Is There a Limit to Gratitude?

limit gratitude

Renowned spiritual leader and Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast says, “Everything is a gift.”

The first time I read that, I thought, “Of course it is.” I had been practicing gratitude for nine weeks, a lifetime record for me for any sort of practice. Consistency is not my middle name and my journey is filled with on-again, off-again bouts of yoga, meditation, morning pages and so on. But, my gratitude journal seems to be different. Perhaps because I designed it myself based on the studies I had read about.

Practicing gratitude was definitely working: miracles were showing up. Not the win-the-lottery or walk-on-water sort of miracles, but definitely the type that made me smile and say, “Wow!” My journal was easy to use and took only about five minutes in the morning but the attitude of gratitude stayed with me all day and I noticed a new lightness and appreciation for my life.

Then, I reread Brother David’s quote and it began to niggle at me. My husband died almost ten years ago and I’ve done a lot of work to accept his death. The past ten years have been filled with new growth and adventures. I even wrote a memoir titled Joy after the Fire. I have truly found joy and have reveled in time spent on a new form of art and writing.

I know I have done things I would never have done if my husband had lived. But, his death was part of “everything,” and to consider it a gift was suddenly challenging my thinking. If it was a gift, it was one I didn’t ask for or want.

That made me start thinking about other people, people with far fewer resources or opportunities than I have. People with terrible disabilities or homeless people who have become hopeless. Refugees who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their families and their countries.

Is there a point beyond which “everything” is not a gift?

I went back to the full quote from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” I can’t speak for lives other than my own or for the challenges that other people face. However, thinking of my challenges in terms of aliveness helped me.

Things happen. Things that we want and things that we don’t want. Being grateful does not ensure that we will live an easy life. It does ensure that we are alive, feeling the moment we are in. When I feel the pain of losing the person I loved most in world, I know I am alive. I know I was blessed to feel that love, that connection, even if it has changed forms.

As I’ve chewed on this thought for awhile, I’m beginning to think that being grateful for those things that are difficult and challenging are an important part of practicing gratitude. Perhaps I had an inkling of this when I designed my journal. I made one day a special day to be grateful for the things that are hard to appreciate.

For me, that day is Tuesday and gratitude paid off in a definitely unexpected miracle. I have two step-daughters. I’m close to one and have been estranged from the other for several years. One Tuesday, I forced myself to find gratitude for the estranged step-daughter. When I did, a stone of resentment rolled away and less than two weeks later, we had lunch together. It was a start.

So, my questions for you are … do you include “hard things” in your gratitude practice? Have you gotten to a point where you can agree with the idea that everything is a gift? What is your experience with gratitude and life challenges?

14 thoughts on “Is There a Limit to Gratitude?”

  1. For me, I think that there is the potential to see gifts in any circumstance. I try to look for the lessons and opportunities in whatever I’m faced with. Some days are easier to see the slivers of sunlight behind the clouds. When negative thinking takes hold, it’s much harder. I try to remain open to the possibility that I will eventually see the lesson or benefit. I tell myself that, even when things feel very dark and hopeless. I don’t think it’s a matter of everything being a gift. Everything is neutral. It just “is.” We can choose to view life with negative or positive filters (though some days I also have to accept that I have a dark filter on my lens before I can do anything to change my perception).

    I think the whole “power of now” thing is a big help. Life happens and we have very little control over much of it. But we can make choices that help us have more control over the impact, benefit or concequence those conditions have on our lives.

    1. Marie … thanks for your comment and I agree that finding the lessons and the gifts in any circumstance is where growth and insight come from. Sometimes it’s harder than others but it’s always worth the effort.

  2. I haven’t got to the point that everything is a gift since I am still young and need a lot more experience in life. Thanks for sharing this, it’s quite helpful for me.

  3. Curiosity and learning are hard wired into my nervous system. I try to learn from all my experiences, whether they are joyful or hurtful. I’ve learned much from life’s painful lessons, but not sure I’ve ever felt gratitude for those experiences. Thanks for broadening my viewpoint; although painful, I certainly am grateful for those experiences, because they have helped me become the man I am — and who I am happy to be — today.

  4. In my Buddhist practice there is a saying when life gets hard is ‘turn poison into medicine’. I try to practice that and can look at life’s challenges as an opportunity to reframe the hardship into a change of mind and behavior.

  5. Hi Joyce,

    A very nice post. Sorry for your loss. However, there is only one thing that I must point out to you, something to perhaps think about: if one of our loved ones honestly died, would we have a memory of them at all? The reason I ask this is because died implies no longer exists, stopped living (although memories are alive) etc. Just a thought.

    Anyway, I am grateful for everything, my daughter, friends, relatives, neighbors. Without all of these things, I would not be as I am today. :)

  6. Artice … thanks so much for sharing. What you say is so true, however though, as lovely as memories are, there is a lot to be said about touching flesh, sharing moments sitting by an alpine lake, listening to the stories of the day.

    Being the greedy creature that I am, I wanted those things to continue. Even now when my life is rich in ways I never could have fathomed, I miss those moments and find it challenging to say I’m grateful for the change. Even though I am. Even though I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.

    So, I have to explore how I’m grateful for the change and nibble away at that greed that really just wants to have both the before and the after. Gradually, I’m coming fully into the now.

    best … joyce

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