Gratitude seems at odds with desire.
Not in the little things. It is easy to say “thank you” to the server at Starbucks. I don’t want that much from them, so when I get the little that I do want, I can acknowledge it. But in the bigger things, gratitude feels a bit like a set up.
A couple is fighting for more in their marriage. She has begged for more involvement, more of his heart, more of his attention. And he begins to give it… a little more and then more and then more regularly.
“I am trying. I am different, but none of it seems to register.” So he asks her, “Do you see a difference?”
“Well, yes I do.”
“Why don’t you acknowledge my attempts to love you?”
“Because if I do, I fear you will stop… and I want more from you and for us. If I thank you, I am afraid you will think that it is enough. It will let you off the hook.”
To be grateful seems to accept that this is good enough. And we always want more.
So one way we protect ourselves from the set-up is to withhold gratitude.
Another way to self-protect is to want less or pretend that I want less. If I am not aware of wanting more, then when I get it, I won’t even notice. That has been part of my struggle. I protect myself by not wanting a lot, which makes it hard for others to give to me, and also gives me very little reason for gratitude. Life becomes bland and safe. And life becomes frustrating for those who want to love me. If you give to me or love me, will I notice?
Genuine, deep-seated gratitude feels like it requires real vulnerability. I have to be willing to set myself up for disappointment in the future in order to meaningfully appreciate what I have today. You might not come through next time. Or you might not keep trying to grow. Or your coming through might make me aware that I want even more.
Now there are other things that seem safer to be grateful for – the changing leaves, the country I live in, a good sermon, and even the love of God. I don’t find that I worry about being disappointed when I am grateful for the Cross.
And yet even there, sometimes God disappoints me. He doesn’t answer prayers the way I want or when I want. To thank Him in all things makes sense in a “big faith” kind of way, but little sense when what I want seems so in keeping with what I think He would want and even what I see Him giving to others.
I keep coming back to vulnerability. If I am grateful, then I am vulnerable. In the near future, a gap remains between what I long for and what I will have. If I really savor the moment today when Lynne loves me or I sense God’s beauty in the world or my child is doing really well, then I am set up for a possible disappointment. So is it worth it?
My limited conclusion is that in order to risk being grateful for today, I need to have a deeper confidence in my far future. There will be a day when my desire is fulfilled. There is a day when my gratitude will be omnipresent and when love will never disappoint. The death of winter will never come, and the risk of gratitude will go away. When I believe that, the risk of enjoying and being grateful for today becomes possible.
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.
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