can take these in turn. I don’t want to list them all right out. But when I realized that the issue was really the structure of gratitude—I mean, we can practice, practice, practice, practice, gratitude, and that’s all good. But it is also very helpful to understand the actual nature of the thing itself. And one of the moments of realization came for me when I finally sort of grasped that we talk about gratitude with two very different languages. One, we use a language of feelings. You know, you go out, you see a sunset, and you go, “Oh, I’m so grateful. It’s so beautiful.” Or someone gives you an unexpected gift. And it’s like, “Oh, thank you. I can’t believe someone’s noticed that I did this thing and that you appreciate the work that I’ve done and you’ve given me a gift in response.” And so there’s this way that gratitude is our emotional response to gifts. 

But it’s also something else. It’s also a choice we make. That it is an ethical disposition toward gifts, givers, and beneficiaries. And so there are a whole host of kinds of ways in which we understand gratitude functioning in our communities, and this line of thought has been picked up more in recent years by businesses and schools, organizations that are literally trying to teach gratitude as part of a communal ethic for, you know, whatever the particular business is or the learning community. Or I have a sister-in-law who is a doctor, and in her hospital they picked up gratitude as a practice. And oftentimes it has to do with things like stewardship and sharing gifts and mentoring others. All of those kinds of things. Giving back and also giving forward to other people. And so there are these two dimensions of it, and both of them are really important for our health and well-being, as you mentioned at the very beginning. The feeling aspect, all that’s great. And then the ethics piece is really about moral shaping and character. And so once I kind of got that clear, that was a very helpful first step into understanding gratitude more deeply.

Cherie Harder: Oh, that’s fascinating. You mentioned the sort of social or communal aspect of it. And in your book, you quoted I thought really kind of fascinating research that shows that gratitude can actually trigger the need for human contact. And hugs themselves trigger a sense of gratitude. But of course, we’re all kind of living, you know, the pandemic is subsiding, but we’ve essentially been in and out of lockdown for the last two years. So you’re talking to an audience that has probably had a really large hug deficit. And I’m kind of curious, is it possible to live both gratefully and virtually?

Diana Butler Bass: Oh, that’s a great question. I have sort of thought about that this year because a lot of my work is with churches, and churches have really struggled about what it means to communicate spiritual practice and sort of the heart of our devotional lives in these kinds of online environments. So is it possible to do this gratefully? I mean, I certainly have experienced gratitude this year in both feelings and also in the ethical sphere. And the feeling piece has arisen in interesting ways, and I suspect it probably has for other people, too. We spent a lot of time outside. Many people have picked up kind of new hobbies and new sorts of skills. And I spend a lot of time gardening and cooking and sort of caring for my house and being around my family, a small group of people. And in all that, you know, I have felt just some enormously beautiful times of gratitude. And when a cake turned out right, when you tried a new recipe, or when the garden is growing in ways that you don’t anticipate—my tomatoes failed again this year, but my beans went crazy. So all those kinds of things. There were a lot of feelings of gratitude that came up. 

And even online there would be times when I hadn’t seen people for a really long time. And then even though I was seeing their faces in these little teeny boxes on a screen, just the very practice of being able to have some sort of conversation that wasn’t just on a phone or through a window brought out feelings of gratitude as well as for the technology itself. And one of my frequent thoughts this year was what if we all had lived 100 years ago and had to go through the pandemic of 1918, and we didn’t have this technology? That I couldn’t look at your face? I wouldn’t be able to meet you this way. I wouldn’t be able to be with 1,400 people from all across the globe. And as soon as we start seeing it reframed like that, I don’t know about you, but my heart all of a sudden goes, “Oh, oh my gosh, that’s fantastic.” And that little feeling right there, that feeling of appreciation, that feeling of sort of awe, that’s the feeling of gratitude.

