Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

In an earlier chapter, Celebrate Often, I talked about the need for teaching our children to find the good in life no matter how bad things may get and to celebrate it wherever they find it. This is the beginning stage of what it means to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, but it is by no means the complete picture.

“give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28

These two scriptures sit at the heart of what the Catholic Church teaches her children about how to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. She tells them that they are to Thank God in all circumstances with the knowledge that God works all things for the good of those who love Him, and because God would not allow anything into their lives that would not lead to their ultimate good which is a total and complete union with Him.

This means thanking God when the dog dies, the house is being repossessed, the car is totaled, the bills are piling up, the bank account is in the negatives, and there have just been layoffs announced at the company where you work not because those things are good in and of themselves but because you trust that through them God will work good for you. He has a plan, His plan is always good, always loving, and always best for you, and THAT is why you are thanking Him. It is an act of total and complete trust, total and complete surrender to His will no matter what form that will may take.

I did not always have this attitude of gratitude. It took going on a silent retreat at the age of 33 for God to teach me how to develop it. I told Him, during that retreat, that I wanted to be more grateful to Him. I knew that I wasn’t, but I didn’t know how to get there. His answer to me was simple, elegant, and beautiful. He told me if I truly wanted to learn to be grateful that I was to begin by thanking Him for everything that was going wrong in my life at that moment. I was to thank Him for EVERYTHING and EVERYONE that was in my life whether I liked it or hated it, wanted it or didn’t, thought it was wonderful or thought it was terrible.

This was a revolutionary concept for me. It has taken me years of practice, but I have seen the benefits that have come. When I thank God for everything, I remind myself that it’s all in His hands. I remind myself that there’s no situation, no person, and no circumstance that may come to be that isn’t going to be able to benefit me in the long run. Whether it’s inspiring a growth in my faith, or showing me something about the world that I’d never noticed before, these things are all allowed into my life for my ultimate benefit. It’s a change that has impacted the way that I look at and respond to every event in my life.

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is like anything else in life – it takes practice. It takes consistent effort, and it’s something we have to teach our children. What we most need to teach our children is that every person, every circumstance, and every situation they encounter contains within it a gift that is hidden from sight. The uglier the wrapping paper – the worse the circumstance looks, the more disagreeable the person, the more trying the situation – the greater the value of the gift contained inside it.

If we begin to look at everything and everyone in our lives as a gift of hidden value, then life becomes more joyful. Even the sad times become joyful because we know that contained in them is a gift meant just for us. A gift that, once we’ve found it, we’ll be glad we received and will be even more glad that we took the time to sift through that ugly, awful wrapping paper in order to find.

Teaching Gratitude

Gratitude, as the Lord pointed out to me, begins by saying thank you. We need to teach our children to thank God for everything. Lost the football game? Say thank you. Have the worst teacher in the history of teaching? Say thank you. Parents assigned you the bathroom for your chore and you think it’s totally gross? Say thank you. Broccoli on your plate and you hate broccoli? Say thank you anyway. In the beginning, those thank you’s will not come easily. After the broccoli is eaten, the bathroom is clean, the football game’s been lost, the teacher has done her worst, take the time to sit down with your children and find the gift hidden in all the ugly packaging.

Teaching your child gratitude in all things begins by first instructing them to thank God. Once they’ve properly thanked God, then you help them to look past the ugly wrapping paper and delve into the box so they can find the gift God wants them to receive. It’s an exercise in trusting God that has lifelong benefits. It teaches your child that although they cannot always control the behavior, situations, or circumstances they find themselves in – they have perfect control over how they react and respond to those things. That’s empowering!

For example, after your child has completed cleaning the bathroom, sit down with them and reflect on the fact that they have a bathroom at all. That they can get a hot shower when they want one, that they have the ability to wash their bodies without going to a freezing cold river to do it. Watch a documentary on what life is like in third world countries where such luxuries are unknown. Help them to see that the very fact they have a bathroom to clean is a gift and a privilege.

When your child has lost the football game, sit down with them and reflect on those times when they have been the winners. How did they handle their win? Were they gracious to the other team? Did they feel smug or self-satisfied? Now examine the game with them. What did they think went wrong? What did they think they could have done better? Show them how losing the game not only helps them to feel more compassion for the other team, but also helps them to reflect more deeply on where their team’s weaknesses are and what areas they can improve. Thus, losing becomes a better gift than winning!

Teachers that hate your child or that your child hates are still reasons to be grateful. After all, that your child has a teacher at all means he or she is able to attend school, something many children in the world would gladly do but can’t. Furthermore, that teacher with the difficult personality may not realize it, but he or she is there to help your child learn something important about themselves. Often the people we dislike the most are those who are reflections of our worst character flaws. For me, the worst teacher and worst boss I ever had were both perfectionists. Both of these teachers showed me what I looked like when I was being a perfectionist, and I didn’t like the picture it presented. It motivated me to change. Those two were the toughest people I would ever work with, but they became the greatest gift to me because I was able to recognize why I found them so hard to deal with and make changes to my life because of it.

Conclusion

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude begins with thanking God for whatever is in your life because you trust that He has a plan, that His plan for you is good, and that there is a gift hidden inside of every person, situation, and circumstance you encounter. The uglier the wrapping paper, the better the gift. Teaching your children to cultivate that same attitude empowers them by teaching them that while they do not have control over all of the people, situations, and circumstances in their lives - they always have control over what they choose to do about and with them. 

I hope you have enjoyed this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Church Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are joining us for the first time, you can follow the link above to read the introduction and earlier chapters.  I hope you will join us tomorrow for Chapter 34: Defending the Defenseless.

I thank you for the time you took to read this article. Please let me know your thoughts, comments, or suggestions in the comments below.

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