The Toxic Power of Ingratitude - Reservoir Church
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The Toxic Power of Ingratitude

Steve Watson

Aug 05, 2018

I’d love to mention two more announcements today having to do with one of our partner organizations, Asha. Our members here at Reservoir sustain our community financially, and ten percent of all that giving goes out to people and organizations doing extraordinary things in our city and in our world. Half of that collective generosity goes to five places: toward a peacemaking and counseling effort in the Middle East, toward local community organizing for justice with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, to Rebuild Africa that’s been doing public health and education work in Liberia, to scholarships for local first-generation college students, and to Asha’s community development work in India.

Asha was founded and is directed by an extraordinary human being who has become a dear friend of mine, the pediatrician Dr. Kiran Martin. And we have two ways coming up that you can learn more about or support Asha yourself. We’re hosting a 30th anniversary celebration for Asha here at Reservoir next month. Dr. Martin, will speak, as well as a recent college graduate who grew up in one of Delhi’s slum communities and has seen their life transformed by the work. We’d love to have you attend next month. The information to RSVP will be in your programs next week, and you can keep an eye out for an invite over email too if you’re on our mailing list. I’m also going to host an informational meeting on August 26th for those of you who’d like to learn about travelling to India and visiting Asha yourselves. I’m hoping to lead a trip next February, so you can learn more about that informational meeting in your program as well.

Life is Good – Say Thanks

Today, though, I think of Asha because of one of the ways they’ve changed my life. Asha has ten core values they live and work by, and one of those is gratitude. On a recent year in particular, Asha seeded a movement of gratitude in Delhi’s slum communities. Where students began writing gratitude letters – personal expressions of thanks to someone they knew – and then not just mailing or giving these letters to their recipients, but sitting down and reading the letter out loud before presenting it. They found this wave of gratitude, and this particular means of expressing it, to be both catchy and transformative. People were paying it forward, receiving a gratitude letter and then writing and reading one to someone else. And the people involved experienced tremendous joy and uplift, they said.

I heard this story on one of my trips to Delhi, and I thought, that is an awesome idea. I should start writing and reading these letters of gratitude.

Of course, I got home and didn’t do a dang thing.  But the thought about the potential power of giving thanks didn’t leave me entirely, because when a writer that was on my radar published a book on gratitude earlier this year, I got a hold of a copy and read it. It’s the book Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass. And in this second touch thinking about the power of giving thanks, it began to take hold and do something in me.

When I was finally ready to write my first gratitude letter, I found myself nervous, though. I’m a more critical person than I’d like to be, and to write a letter expressing my thanks – for no special occasion – and to then read it out loud to someone, even someone I love, seemed intimidating, out of reach somehow, and maybe awkward too. But I was determined to try, so I started off with an object.

I wrote a gratitude letter to my first Boston marathon finisher’s medal. And then I held the medal up and read it aloud.

“To My First Boston Marathon Medal:

This is ridiculous, this business of writing a letter to a medal, hooked to a ribbon striped blue and yellow. Ridiculous….

But I look at you and I’m thankful.”

And on I went. It was a little weird. To be honest, it didn’t do much for me. There wasn’t a lot of feedback, but I was ready to start. And so I wrote my first real gratitude letter to my wife. That was easy to write. I had a lot to say. And one evening after dinner, we sat alone, and I read her my letter of thanks and passed it on. Then I tried it with some other people, not just family.

And you know what, I’m hooked. I’m going to keep doing this now and then, I think, but not for the reasons I would have guessed.

I thought this would be an exciting thing for the people who received my gratitude letters. How special, to get a note read to you about someone being thankful for you. But what I’ve found is how much writing and reading these letters has meant to me!

Saying thanks to people now and then in this way is reminding me of how good life is. The few times I’ve done it, my whole glass half full-half empty calculus has shifted more to the full.

And that shouldn’t be a surprise, because giving thanks is at the center of a life of joy, it’s a doorway to greater faith and greater freedom, and it may be at the heart of what it means to be human.

So we’ll talk today about gratitude and leave with a couple ways to deepen our practice of giving thanks. But we’ll start for a moment with the inverse, with a look at the toxic power of ingratitude.

Let me pray for us for a moment. [Prays}

David the Ungrateful

So the first passage in today’s set of Bible readings was the one that most gripped me. As with the last two times I’ve spoken, this is from the life of ancient Israel’s celebrated king David, in this case at his hideously wretched, ungrateful worst.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10 (NRSV) 

26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

Ah, I should pause for a quick back story on what got us to this point. Wife is named Bathsheba – Bat-sheba in Hebrew – daughter of a promise, it means. Longed for, loved by her parents, she married a military man who’s off on a campaign. The text and tradition tell us that she is extraordinarily beautiful and David had seen her while she was bathing on her rooftop. This would not have been a sketchy or scandalous thing to do – this was long before indoor plumbing, the rooftop would have been a place of relative privacy, but for David wandering around on his much higher palace rooftop, checking her out.