And then on the other side of the scale, it’s much easier, I think, in some ways to practice gratefulness in terms of ethics related to the pandemic. The way that we’ve all had—I mean, I think that it’s remarkable. The news tends to emphasize all of the really hard and bad things. You know, the people who are misbehaving, the folks who go into Target and throw the masks on the ground, you know, all of that stuff. But the truth of it is, is that we have lost many, many, many, many, far too many people. But then I stop and I asked myself how many more people would have died without the consideration and care of the millions and millions and millions of people who quietly did the right things, who quietly made the right choices, who struggled? I mean, I’m thankful for the mothers who stayed at home and educated their children while they were working so hard. You know, I feel grateful to them. And so what that elicits for me is when I start thinking about those acts of goodness, those acts of kindness that have been multiplied through the pandemic, then my heart sort of says, “What can I do to elevate those stories? How can I make those people’s lives easier? What can we all do to call forth the wisdom of the time that we’ve spent in isolation, what we’ve learned from the pandemic?” And see, that’s attending to the ethical dimensions of gratitude. So there will be, and I think there already has been, this attempt to recognize what—as we’ve gone through the pandemic, which in and of itself is not something we should ever be grateful for—but going through it, we’ve learned new things about grace, about gifts, about one another. We’ve experienced new levels of gratitude and that calls forth in us, hopefully—you know, I’m always the optimist—I hope that that calls on us toward a better common life on the other side of all of this. How will we pay this forward? How will we create communities of real sharing? How can we care for each other as we move to the next phase of whatever this is? And those are all the decisions of the ethics of gratitude. So I think it’s been with us the whole time. We just don’t always look at what we’re going through with those lenses. 

Cherie Harder: You know, you mentioned looking through new lenses and reframing, and one of the, I thought, most interesting ways that you talked in your book about the way gratitude reframes is changing our perception of time. You said that “when gratitude becomes a habit of being, our capacity to see time past, present, and future actually changes,” and also talked about how gratitude gives us what you called “soft eyes.” What is the new perspective on time and seeing that gratitude offers?

Diana Butler Bass: Gratitude—it is really interesting the way this works. And, you know, I mean, I’m a theologian and a church historian, so I was very dependent on a lot of different new friends, most of whom are psychologists and people who work in social sciences, for some of this information. But when you think of gratitude about the past, one of the things that it does, is it calls you to look at the past, not just like, “Oh, everything good that has ever happened in my life has already happened.” So sometimes when we look at the past, it’s with sort of eyes of regret or nostalgia. And I’m over 60 now, and so I, you know, I could easily go there. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, I felt so much better when I was in my 40s,” you know, physically or what have you. So we tend to look at the past with regret and nostalgia. But if you learn to look at that past through the eyes of gratitude, you begin to see the stories of your life in different ways. And so things that were hard at the time might have taught something along the way. And you can look back and say, “Oh my gosh, I wouldn’t be the person I am without having gone through whatever that really, truly challenging situation was. And I think we all understand how that works. And then when it comes to the future, you know, we can get anxious and full of dread about what the future is going to bring, but one of the things that gratitude does is it builds in us these kinds of habits of resilience that can prepare us to handle difficult and stressful situations. And so when we look to the past, gratitude gives us a different kind of hindsight. And when we look towards the future, gratitude gives us a different kind of foresight. And that’s something I can also say. You know, I can say, “Oh my gosh, well, I’ve gotten through all of this stuff now that I’m, you know, over 60 and whatever might be coming around the corner, I think I have tools and skills and experience that’s going to help me get there.” And so gratitude is one of the things that strengthens us to face those things that lie ahead.

So the one you asked about in particular is what I call in the book “wide sight,” and this is how gratitude can really change the realities in which we live. And that is when something comes at us that is frightening or unexpected, that we oftentimes as human beings have that flight-fight-or-freeze reaction. And when the stressful event, you know, just sort of faces you, our temptation as human beings is to stand our ground and fight, you know, hit back. And what happens is when you meet a stressful thing, when you meet a force that’s coming at you with an equal force, that creates really terrible things. You can’t, you know— the strongest thing will win. Somebody will get hurt. It’s a violent face-to-face meeting in that regard. So this idea of soft eyes and gratitude actually comes out of Japanese martial arts. But Parker Palmer, who is the wonderful Quaker writer, has borrowed this very widely, and I think that he’s just right about it, is that in Japanese martial arts—aikido, especially—there’s this idea when something comes at you with force, instead of focusing on what is immediately in front of you and going into that temptation to punch back at that moment, you sort of, you take a breath and you look towards the edges of your awareness. You look toward your peripheral vision, and it’s in the peripheral vision that you often find a movement that allows you to face the danger not head on, but with a different kind of wisdom, with a different kind of skill set. And that’s referred to in aikido, that capacity to immediately go into the peripheral place, as “soft eyes.” So instead of hardening your gaze and looking at whatever’s threatening—and anybody who spends a lot of time, for example, on Twitter, one of the things that happens on Twitter is you never see the thousands of nice things that people say about you on Twitter or the thousands of nice people who don’t reply to something that you’ve put up. What you see is the one thing, and the temptation in that kind of social media is you come back punching really hard. And then basically what happens is that you look like a bully and an idiot and then people get mad at you and then they all come roaring back and attacking. And so that’s a classic example of this.

