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LEARNING TO BE GRATEFUL IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE EARLIEST LESSONS WE’RE TAUGHT AS CHILDREN. “Say thank you,” a parent will remind a shy toddler as he or she accepts a lollipop or gift or compliment. Over the years, if it’s nurtured and encouraged, that attitude of gratitude can develop into something that not only prompts us to be courteous and kind toward others, but also fosters within us a sense of wonder and appreciation for our own life and the world around us.

     Most of us are adept at everyday gratitude, from the quick thank-you to the cashier at the grocery store to the handwritten note in appreciation for some kindness, to a blessing said with heads bowed before dinner each night. But as new studies show, gratitude goes far deeper than the niceties we typically associate with it. If it dwells at the core of our being, at the center of our faith and our daily life, gratitude can transform our perspective on everything that comes our way, the good as well as the bad.

     Christian singer Laura Story wrote a beautiful song in response to some of her own hardships, and the lyrics spell out a kind of gratitude that comes only with deep faith and regular acknowledgment of God’s goodness moving in our lives, even when we don’t always recognize it, even when we feel alone: “What if your blessings come through raindrops?

     What if your healing comes through tears? And what if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know you’re near? What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?”

     Laura’s song echoes an idea we see throughout Hebrew and Christian Scripture and in the traditions of all of the world’s great religions: Total trust in God means learning to be grateful not only when the obvious blessings pour down on us, but when the pain and suffering blindside us and leave us gasping. Not an easy task, but we can work our way up to that higher plane of gratitude by starting small.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” —Cicero

Recognizing Our Blessings

     If you’ve ever volunteered at a soup kitchen in a poor neighborhood or talked to someone who’s taken a mission trip to a Third World country, you’ve probably seen a similar theme emerge. People set out to serve others, but what typically happens is that they return home realizing they received much more than they gave. In the midst of abject poverty, you can often find incredible generosity, unceasing gratitude, and inspiring faith.

     As it turns out, material wealth doesn’t always make us grateful. In fact, sometimes it does just the opposite, as evidenced by our culture’s hunger for more, more, more. Nothing ever seems to be enough. But in other cultures, where even having a nutritious meal is a gift, people learn to find their joy in deeper things—in God, in each other, and within themselves. And where there is joy, there is gratitude.

     “Happy,” a recent documentary that offered viewers a glimpse into the lives of people from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Calcutta, echoed this reality: When people approach life from a place of gratitude, even when things are not going smoothly, they become happier people. As one pop song puts it, “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

     One woman in the “Happy” documentary had been a debutante in her youth, stunningly beautiful and wildly successful. And then a car accident turned her life upside down and left her face disfigured to the point of making her unrecognizable. Her husband left her. She had every reason to feel angry and cheated, and yet in the film she talks about the fact that she is happier now than she was before her accident. Somehow along the way, her willingness to look for the blessings amid the pain allowed her to transform her misfortune into a gift. That is gratitude at its best.

“This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice in it and be glad.” —Psalm 118:24

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