David was king of the nation – had better food and clothing and housing than anyone in his city. He was a fine poet and musician, we’re told. And he had not one, not two, but several wives downstairs at home. But rather than enjoying his life, he’s walking around restless on his rooftop. And when he sees Bathsheba, rather than walking downstairs, he thinks – I want that. He sends messengers to get Bathsheba later that day, summons her to the palace and rapes her.

I call it rape, by the way, because there was no possibility for consent. She was summoned by messengers – likely armed – to the king. She had no choice. In a patriarchal culture, she was home alone, without her husband, thus unprotected in her eyes and in David’s. And he had his way with her.

The son mentioned is the child Bathsheba conceived as a result of that rape.

And Uriah was Bathsheba’s husband who was off at war, and, after David found out he had impregnated Bathsheba, Uriah is also the man David arranged to have killed to cover up his crime and allow him to take Bathsheba into his house permanently.

So there’s our set-up, and at least nine months have passed since the rape, when this next conversation ensues.

OK, back to the text.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, (yeah, no kidding!) 12 1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. (Nathan is a trusted advisor to David, a truth teller in his life) He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.

Woah – preach, Nathan.

Do you hear that – Nathan puts David’s crimes in terms this entitled man will understand. In the parable, the allegory, Bathsheba is beautiful, treasured, innocent; but also a possession, a thing to be kept or taken. Which is how David – blinded by patriarchy and by his particular privileged position – has seen her, has seen all women perhaps.

And Nathan calls out David’s crimes in no uncertain terms – theft, murder, rape, a violation of what’s sacred. But notice he frames part of the root cause too in terms of ingratitude. Speaking for God, Nathan says – David, you had everything. People, power, influence, purpose, reputation, and anything else you could have needed or wanted really. So why take what’s not yours?

David’s sickness, his sin, the harm he does is at least in part born of ingratitude.

Diana Butler Bass started her book on giving thanks in 2016, at the height of the presidential election drama.

And in her book she writes, “While anger and division mounted, I buried myself in gratefulness. Everything I read said the same thing: fear and anger are dangerous to our souls, and gratitude is good for us. Each day, however, the news revealed how we had lost much of our collective sense of gratitude for each other, the fits of life, and the beauty of the world. The gratitude gap was not only some lack of manners on my part, some personal flow of mine for failing to say thank you. Ingratitude – the sort that grows from entitlement, anxiety, and fear – appeared to be one source of our political problems, like an emotional toxin released into the headwaters of a river.”

I read those sentences and thought, YES, that is so true. This is David, entitled and greedy. And this is us. Now I know we live in hard times. Unless you’re wealthy, the economy hasn’t been kind to working people over the last forty years. The last fifty years have brought huge advances in civil and human rights for so many of us, but that’s also meant a lot of change. The media is omnipresent in a way it didn’t used to be, and fear and alarm aren’t just good for Russian election meddlers, they sell too. They’re good for the bottom line and for maximum clicks and shares. Oh, and sometimes the survival of our species seems at risk too, so there’s that.

So a lot of our minds and hearts churn in a slow-boiling stew of anxiety and fear.  And frankly, some of us feel entitled to be at the center of things and when we’re not, that feels threatening. And all of this pushes us away from giving thanks.

But dang, it’s not a bad time to be alive either, is it? I mean fewer of us humans are poor than ever. Fewer of us die young, more of us live long. More of us are well-fed, well-clothed, well educated that almost anywhere in the world at any point in history. I mean last week, on one day, I woke up in the morning in a comfortable bed, took a jog on sun-kissed streets, ate a gourmet donut in the morning, had Thai food for lunch, went kayaking in the afternoon, and had a glass of sangria later in the day, and got to exercise my democratic rights to organize for social justice in the evening. There were family, friends, and colleagues around the whole time too. Those sentences wouldn’t have made sense even to my grandparents, let alone to my ancestors way back in the times of king David. Now that was a special day, and not everyone gets all that, but most of what I just mentioned is in reach any day for most Americans.

And yet, I think Bass’ analysis is spot on. We’re seeing huge amounts of entitlement and fear and ingratitude fuel today’s crazy-making politics and civic life and entrenchment in systemic injustice.

The Toxic Sin of Ingratitude

So before talking about how good gratitude is, I wanted to set the stakes here. They’re high. Gratitude isn’t just a nice virtue. It’s part of our personal and collective salvation.