But then the other example is to be able to just kind of take that breath and say, “OK, what’s possible here? What’s not in my immediate field of vision? Is there a way that I can engage this without that direct hit in return out of my own sense of fear?” And so gratitude does that. It gives you that moment to breathe differently and provides a wider field of vision. And in that wider field of vision, there are different tools. You have different choices to make. And sometimes those choices are, you do have to, you know, come back and say, you know, you’re wrong or what have you, but you can do that in ways that are not cruel or just cutting or snarky or something that would add to the violence of the moment, but instead something that actually moves a conversation or relationship ahead.

So that’s soft eyes, and I have always loved that. I learned it probably about 12 years ago from an Episcopal priest out in Los Angeles; that was the first place I heard it. And she pointed me towards Parker Palmer’s work on this. And then I’ve written about it in a couple of different books, and I try to practice that in my own life. I’m not always successful, but it is something I hold in front of me as the goal.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, I’d like to ask you about the limits of gratitude, if they exist. A couple of weeks ago, we hosted Kate Bowler who talked about, you know, in her own experience of fighting terminal cancer, she found that gratitude wasn’t enough. And in your own work, you quoted Catholic theologian Mary Jo Leddy, who said that gratitude does not dispel the mystery of suffering and evil in the world and may even deepen it. So I wanted to ask you, what does that mean? What are the limits of gratitude and are there ways that gratitude can actually be misconstrued to cause harm?

Diana Butler Bass: Yes and yes and yes. Gratitude—I think that the problem arises with gratitude when it does have so many benefits and it really is transformative, and that’s what my book is about: spiritual transformation and gratitude. But it’s not a magic pill. And I think that’s what people expect is that if you just sort of sit there and say, “I’m grateful, I’m grateful, I’m so grateful,” then nothing else bad is ever going to happen to you. And you know, I think part of that is from that misunderstanding that there are these different dimensions of gratitude. There’s the feeling aspect of it, which happens, you know, fairly randomly. Somebody has to give you something in order for you to feel that. And then there’s the ethical dimension of it, which is actually just about choice and doing things in considered manners. And so that means you have to really practice it. You have to really pay attention to it. Ethical choices are hard. Being formed as a moral being is not an easy thing to do. And so both of those things have, you know, you can’t just go to the closet in your bathroom and sort of take the gratitude pill for the day. These are things that you have to do and you have to look for and you have to be open to. So I think there’s problems with us, you know, is that we expect stuff to be easy when it’s really hard.

But then there’s that deeper mystery, the one I think that Kate points toward and also Mary Jo Leddy, who is a wonderful writer, Canadian sister, who’s a Catholic theologian. And she— When you look at history, and this is where I love to look, you see sometimes that the most grateful communities are oftentimes communities that have high degrees of oppression and injustice directed towards them. And indeed, many of the quotes that I use in Grateful come from people who were on the underside of history. Elie Wiesel writes beautifully of gratitude. And where did he learn it? He learned it in Auschwitz, in concentration camp.

And if you want to understand gratitude theologically, one of the better places to go is to go and sit in one of the Black churches in America for a while. And I remember asking Otis Moss from Chicago, from Trinity UCC in Chicago, one of America’s great Black preachers, if he could point me to any books on gratitude in the Black tradition. And he laughed at me, which was so sweet of him. I actually went, as soon as I asked him the question, I thought, “Well, that was really dumb to ask the question.” But I wanted to hear his answer, and he said, “Well, just come and listen to our music.” And I thought, “Yeah, see, it’s not in a book. You don’t have to write it down.” It’s something that is so deep and lived in the community, and that gratitude was actually a way that Black people in the United States constructed a sort of alternative understanding of community based around gifts and sharing. That was the nature of the beloved community that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. So gratitude is that pathway towards that construction, but it still doesn’t mean that Black people weren’t getting lynched. And that’s the mystery.

