Gratitude, the thinking goes, disguises how we’re really doing and saps motivation for improving ourselves and society.
Are gratitude and authenticity incompatible? It would appear so, according to an activist spirit in young America. That spirit prizes both authenticity — being “real” — and progress, so it has little patience for the “count your blessings” counsel of older generations. Gratitude, the thinking goes, disguises how we’re really doing and saps motivation for improving ourselves and society.
I didn’t realize how much that spirit affected my own prayer. For years, an apparent tension between thankfulness and honesty formed a knot at the center of my spiritual life. I knew from experience, of course, that gratitude for blessings could foster happiness and closeness with God. But I also prioritized authenticity with the Lord. The last thing I wanted to do with Him was to pretend that things were okay when they weren’t.
Willing myself to be thankful when I didn’t feel it struck me as dishonest. Thus, I often began my holy hours by expressing everything that was going wrong. Such outpourings, I believed, were an effective safeguard against being fake in front of the tabernacle.
Some simple advice from my spiritual director challenged this belief: “At the beginning of time in prayer,” he suggested, “take five minutes to identify things you’re grateful for.” I gave him a wary look. Was such a practice tantamount to burying my head in the sand, ignoring my feelings, and cutting myself off from reality?
I’ve found that the opposite is true: There is no more sure way to encounter reality than by identifying concrete gifts in my life. Why? Because reality itself is a created gift from God. Without first orienting myself to this gift-driven logic of the cosmos, I miss something essential for my self-understanding. The core of my existence, both its beginning and sustenance, is a complete gift from Him.
In fact, ignoring the gifts in my life is the sure path to fantasy and inauthentic living. Far from sapping motivation for growth or pretending away problems, noticing the blessings of God anchors me in the truth that He will always take care of me. This grounding relationship gives me the deep, secure sense of self which authentic living requires.
What of our sufferings, pains, and unmet desires? God wants to hear those too, and prayers of gratitude remind us that our cries are heard by One who takes care of us.
This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.