Because ingratitude is a powerful, toxic soup that breeds the resentment and entitlement that lead to wanting things that aren’t ours and sometimes taking those things by force. Ingratitude fuels resentment when others succeed. It tells us there’s never enough.

Gratitude, though, keeps us anchored in reality and connected with God’s tremendous goodness, leading to contentment and freedom and joy, and the conditions for a common flourishing for all people and living things.

Let me break down three things I think gratitude does for us, before I encourage us in a couple of particular practices.

I have three things: how gratitude empowers us, how it opens us to faith and wonder, and how it integrates our whole life in an optimistic, positive, redemptive frame.

First, the empowerment. Because I want to change the script that I used to have that says that gratitude is just like a social grace: a feature of nicer people than you or me. I mean, my mom taught me to write thank you notes when I was a kid. And I learned there’s a particular way to say thank you in a thank you note. You can’t just be like thank you for the gift card. You write: thank you for that awesome gift card; I plan on using it to buy such and such, which I’m so excited to get; You are the best friend or aunt or grandpa or whatever for thinking of me; Thank you so much. But the truth is, shame on me, I don’t write a lot of thank you notes. I’m nice enough, I think – I’m not a jerk most of the time, but being a nicer person isn’t hugely motivating for me.

But gratitude isn’t just about nice.

It’s empowering.

Gratitude looks at the whole of our lives, the good and the bad, the privilege and opportunity we have, but also the raw deals we’ve been given, the lacks we have, the pains and injustices and suffering that are part of our experience, and gratitude says that is not the whole story of who I am.

Diana Butler Bass again:

“Gratitude invalidates the false narrative that these things are the sum total of human existence, that despair is the last word. Gratitude gives us a new story. It opens our eyes to see that every life, is in unique and dignified ways, graced: the lives of the poor, the castoffs, the sick, the jailed, the exiles, the abused, the forgotten as well as those in more comfortable physical circumstances. Your life. My life. We all share in the ultimate gift – life itself. Together. Right now.”

When I met my wife Grace, it was in a little student Christian group she had founded, and there were two other people on our little leadership team. One of them was my friend Stanley, who grew up in Boston’s neighborhood of Roxbury. And every time we would pray, Stanley would begin, Thank you, God, for life, health, and strength. (And I’d think to myself, c’mon Stan, every time. Like, be creative, have something different to say. It became rote, or unmeaningful to me.) But not to Stanley, I realized. He grew up an only child of a single mom, talked about how learning there was no Santa Claus for him wasn’t ever an issue because when you never get a present at Christmas when you’re a kid, you don’t have any illusions.

And eventually, I realized, this was a very real and empowered, appreciative frame for life that Stanley had developed —  way of saying to himself and his world and his God that no one could reduce to him to the sum of his misfortunes. He was alive. He was healthy. He was strong. He was a child of God.

aAnd that kind of gratitude, practicing thanks and appreciation even in the face of mixed circumstances, is a form of resistance. Bass writes:

“Gratitude does not acquiesce to evil – it resists evil. That resistance is not that of force or direct confrontation. Gratitude undoes evil by tunneling under its foundations of anger, resentment, and greed.”

Now there’s a time and a place for other ways of addressing evil, suffering, injustice. There are times and places for anger and for direct confrontation. But gratitude as resistance comes before that. Gratitude for our being, for our lives, and for anything we’ve got in our corner, gives inner strength.

It’s the New Testament writer Paul, in his letter to Philippians, famously saying, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He’s not like, Oh, I can fly. Or I can survive without food. No, he’s saying he can flourish in any set of circumstances. Just beforehand he writes:

12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

And that secret is rejoicing in all circumstances, a big piece of which is gratitude.

We’ve actually in our church spiritual formation — our recommendations for practices that will lead to a rich, joyful, free life — had one of those seven be just this: praising God and giving thanks in all circumstances. Tying in to God’s goodness and the goodness of our lives no matter what, for this very reason. Not because you have to be a follower of Jesus to be grateful. Of course not. But you can’t be one without it. 

Without giving thanks regularly, we’ll stay defined by our misfortunes and bound by our pain and resentment, what one trendy spiritual teacher in LA calls victim consciousness, accepting our own powerlessness and asking, “Why does this always happen to me?”

Regular gratitude rescues us from powerlessness. It begins to reframe our lives and to empower us and ground us in our possibilities.

Secondly, more briefly, gratitude opens us to faith and wonder. Bass again. She writes:

“To feel gratitude is not the caboose of some faith train. (In other words, gratitude isn’t for the good people, for the holy people. No, she goes on…) It is the beginning. To feel appreciative awareness of our own lives – and feel that awareness of the lives of all those around us – is rather like being reborn, as we look at ourselves, our experiences, and the world with eyes of surprise and wonder. Pay attention to those who have suffered and who found gratefulness. Listen to the voices and songs of the marginalized, the thanksgivings of those who have been abused and oppressed. Embrace the sorrows of your own heart. These are the teachers of gratitude. Do not be afraid.”

