Gratitude may be the mother of all the other virtues, as Cicero said, and it may be among the healthiest. But it’s also an elusive one in a society that is always striving for more and in a world “more full of weeping than you can understand,” as Yeats wrote.
Our tendency is to reach past what we have attained, to have expectations that lie just beyond our grasp and to ascribe our success to ourselves rather than others. It is also easy to confuse gratitude with self-satisfaction.
We all feel, from time to time, that things are never as good as they ought to be or as we want them to be. When one goal is attained, isn’t there always another one that needs to be seized? And isn’t dissatisfaction with the way things are the impetus to make things better?
Often it is. Yet life without the leavening effects of gratitude has a hardening effect. Ingratitude leaves us in a state of perpetual discontent, short-tempered, rarely at peace, rarely at rest. Stripped of gratitude, we find ourselves frustrated and fearful, impatient and on edge. Ingratitude also blinds us to the good in our midst — beauty, the wonders of nature, the gift of friendship, the blessings of family.
Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th-century Spanish theologian and founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, wrote that “ingratitude is one of the things most worthy of detestation before our Creator and Lord.” It is, he said, “a failure to recognize the good things, the graces and the gifts received.”
Building on this point, Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and one of America’s leading theologians, told me that ingratitude is a fundamental rather than a superficial sin. It is part and parcel of pride and self-centeredness, a deep denial of how dependent we are on God and one another. If we aren’t thankful, it’s because we don’t think we owe anyone anything.
My guess is that if you think about people you know whose lives are characterized by gratitude, you’ll find them to be outward- rather than inward-looking, quick to be kind. They approach the world with delight, a certain enchantment and a light touch. They are not blind or indifferent to the hardships and pain surrounding them, but they are still able to find joy in the journey. “The world is hot and cruel,/We are weary of heart and hand,” G. K. Chesterton wrote in a poem responding directly to Yeats. “But the world is more full of glory,/Than you can understand.”
Feeling that they are the object of affection and love, people who are grateful are more able to dispense grace to others. Gratitude finds ways to express itself; the result is a more humane, tender and merciful society.
But gratitude in its most remarkable manifestation is separate from circumstances. Those who show gratitude in the midst of hardship, as their world shatters around them, have the most to teach the rest of us.
I’ve written before about my friend Steve Hayner, who was president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and a huge influence on my life. He was told he had terminal cancer on Easter weekend four years ago. (He died early in 2015.) Shortly after he learned the news, he said: “There are never any guarantees in this life, and this is a chance to take Jesus’ words to heart: ‘And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life span?’ (Matthew 6:27). We’ll choose the way of trust and joy instead.” And so he did.
Months later, in reflecting on how things had changed for him, knowing that death soon awaited, Steve wrote: “Life is just plain different now. I like parts of my previous life better. But the choices have changed. Every day has always been an opportunity for attentiveness, gratitude and living into God’s call.” Now he had much less of a desire to “seize the day,” he said, than “to welcome it — with all its twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and discoveries of yet other areas to which I must pray my goodbyes and let the grieving roll.” And so he did.
None of us is exempt from periods of pain, doubt and discouragement. Even the Apostle Paul confessed in his second letter to the Corinthians that there were times when he felt the pressures of life pushed him beyond the ability to endure, “so that we despaired of life itself.”
Gratitude is hardly restricted to people of faith, just as people of faith are not exempt from ingratitude. This is another way that people don’t fit into tidy boxes. Temperament, disposition and life circumstances all play a factor in determining how we face the world.
But for many of us of the Christian faith, there are certain events that are sources of continuing thankfulness. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are pre-eminent among them. They reassure us that while suffering is unavoidable, death is not final and hope is eternal, that there are things that lie beyond the joy and anguish of this life. There is gratitude in the conviction that the story doesn’t end and that there are endless new chapters to be written, and that ultimately there is reconciliation and redemption to be found for my broken life and our broken world.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner), a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.