And, you know, those— For everyone here, you know, in certain ways, that’s above all of our pay grades theologically. My hope is—and this is one of the things that I do write toward in Grateful—that the more we understand that gratitude is not about quid pro quo—I give you something so you give me something back—which is the transactional kind of debt understanding of gratitude which holds people captive. That’s not gratitude. If you give someone a gift with the expectation they’re going to give you something in return, that’s not ethical gratitude. That’s quid pro quo. That’s a transaction where you’re hoping to be the beneficiary of the gift, not the beneficiary of the gift being the real person who is receiving the benefit of whatever has been given. And especially in Western societies, gratitude has often been turned into quid pro quo.

And so for the example of Black Americans, for example, is really good historically because here they were simply trying to survive and hold on to their own culture, and they’re in the system which has enslaved them. The system which gives them no freedom, the system which has tried to rob them of their dignity. But in constructing this alternative world, they rediscover all of those things. And yet the other system that’s on top of them is constantly saying, “You are not grateful enough.” You know, so if a Black person would talk back to, say, the master on a plantation, we all know what would happen, that the slave would be punished brutally, and the slave’s crime would have been ingratitude, that they were insufficiently grateful to the person who was clothing them, feeding them, you know, giving them a job or had introduced them to Christianity. And a lot of literature from slave-holding communities in the 19th century was literature like that. It was directed at the enslaved and said, “You owe us a debt of gratitude. Look at all this stuff that we white people do for you all the time.” And so Black people had to live in both of those worlds where the gratitude was different. They knew it to be a deeply dignifying practice where they knew that their lives were gifts, gifts from God. The huge embrace in the Black community of Christianity was that dignifying, understanding of a truly loving God who embraced them no matter what their circumstances are, now see that is real gratitude. And then there’s this unjust system, which is holding them to account on a really kind of vicious misinterpretation and malevolent view of gratitude, which says you must do something because I’ve done all these things for you.

And so that’s just the way history works. And I think that part of the call of those of us who get this really, truly deeply and who want our souls to be renewed by this, is to recognize that gratitude can be used ethically in so many improper ways. And yet when it’s used beautifully, it can save us as society, not just as individuals. And so that’s the mystery of it. And I love preaching on it. I love teaching on it. I love leading workshops on it. And people go away and they go, “Oh my gosh, I never knew that.” And it’s not just like—and I adore, you know, Oprah Winfrey; I think Oprah is a really great person, but there’s a misunderstanding, I think, in some New Age communities and even among many Christian women that if you just put sort of hearts and flowers on it and say thank you all the time, everything will be OK. Everything is not going to be OK unless we get in there and do the work to make these practices sing in our culture in such a way where people feel freedom, where people know that God loves them, where dignity and and truthfulness are valued. And so that’s what gratitude does for me. It really empowers me to do that kind of work.

Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a second, but before we do, I’d love to talk with you about some of those practices.

Diana Butler Bass: Sure.

Cherie Harder: Not just for communities, but also for individuals. And you even at one point talk about them as skills. You said, “To live gratefully involves the skills of noticing when a kindness is done or a benefit is received, returning the gift, embracing the sense of awe, and sharing benefits with others.” And you also noted that we are often more likely to be cued into what you called the habits of frustration rather than the habits of thankfulness. So I’m sure there’s a lot of people watching who would love to live more gratefully. What are the habits that sort of cultivate and inculcate that spirit of gratitude? And how does one go about essentially forming and inculcating them in one’s own life?

Diana Butler Bass: I have just one that I would love to share today, and it’s one that— Here in the United States, we’re getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving. Oh, it’s a great thing. I actually love living in a country where we’ve taken one day and turned it into a gratitude holiday. And one of the practices around Thanksgiving is often that before a family partakes the feast, you know, bust into the turkey and the pumpkin pie, they people go around table and they say something they’re grateful for, you know, for the year. Everybody has to give a gratitude. And I’ve often felt like that was like a turkey hostage situation. You know that you couldn’t eat anything until everybody gave the appropriate gratitude. “I’m grateful for X, Y, Z.” And people stumble over it all the time. It’s really weird.