Gratitude is a natural impulse, if we welcome it and let it happen.

Gratitude is when we look at the sunset, or the mountaintop, or the ocean, and open our mouth in speechless wonder.

Gratitude is when we suffer or are harmed and we reckon with that but we also say: that’s not all there is to being me. I have life, health, and strength, or even if I don’t have all that, I have other signs of life. It’s good to be alive.

Gratitude can even be possible in moments of trial or temptation. Think about David – if he hadn’t let himself become such a privileged ingrate – if he’d seen Bathsheba naked my mistake, and thought or maybe even said out loud: Dang, that is a beautiful woman. But then if he’d been cultivating gratitude, his next thought might have been, she is not mine. And in my case, I am a married man. And even if my wife doesn’t look like her, I love my wife. (Now David had a lot of wives and that’s a whole ‘nother problem.) But, imagine here, with this attitude, David might have turned away, asked God to bless that woman and her partner if she had one, and gone on his way to find satisfaction within the realm of his own life.

Not taking from someone. Not asserting power violently.

Gratitude helps us accept the conditions of our own life, and our own limits and proper boundaries, and to not just accept it as meager, with resentment, but to accept it as the garden plot of our flourishing, with joy and even wonder.

So empowerment, faith and wonder, and lastly, gratitude, integrates our whole lives into a harmonious whole. My therapist drew a picture for me once of how we live in the past, present, and future. And the past was this sweeping circle of stories and experiences and people behind us, and the future swirled out into this big circle of the unknown. And there at the intersection was the only time we ever get to be alive, which is the present.

And the point of the picture was that we carry all our past with us in our present. And we also carry all our hopes or fears about the future with us in the present. Which is a lot to carry. No wonder it can be hard to live present to this day, this moment. Because we’re carrying a lot of the past and the future in our arms.

But the idea is that if we can come to peace with our pasts, to welcome our whole life story as ours with curiosity and compassion and confidence, that’s half the work to living well in the present.

Gratitude for our whole life does a really good job of this. Here’s how the priest Henri Nouwen puts it in his beautiful little book, Can You Drink the Cup? The cup is a metaphor for all of the life Jesus has for us, and really just all our own lives too. And Nouwen writes,

“But when we lift our cup to life we must dare to say: ‘I am grateful for all that has happened to me and led me to this moment.’ This gratitude which embraces all of our past is what makes our life a true gift for others, because this gratitude erases bitterness, resentments, regret, and revenge as well as all jealousies and rivalries. It transforms our past into a fruitful gift for the future, and makes our life, all of it, into a life that gives life.” (80-81)

Our past transformed into a fruitful gift for the future, our life as a life that gives life. Doesn’t that sound good?

Now, mincing words a bit with Nouwen, gratitude doesn’t mean we’re thankful for each bad person we’ve known or bad act we’ve experienced, or for the systemic injustice that stands against us. I don’t think so. But it does mean we learn to give thanks for what God brings out of all things. We don’t force it, we don’t rush it, we certainly don’t tell someone who’s suffering to get over it and be thankful – no. But we do ask God for the perspective and redemption that can bring good out of evil, bring good wine even out of bitter fruit, and let us say thank you.

I listened to a friend recently who lives this story. She has a significant disability born from a genetic condition that was undiagnosed and misdiagnosed for years of her childhood. And the story of that misdiagnosis includes the stubborn foolishness, maybe even the misogyny, of a doctor, includes some shaming and blaming and needless delay of help as well. And I listened to her tell this story and felt rage build up within me, she was like, I’m not thankful for that happening in a way. I certainly don’t appreciate every problem this condition gives. But I know, actually, that if I was diagnosed properly at birth, the treatment I got would have also done me harm, and that delayed diagnosis is actually part of what has extended my life. So in way, that doctor’s screwing up was part of how God protected me. And I’m thankful.

This is a free person, a joyful person, an integrated person.

Giving thanks in all things. It grounds us, it liberates and empowers us, it opens us up to faith and wonder, and it integrates us as well.

Here’s how you might try.

Try This:

Spiritual Practice of the Week: Pause daily for thanksgiving.

  • Use this practice especially when you feel pessimistic, empty, or ripped off.
  • Express gratitude for who you are, not just what you have.
  • Give thanks not as an avoidance mechanism, but as a tool of resistance.
  • If you lead meetings or organizations, consider including voluntary gratitude.

Bonus Tip: Try writing gratitude letters – write, read face to face, and pass on.