Keeping Gratitude Simple
I’m a proud alumnus of a Jesuit school — Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. One thing the Jesuits are very good at doing is talking about themselves, especially when it comes to their founder, Ignatius of Loyola. Because of this, I think I’ve forgotten more about Ignatian spirituality in the past four years than many people will learn in their entire life. The Jesuits would be so proud.
There were a few things I latched on to, though. One of those was the Jesuits’ vow of poverty, which, from what I saw in my interactions with them, must have some awesome loopholes. Another, more important one was the deep value the Ignatian spiritual tradition places on gratitude.
While I was in college, I’d often hear about gratitude in an Ignatian context: how it’s important that we live our life with a “posture of gratitude”; that we ought to reflect on our days and actions through a grateful lens, etc. That’s about the same time I learned that I quickly lose interest when people use big words to talk about things that don’t need to be that complicated.
Gratitude, joy, peace
While I can appreciate the Ignatian tradition’s determination to delve into what it means to be grateful, for me it’s pretty simple: Gratitude is an awareness of the reasons we have to be joyful and at peace.
And that’s what you’ll find at the heart of all the methodological explanations and explorations: joy and peace. Those two words, along with gratitude, are maybe some of the most overused in our religious conversations, but they’re also the ones that represent our most profound desires. We want to be happy. We want to be at peace. And the most authentic way to do that is through gratitude.
That’s not to say that a simpler understanding of gratitude makes that easier — it doesn’t. But I’ve started to cultivate an awareness of what I have to be thankful for, and have also started experiencing glimpses of what it means to really be happy or really be at peace.
I try to be intentional in thinking about those gifts and things and people I have to be grateful for. They’re usually little things. A song will come on that I like — right now, it’s probably from Coldplay’s “Mylo Xyloto” album because I’ve been absolutely punishing that CD — and a smile will come to my face. Or my border collie Charlie, who is also an idiot, will jump into my car with muddy paws and I’ll want to kill him, but then I realize that he’s pretty lovable and also that I’m in the minority of people who are able to own a car and a dog and I’ve really got nothing to complain about. Or my girlfriend Laura will send me a text first thing in the morning that says she really liked the blog post I published at 2:04 a.m. And that turns out to be the only praise or feedback that I get for that piece of writing but I’m totally OK with that because her words mean a lot.
They can be big things, too. I’ll watch my mom making dinner, and my eyes will alternate between her face, her hands, and her feet, because with each quiet grimace I can see how much of a toll even that small task of cooking takes on her, with her rheumatoid arthritis. But she pushes through because she wants to do it. Or I’ll see my dad asleep on the couch at 7 p.m., mouth wide open, because he’s so tired from working all day and sometimes on the weekends at a job he can’t really stand but does anyway. Both only want to provide for their family.
I can’t help but be moved when I look at my current situation. I was supposed to be in Vietnam right now — from September until March of next year, I was going to backpack through the country with a friend. That trip fell through at the last minute, though, leaving me with no Plan B and a whole lot of time to feel sorry for myself. Gradually, though, I began to realize that I don’t have a whole lot of reasons for self-pity. While the trip’s falling through was unfortunate, I wasn’t exactly left in the lurch: My parents have let me live at home, rent-free. I’m becoming closer to them, my brother, and my grandparents because I have time to spend with them for the first time in four years. My girlfriend and I were able to stay together. And I have a whole support network of friends and mentors who would bend over backwards (and have) to help me. With their help, I’m applying for jobs and am starting to hear back from places.
When I stop and take the time to think about it, I realize that I have no shortage of things to be grateful for. But I’m not pretending it’s easy to stop and take that time. I regularly forget how lucky, how blessed, how privileged I am to lead the life I live. And when that happens, I’m not happy. I’m restless. I’m so wrapped up in myself that I can’t hear the sound of others’ work in my life. That struggle will never end, either. Gratitude is like staying afloat in a pool — once you jump in, you still need to tread water. (Did I just write an adage?)
Thanksgiving is coming up, and when my family goes around the table to say grace, I usually keep it to 15 seconds or less because my dad gets this hungry look in his eyes, and I don’t want to be on the wrong end of that. But especially as I go through this transitional phase, I’m making an effort to be more aware of the reasons I have to be grateful. It makes all the uncertainty and waiting and closed doors a bit more bearable — and gives me plenty of reasons to smile, take a deep breath, and relax.