And so one of the habits that I’ve actually learned is to take the word “for” out of the sentence of gratitude, because as soon as you say, “I’m grateful for,” there has to be an object there. “I’m grateful for a good doctor’s appointment.” “I’m grateful for the fact that my kid didn’t fail out of school this year.” “I’m grateful for getting a big raise.” So there’s some sort of material or intangible thing that we are grateful for. And so “for” in English tends to turn the benefits of giftedness into commodities. And that is the problem. You know, you’ll sit at a table and somebody will be grateful, “Oh, I got a big raise,” and you’re sitting there going, “I didn’t. As a matter of fact, I was worried I was going to get fired all year.” And so when gratitude just becomes about material benefit or that sort of “health and wealth” kind of thing, then it becomes a point of division and actually creates envy.

And so what I love to do is I change the prepositions. And so instead of saying “I’m grateful for,” I have a whole bunch of other prepositions, and I will do this kind of exercise throughout the week, really, but you can do it at Thanksgiving. You can say “I’m grateful with”: “I’m grateful with my husband just because we’ve survived the pandemic.” You know, “I’m grateful to be with.” Gratitude has grown within me for these many months that I have been able to retool my work and share it in new ways with new people. I’ve been grateful through this terribly challenging event. I am grateful in the present moment. I am grateful to God or to others. A wonderful prayer I’ve been using with groups this month about being grateful to the earth, to the sky, to the air. It’s a beautiful environmental prayer, reminds us that creation does the work that creation is supposed to do. And we can be grateful to the created world. I’m grateful, you know, in all these different kinds of ways.

And so if we change the preposition—I actually have a whole list of questions that I put up on my Substack page today—to whom or what are you grateful? What challenges have you been grateful through? Have you been grateful with others? Where have you discovered gratitude within? Has something in your life been changed by the practice of gratitude? In what circumstances have you experienced thankfulness? And as soon as you change the preposition, oh my gosh, the whole conversation changes, and it stops being about what you’re grateful for—those material things, which we should always be aware of and appreciative of. I say I’m grateful for a meal every day when I sit down for dinner. But gratitude is far more than that. It’s about a bunch of different prepositions. And so that’s one of the things that I like to remind people of is that prepositions matter, especially when it comes to gratitude. And maybe this Thanksgiving, that’s a really simple place to start. Think this week about the different prepositions of gratitude, and when somebody says, “What are you grateful for?” Maybe you should turn around and ask the host at the table, “Can we ask where we found gratitude within?” Or some other interesting question that makes the table go, “Oh, I never thought of that before.” And maybe then you’ll experience thankfulness in a new way.

Cherie Harder: So our first question comes from Diane Gerdan. Diane asked, “What moves gratitude from a human or humanistic response to the level of a specifically Christian discipline?”

Diana Butler Bass: Hey, I like that question. You know, it actually works in both ways, and that’s fantastic because, on one level, gratitude is a great practice in a pluralistic society and in a society where there are no more sort of majority religions. And I hear Christians, you know, griping all the time in the United States about how our communities are on decline and all that kind of stuff. And there’s plenty of work for us to do to strengthen our churches and to make sure that our stories are told well and that, you know, we feel faithful whatever comes our way. But at the same time, we also have to learn how to live and be in community with others, and [the fact] that gratitude has many different faces theologically that is a way that we can relate with others through a practice. You know, it doesn’t take an awareness of God’s presence to be thankful that the earth produces food for our benefit. You know, it doesn’t take any theological thing for that at all. And so that’s fantastic. And I think that that is something we can celebrate.

And then on the other hand, it is really important in each one of our different communities that we understand how our traditions have interpreted gratitude—and the Bible says an enormous amount about gratitude. And I was actually a little shocked when I wrote this book as to how little theologians have pulled out gratitude as a specific theological thread in scripture. There are very few books on this. Mary Jo Leddy’s stuff, from Catholic perspective. There are a couple of other Catholic books on gratitude. There’s a great book written by Bryan Gerrish, who taught at I believe Princeton for years called Grace and Gratitude. And there’s a little bit that sort of floats around understanding gratitude vis-a-vis the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, because “Eucharist” means, of course, really super amazing Thanksgiving meal. That’s what “eu” and “charist” means in Greek. So Eucharist is the ultimate Thanksgiving, as it were. And so we have that work to do, to attend to our theological traditions and form people in those traditions, whether Protestant or Catholic or Jewish. And Jews and Christians and Muslims actually share a language and understanding of gratitude growing out of the Hebrew scriptures that’s quite lovely. And we can do that and we can do it in our own synagogues and temples and churches. And yet we can also stand together and do it together. So I think that— I love gratitude for both its embracive dimension of being able to include people who aren’t theist and people who are theists. And then to also be able to go super deep into one’s own tradition and looking for the beautiful visions of gratitude that are present.

