gratitude.

27 Nov

This Precious Day
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on November 25, 2012

The original idea of the service for today was to take the Moment for All Ages that Chris just did about A Wish for the Holidays and expand on it. At this family-centric time of year, the idea was to talk about how families are being torn apart because of our unjust immigration laws, and what we might do about it. And while that certainly is still true, and deserves a service of it’s own, when we were planning the service, I didn’t know that I would have spent all month reading on facebook what friends and family had said they were grateful for, and I didn’t know that I would have a memorial service for a remarkable woman yesterday.

As I prepared for my own family to come over to our house for Thanksgiving, I was filled with such a sense of gratitude for the people who are in my life, and for those whose paths have crossed with mine. I thought about the service on “Grace” a few weeks ago. As I held all these things in my mind and in my heart, I realized that I had neglected to “wrap up” this season of grace and gratitude by having a service specifically about giving thanks.

You may, or may not, be grateful that I made the change.

So what is so great about gratitude? If you cruise the bookstore or amazon.com, you will find plenty of books on the subject. Newspapers and magazines constantly are writing about it – not just during November but right now one can’t seem to avoid the topic. It seems to be psychologists go-to emotion right now, and with good reason. The NY Times reported last year that “Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” Gratitude makes you feel better about your life, and makes you less aggressive towards others – perhaps because you don’t feel as though you are being denied or thwarted.

Gratitude also helps you get up on the balcony – something I have talked about quite a bit in the last month. When you experience gratitude, when you think about the things you are grateful for, or thankful for, it allows you to get the big picture view of your life. Things that seem enormously difficult or overwhelming while you are on the dance floor may seem easier to deal with then you are on the balcony and can see the big picture. Gratitude can help us get up there.

If gratitude is so good for us, and it does indeed seem to be, that left me wondering what the opposite might be. The dictionary was just this side of useless – the only antonyms listed are ungrateful and thankless. However, if we understand gratitude to be an emotional experience of our abundance, then it seems to me that the opposite of gratitude would be more along the lines of feeling deprived, of being in a state of wanting, of being bereft. These seem to fit as the opposite of gratitude.

This doesn’t mean that in order to experience gratitude that you have to be happy-happy-joy-joy, all-is-right-with-the-world all the time, because that is certainly not how life is – life is rife with suffering and pain. Buddha taught that to be alive is to suffer. Gratitude shifts the focus from what we lack, to what we have. It puts our emotional and spiritual energy into a positive, constructive zone rather than a negative, destructive zone.

This reminds me of a Cherokee story I heard – at least that was how it was attributed when I heard it. Here is how it goes:

An old Cherokee is teaching his granddaughter about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the girl.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is gratitude joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, and compassion. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The granddaughter thought about it for a minute and then asked her grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one we feed.”

Which emotions are we feeding? The ones that tell us that we are deprived and lacking, or the ones that focus on all that we have?

This story came to my mind as I saw all the media surrounding Black Friday. A few years ago, something shifted. Black Friday went from getting a good deal on the presents you buy for others during the holiday season and toward an consumerist “You need this to be a whole person and we will sell it to you cheap” attitude.

And the sales are starting earlier and earlier. A friend of mine works for Walmart, and he had to work on Thursday – and he worked for several days before and after Thanksgiving. No time off. Thanksgiving is trending toward becoming a holiday exclusively for the elite who get the day off. I saw something that said: “Black Friday: Because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have.” How long will it be before we have ditched the concept of gratitude and giving thanks for what we have and replaced it with consumerist greed? We seem to be feeding the evil wolf.

So how can we avoid trampling each other, and feed the good wolf instead?

One easy, simple way is by keeping a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal is a way to intentionally focus on what we have to be grateful for in our lives. I first heard about the concept probably about 15 years ago, when Oprah had someone on her show talk about the power of gratitude. I dismissed the idea as too new-agey at the time, but have since found it to be a powerful way of feeding the good wolf.

The idea is quite simple: each night, before you go to bed, write down 3 things about the day that you are grateful for. Some days, this can be a difficult exercise – you might find yourself reaching for esoteric ideas and concepts rather than concrete things. It is definitely not always easy. But it is not meant to be. And like any exercise, it gets easier the more you practice it. As you put in the effort to think of what you are grateful for before you go to bed, you are feeding that good wolf, and getting all those benefits the NY times reported: better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others.

Testimonials abound about how keeping a gratitude journal can change not just your attitude but your experience of life. How many of you did a month of gratitude? And how many of you did it have a positive effect on? The most powerful I’ve heard comes from a couple I know. They hit a rough patch in their marriage. They were contemplating divorce, because they didn’t know how to fix the resentment they were each feeling. They loved each other, or knew they once had. They were not quite ready to give up, but rapidly heading that way as the resentment grew each day.

One of them had heard about gratitude journals and suggested they try something. The other agreed. Every night, before going to bed, each of them wrote down three things that they were grateful for about the other person. After writing down their three things, they would put the journal on their partners dresser, and they would each read what the other had written the next morning.

Not only did focusing on the positive things about their partner help them feed the good wolf, but spending their first moments in the morning reading what the other had written helped them both to feel seen, appreciated. The resentment slowly began to fade away, replaced with appreciation. The couple claims that it saved their marriage.

This is the power of gratitude: it leads to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. If it were a pill, millions of people would be lined up at the pharmacy. If it were an electronic device, they would have sold on on Black Friday.

But it is not a pill, and it is not something you can buy. It is so much simpler than that – it is an attitude you can cultivate with just a few minutes a day, and no money spent.

So right now, we are going to practice cultivating gratitude, through something called a Gratitude Communion…

You will notice that there was a ¼ sheet of paper in your orders of service that says at the top “Today, I am grateful for”

Let us all take a minute now to write down one thing for which we are grateful for about the last 24 hours. When you are done writing, please bring your paper up front and put it in one of the baskets up here.

When all have placed their gratitudes in the baskets, we will take a few minutes to read them aloud – so please write legibibly!

We are grateful for….read each one, take turns with Worship Associate

For all these, and for so much more, we share our gratitude this morning.

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