Interfaithfully: Finding gratitude in turbulent times

by Karen Sapio | Special to the Courier

On October 3, 1863, three months after more than 50,000 Americans died in the battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln did a remarkable thing: he called upon the nation to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving. 

It is not necessary to quote more of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation here. One can read it in its entirety on numerous websites with just a few keystrokes. What this bit of history shows is that giving thanks in turbulent times is woven into the fabric of our national holiday.

Perhaps Lincoln grasped intuitively what researchers have recently demonstrated. Gratitude is a hedge against despair. Several research projects in recent years, including The John Templeton Foundation’s 2018 “The Science of Gratitude” report, have noted that individuals and communities that intentionally cultivate gratitude tend to be more resilient, more connected to their neighbors and coworkers, and even experience better sleep than those who do not. Cultivating gratitude during difficult times activates both individual and communal capacities to persevere in the face of hardship and to navigate tough circumstances that require discernment and collaboration.

An early preaching mentor of mine once remarked that all Thanksgiving sermons can be summed up in one sentence: “We should be more grateful than we are!” But how do we cultivate gratitude? Telling ourselves or others to feel a certain way on command seldom produces the desired feeling.

Some who have researched gratitude suggest that it is helpful to think of gratitude not so much as a feeling but as a quality of attention. Practicing gratitude is the daily discipline of paying attention to beauty, courage, kindness, and wisdom when we see these around us. Practicing gratitude means cultivating our capacity to focus on those things that offer glimmers of hope and light amidst the shadows that may surround us. It is this quality of attention that may finally open our hearts to the emotions we associate with gratitude. To paraphrase another saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “We can focus on the outrage that the rose bush has thorns, or focus on the wonder that the thorn bush has roses.”

Sometimes gratitude arises within us spontaneously. More often it is hard. Gratitude may be a quality of attention, but we live in an age of distraction. The screens on our desks, on phones in our pockets, and on smart watches on our wrists tug at our attention and scatter it in a hundred different directions each hour. It is almost as if powerful forces want to pull our attention from those things that might cultivate gratitude in us as individuals or communities, to keep us from discovering the resilience, connection, and power of gratitude as a hedge against despair and anxiety. Who gains when we remain despairing and anxious? Who gains when we feel disconnected and powerless? Asking these questions moves gratitude from resilience to resistance.

As we approach Thanksgiving this year, being grateful may seem to require us to close our eyes to the immense suffering taking place in the world. Our interfaith community, particularly, has been carrying the heaviness of the conflict in Israel/Palestine where forces of terror and violence have wreaked devastation there and brought the evils of antisemitism and Islamophobia to the doorsteps of our friends and neighbors. However, if we view gratitude as actively opening our eyes to the deeper realities of compassion, beauty, and courage that violence cannot destroy, perhaps our gratitude will be the resistance that drives the shadows away and brings us together in the light.

Karen Sapio is a pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church.


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