Cherie Harder: I want to combine a few questions that are on some of the more communal aspects of gratitude. Susan Anne Quist asks, “In times of disruption, it seems difficult to know how to handle gratitude without minimizing the grief. How do we hold a sense of gratitude honestly when we are in times, as a people, of disruption?” Somewhat similarly, Maureen McKnight asks, “How do we inspire society in general to embrace the ethical component of gratitude? We live in a society so overcome by emotions. How can we get others to step back from their emotions?” And then Jessica Vaughn-Lower asked, “Can you say a little bit more about the gratitude gap and how humanity can help close it?” A lot there.

Diana Butler Bass: Those are great questions. The one that really pops for me most immediately is the question about grief and gratitude. And I do think that grief and gratitude are actually of a piece. You know, if you ever go to a funeral, one of the things that often is talked about is all of the gifts and the most amazing things about the person who has died. And so we, as human beings, don’t often feel deep, profound grief unless we’re missing the gift of the person who has passed away. And so I don’t think that grief and gratitude can ever really be separated. And the pandemic has, I think, reinforced that. And it’s not just about the people we’ve lost, but the time we’ve lost, aspects of our careers we’ve lost, the way that our children have lost certain kinds of socializations, the way that we’ve lost our capacity to be with one another. All of that grief points to the fact that all of those things were gifts that we had taken for granted. And so I think that grief and gratitude almost always go in the same sentence, and that awareness is important in really getting to some of the deeper levels of gratitude.

I don’t know that we can ever, you know, sort of make people be grateful. I mean, part of the misuse of gratitude is a demand for gratitude: “You must be grateful.” And I tell several stories in the book about forced gratitude. Forced gratitude is about as bad as trying to force someone to forgive someone when they’re not ready. These practices have to come from a true heart renewed. And so what we can do in societies is set up environments and certainly learning situations and mentoring relationships that produce the capacity for people to embrace gratitude and understand its depth and power, and to understand it as a benevolent force, not a malevolent one. And then, you know, we as individuals and as families and as communities, we do the work. So demands for gratitude always fail. And you know, that’s part of what happens in authoritarian societies and dictatorships is that oftentimes authoritarian leaders demand gratitude from the people, you know. And so everybody fakes it. You know, in North Korea: “Oh yes, we’re so grateful to the great leader.” Or in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia or wherever you were. And it doesn’t matter if they’re politically left or right. These kinds of leaders just always make people say thank you. Caesar did it in ancient Rome. You can see little threads of this in the Bible when the church is being birthed. And so, yeah, authoritarians demand gratitude. They force people to say thank you. That’s not what we’re after here. And that wasn’t what Jesus was after. Jesus understood that gifts were freely given by a God who loves. That’s where gifts come from. Gifts come from the freedom of God’s own love. And what the theological ideal is in Christianity is that out of our freedom—and we argue as Christians about how our freedom is restored—but out of human freedom then comes our free response to those gifts. That we then love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and then we pass on the benefits, the gifts of grace that we have received to all others. And so biblical gratitude is very much dependent upon the idea of the free choice of God and, however we get there, the free choice of humanity. So force is never involved.

Cherie Harder: I’m going to combine two other questions. Ross Baffingwaite—and Ross, apologies, I think I may have mangled your last name—asks, “Could you please comment on how the nature of gratitude affects your understanding of providence or vice versa?” And again, somewhat relatedly, Richard Schmeltz asks, “Would you please discuss the connection of grace and mercy, not getting what we deserve and getting what we do not deserve? Is that not the basis of gratitude?”

Diana Butler Bass: Oh gosh, those are good questions. My theological perspectives are much more sort of Methodist and Anglican, and I hear a little bit of sort of Presbyterianism and Reformed theology in those questions. And that’s OK. We have different angles on the theological stories probably here. But in terms of providence, I think I just basically answered that question, is that part of the very nature of the being of God is this enormous capacity, this constant giftedness, and there I can even speak in more of a Reformed angle because, you know, like Jonathan Edwards, for example, believed that the entire nature of the universe was constantly contingent on the idea of an ever-gifting God. That at any minute, all of creation could disappear if God simply stopped giving the gifts of creation. And so this idea that everything that exists is a gift and everything that exists is contingent on the constant activity of an active, loving God who providentially cares for all of creation is part of that Reform tradition. And then I think it is also part of Anglican and Wesleyan traditions as well. Maybe not quite using the language of providence, but certainly using the languages of choice and compassion, that is the nature of God to always be giving gifts. And that’s why Eucharist is so important is that Eucharist is a weekly reminder in the ritual life of the church—or, you know, if you go to some other churches, a monthly reminder or quarterly reminder—that God is the one who is always giving the gift. God is always issuing the table invitations.

