In this week between Thanksgiving and Advent, I thought I would share with you part of a Thanksgiving reflection given by our Sister Maria Goretti Browne, OP, that focuses on the sometimes hard work of practicing gratitude. Suffering is an unavoidable part of life and at times we need to lament and share our grief with others and with God. By embracing suffering in this way we can grow in our ability to love life unconditionally.
Sometimes, however, we may choose to intensify the difficulties of life by incessant complaining, stirring up resentments, nursing grudges and basically being a walking wet blanket. There is another more healthy option: gratitude. Research tells us that if we learn how to appreciate life in all its dimensions, we will feel better, be less prone to stress and sickness, sleep better, and live longer and healthier lives.
Sister Maria Goretti challenges us to give thanks in all circumstances of life. She recounts a rather extreme response of giving gratitude in the unbearable circumstances of war. She writes:
I read one time that during the war in Southeast Asia, there was a young Vietnamese boy who would sing as he worked in the rice fields, even as the bombs burst all around him. He explained that he could not stop the war, but he could keep the fear of death from overtaking his heart; he had to fight to be peaceful and happy inside while the horror and sadness of war swirled around him.
Maybe gratitude is an attitude. Most of us take very good care of our bodies, even try to walk – what is it – 10,000 steps? We practice each day, and eventually we will get to the 10,000 number. How about us practicing gratitude – Each day being more grateful than the day before, being more and more conscious of the blessings in our lives. Just look around. Thank God for our vocation, be it religious life, or married life, or single life; we are blessed with wonderful spouses or companions, wonderful co-workers, blessed with beautiful families, blessed with talents too many to enumerate, blessed with the ability to spread God’s love. Everywhere we look we see where we can spread that love and gratitude.
We know the account in Scripture of the three young men who were thrown into a fiery furnace. What’s the first thing they did? They broke into a song of praise and thanksgiving for all that God had made. Theirs was such an attitude of gratitude that their suffering was secondary. They danced among the flames unharmed (Daniel 3).
What about us? Do we find ways to give thanks to God in all circumstances?
The perfectionism trap is the belief that we need to be perfect, look perfect, and act perfect in order to be worthy of love and acceptance. Anything less than perfection — illness, disability, family divorce, accident, addiction, unemployment — threatens to eclipse our unique beauty and ability to live in the light of love. Whenever suffering overshadows our life, we can feel trapped in a nighttime of painfully low self-esteem, isolation, and blame. Where does God stand in the midst of our human struggle? Do we image God as a harsh judge who reinforces our guilt and shame? Or is our God a loving liberator who frees us from the snares of perfectionism?
I believe that the solar eclipse we experienced this week is God’s way of expressing the truth that the darkness we suffer is temporary and will never defeat the radiance of our authentic identity. As we bask in the invincible light of God’s love, we hear the gentle truth speaking from within: No one is perfect. Join the human race! Let your love grow strong enough to accept yourself unconditionally and come to know the joy of being imperfect. As Pulitzer Prize winning author Anna Quindlen puts it, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning to work on becoming yourself.” As witnessed by the solar eclipse, our light is not meant to be hidden, but to shine forth for all to see.
Our liberator God calls us to let go of perfectionism in our determination to love ourselves unconditionally. Can we begin to see our imperfections as neutral realities with both good and bad aspects? Perhaps our limiting disability has taught us empathy and compassion for others or our destructive addiction has taught us to trust in the saving help of God. Struggling to amend our moral imperfections builds our character and makes us better, more loving people. In our journey to become our authentic selves, God will be our compassionate guide and gratitude for our life will dawn like the sun.
Take time to reflect: Are you in the perfectionism trap? Can you give thanks for your imperfections? How has struggling with your imperfections made you a better person?
When we are stuck in a state of restless dissatisfaction—“I want this, I want that”—we can fail to see the value of life and focus only on what is wrong with the situation, ourselves and other people. We may relentlessly push ourselves to achieve success and independence because we want what do not have. And once we have it, we want something else. When we are caught in this dynamic, we do not value the good things we have in life or take joy in God.
The remedy for this unhappy state is simple: gratitude. It should not surprise us that people who feel thankful acknowledge inner richness and deeply appreciate small things that many of us take for granted—good health, the beauty of nature, a kind word. Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often speaks about the joy of breathing!
Are we supposed to be thankful even in times of suffering? How are we to respond to the tragedies and evils that cause us such great pain and turmoil? Gratitude does not mean ignoring hardships in life. True gratitude exists only where compassion and awareness of evil are present. It is strange but true: when we have struggled with illness, we appreciate health; when we experience a broken relationship, we rediscover the importance of friendship, when we have experienced the agony of defeat, we appreciate the sweetness of success.
In good times and bad, may we allow gratitude to open us to the presence of God. May we learn to savor God’s loving relationship, who gives us this day our daily bread. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart states, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”
As you celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, take time to reflect on your practice of gratitude. Do you easily give thanks for the many gifts in your life in a spirit of inner contentment for what you have, or are you easily caught up in the sense of dissatisfaction with life, forgetful of your blessings through lack of time or attention? How might you cultivate gratitude in your life?
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Get out your bell-bottoms and platform shoes, because DISCO is here!
Okay, so it's a little less dancing, a little more talking... Sisters Lorraine Réaume, OP, and Sara Fairbanks, OP, have a video series called DISCO (Discernment Conversations): Dancing with the questions of life!