[This post is the eleventh in a series called “Humans Anonymous” on the spirituality of twelve-step recovery and the insights it offers for anyone wanting to live a spiritually-centered life. Links to all articles in the series can be found by clicking here or by clicking the Humans Anonymous link under “Categories” on the right-hand side of this page.]
It’s November again, which means that once again, thousands or perhaps even millions of people are once again participating in the “30 Days of Thanksgiving” phenomenon on Facebook. If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, the idea is that each day for the month of November, people post a status identifying something they are grateful for. While some of these messages fall into the obnoxious category of “humble-brag” (“Today I am thankful that God allowed me to earn my position as the youngest Executive Vice President in the history of the Acme Widget Corporation, and then blessed me with a super-hot spouse to be the love of my life! Love you, babe!”) or the equally obnoxious “Vaguebooking About Others” (“Today I am grateful that I am not a lying, cheating, low-down dirty weasel of a hypocrite, unlike SOME people I know.”), most of them represent the true spirit of the exercise, which is to take a moment each day to recognize and give thanks for the blessings in our lives.
The concept of gratitude is central to the spirituality of recovery communities. Many recovering people are periodically encouraged by their sponsors to write gratitude lists; meetings often center on the topic of “maintaining an attitude of gratitude”, especially in the month of November; many people, when sharing in meetings, introduce themselves as “grateful recovering alcoholics (or addicts)”; and it is an oft-repeated axiom in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous that “a grateful alcoholic (or addict) won’t drink (or use).” While I’m not comfortable with blanket statements like that last one, which always seem to me like they are begging to be proven wrong, I can say that, in my experience, I’ve never known anyone who was assiduously cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” to relapse.
The concept of gratitude gets plenty of play within the Judeo-Christian tradition as well. A very cursory search of the Bible reveals 213 hits of some form of the work “thank”. The ancient Israelites made regular thankofferings to God; indeed, “give thanks to the Lord” appears to be one of the most ancient liturgical formulas in Scripture. Songs of thanksgiving constitute the second-most common genre in the Psalms. In instituting the Eucharist, Jesus first took the bread and gave thanks for it. Paul, perhaps the most influential theologian in the first century of Christianity (and certainly the most prolific), constantly encourages the recipients of his letters to give thanks and to live lives marked by profound gratitude. Indeed, writing from prison not long before his execution, Paul exhorts the Philippians,
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6; emphasis added)
So, if gratitude is such a wonderful thing, and such a central part of the spiritual life, why is it so hard to maintain that kind of attitude? The short answer is, because life is hard. As noted above, psalms of thanksgiving are the second-most common genre in the Psalter; the most common is psalms of lament. It is hard to maintain an “attitude of gratitude” when we’re hurting, and doubly so when we’re frightened. It also doesn’t help that some forms of mealy-mouthed, “I’m okay, you’re okay”, Power-of-Positive-Thinking Christianity have blithely and facilely encouraged suffering people to “count your blessings” rather than entering into solidarity with sufferers, and in doing so have essentially said, “Buck up, little camper!” instead of standing in the midst of the suffering with those who are afflicted. The man who wept because he had no shoes until he met a man who had no feet still had a legitimate problem, after all, and too often the church (individually or corporately) has encouraged gratitude as a cheap panacea and as a way to avoid directly addressing legitimate suffering in the world. Telling someone in the midst of deep, real, legitimate suffering to “count their blessings” is not only insensitive, it’s downright cruel. (It’s also a good way to either literally or figuratively get a black eye, and rightly so.)
This is yet another place where the practical spirituality of recovery can be of benefit to a broader audience. When people in recovering communities speak of gratitude, it is not as a means of avoiding the reality of suffering, but as a means of standing in solidarity with the sufferer while simultaneously pointing beyond the sufferings of the moment. When a sponsor encourages a sponsee to make a gratitude list, the sponsor does so having already shared something of his or her story, and can thus speak with credibility about the possibility of gratitude even in the midst of pain and fear. When gratitude is discussed in meetings, particularly by “old timers” with significant periods of sobriety under their belts, it is discussed as the kind of realistic gratitude that takes into account the deep wounds of human existence and yet dares to give thanks nonetheless. It is gratitude in the context of shared experience of trials, suffering, fears, failures and even occasional triumphs. It is the kind of gratitude that can point to scars, and even to fresh bruises and wounds, and dare to be hopeful and grateful even in the midst of it them.
That kind of gratitude carries on long after Thanksgiving Day, and long after the “30 Days of Gratitude” have elapsed. It is the kind of gratitude that truly does become an attitude, an orientation toward the world and its people, a way of seeing and of being in the world. And that “attitude of gratitude” provides sustenance for the journey through this thing called life.