And that kind of segue-ways into that other question about mercy and grace is that, you know, my mom and probably everybody’s mom here taught them “it’s better to give than to receive.” But the truth of the Christian message, certainly the truth of Christian theology around gratitude, is that no one can give without having received first. And so we are not givers in the sense that we are born givers. The first act of our lives is that we receive the gift of life. It’s something we cannot control, that we cannot hold for ourselves, that is simply given to us, and that for me is teaching me every day when I remember that new levels of humility. And gratitude and humility actually run together too, which is a sadly lacking virtue—humility—in our culture. And so when you understand that we are all first of all recipients, that immediately is like, “Oh my gosh, how much love God has for me, how much love God has for the universe that these gifts were given to us without anything that we ever did or said or achieved!” And that then points very deeply to the mercy of God. That’s the very nature of grace that is the center of the cosmos. And so for me, this is a really central theological theme. It’s not secondary at all. In Christianity, it’s primary. And that’s why really, in effect, the two most important sacraments of the church, baptism and Eucharist, are both about gifts that other people give us.

Cherie Harder: In some ways, that’s a great segue-way to our final question from Juanita Lewis, who asked, “What are some creative ways to teach our children and young adults about gratitude and the importance of it without forcing them to be grateful?”

Diana Butler Bass: Oh, oh my gosh. I feel like in so many ways I failed at this, and I feel like I was failed. You know, my parents failed at it, too. So one of the things I really tried to do with my daughter is not hold her hostage over gratitude, beat her up, you know, “Oh, you didn’t write a thank-you note to your grandparents?” or what have you, because that’s the way we sort of get the demand piece introduced into people’s lives. And so more kinds of fun things that I think that were successful in my family were—and these happened somewhat coterminous with writing Grateful and some of them a little bit before, and they actually taught me things—is that the elementary school that my daughter went to every summer ran something that they called the Goodness Camp. And literally, it was a week where they would take the kids every single day out to a different nonprofit organization that was helping some group: at a hospital, at an old-folks home, children that needed to be read to. I mean, it was just amazing, and I signed my daughter up for it for a whim one year and every single year after that, as long as she was in the age range for that camp, that was the camp she always wanted to do. And so I think that that’s one of the ways certainly we teach our children gratitude is by putting them in contact with communities and other groups of people who help to remind them about what the gifts of life really are all about. And she just loved that. She developed such— I really think that really helped my daughter develop a really, truly grateful heart. And so that was one thing.

And then as she got a little bit older when she went off to college, one of the practices we developed as a family was sending each other a nightly gratitude text where we created this little thing called “This is the gratitude group chat.” And at night we would drop in something that had happened during the day that had given us pause to remember being grateful, something we were grateful for. Even though I was just talking about, don’t just emphasize “for,” but think about those other prepositions. And it was really fun. It was an interesting way to connect with my daughter as a young adult. And I got to see her first year in university through these interesting texts that she would send back home each day. And, you know, I’m sure I didn’t find the texts about the Jell-O shots at the fraternity party, but oh well. You know, I did at least find other things. And so I think that those two things, you know, opening our families up to experiences where the reality of what gifts and gratitude are and we really experience grace, mercy, gratitude from other perspectives is so important. And then this other thing is asking, you know, just sort of asking our kids, and keeping that on a front burner as they go from kid to young adult and to really just make that part of a family’s conversation very naturally.

Cherie Harder: Diana, thank you. And finally, Diana, the last word is yours.

Diana Butler Bass: Oh, I want to share with you one of my favorite quotes, and this is from brother David Steindl-Rast, who is a Catholic brother and he’s well into his 90s now and in certain ways he’s the guru of gratitude. And I think this quote just says it all: “If you’re grateful, you’re not fearful. And if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent. If you’re grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not a sense of scarcity and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people and you are respectful to everybody. And that changes this power pyramid under which we live.”

Cherie Harder: Thank you, Diana. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.


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