Ambiguity and Gratitude
First air date October 19, 2003
[Transcribed from tape and edited for clarity.]
Those of you who know a great deal about the past will undoubtedly agree with me that oftentimes history turns on slender hinges. What I mean is that events that seem at the time to be very small, turn out to have tremendous consequences. This is certainly the case in the earliest days of our country's formation.
The story begins in the summer of 1620 when one hundred twenty five eager, Christian folk set out from Southhampton, England, hoping to come to the new world and establish a faith community. They were on two leased ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. But as they made their journey around the southern tip of England, the Speedwell developed problems so they both had to pull in to Plymouth. There it was determined that the Speedwell was not able to cross the Atlantic. So twenty of the original group gave up and went back home. One hundred five crowded onto the Mayflower and set out well behind schedule hoping to get to the colony of Virginia in time enough to build some shelter before the winter came.
Navigation in the seventeenth century was a very primitive affair so it took them a lot longer to cross than they had expected, plus they were blown hundreds of miles off course without realizing it. They didn't see land until the last part of November and what they saw was not Virginia at all but New England. They had hoped to get there before the winter set in but that was not the case. They went ashore. They were not able to build very substantial shelters and as a result disease began to sweep through the little community.
Before the spring came to break the terrible cold, exactly half of the original group that had set out from Plymouth were in unmarked graves because they had been devastated by so much disease. It was at that point that what was left of the crew of the Mayflower started to go back to England and the whole group wondered whether or not they should just give up and go back with them. But courage overcame despair and so they decided to stay. At that point their fortunes turned. The Indians were wonderfully hospitable. They shared with them their land, they taught these pilgrims how to plant, and how to cultivate. That summer they built very substantial housing and they were able, when the harvest came in, to be amazed at the fertility of this new country.
These were religious folk and so when the first anniversary of their being in the new world began to loom on the horizon they wanted to devise some kind of ritual to acknowledge this significant event. Not surprisingly, the first suggestion was that they have a day of mourning. Every family had lost at least one person, many had lost several members of the family. They argued that the best way to commemorate their time there was to remember those who had sacrificed their lives.
There was another group that said, "Yes, we have lost a great deal, we have undergone great tragedy and grief, but we also have much to be thankful for. The Indians had been wonderful, the land here is wonderfully fertile, we ourselves have survived. Why don't we make that first anniversary a day of thanksgiving rather than a day of mourning?" Well the record is that a debate went back and forth between the mourning party and the thanksgiving party. And as you know, because of a national holiday that we still recognize the last of November, it was the thanksgiving party that actually prevailed. So the first anniversary of these hearty people was a day in which they expressed profound gratitude for all the things that were going for them.
Historians have said that that simple decision to opt for gratitude rather than mourning may have been the most significant factor in giving those people the energy and the courage to meet the challenges that were yet to come. Truth be told, whenever we face ambiguous situations with things going for us and things going against us, I would suggest that gratitude is the most creative thing we can possibly do because it puts us in touch with the positive energies that are at work in our lives. It gives us a way of having confidence and it gives us a way of having hope for the days that lie ahead.
I can remember the first time that I realized the importance of gratitude in the face of a mixed situation. I was six years old. I had the great good fortune of having a Sunday school teacher who knew how to communicate to children in ways that they could understand. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving that year, we came to class and she had a pitcher on a table in the center of the room that was partially filled with a red liquid. She invited us to engage that vase with all of our senses. She invited us to look at it, to taste it, to feel how heavy it was. And then after we had done that for a while, she asked a simple question: "Tell me, is this pitcher half empty or half full?"
Well, a little girl in the class who was always given to negativism, quickly said, "It's half empty!"
Another one of my classmates said, "No, it's half full!"
So back and forth the debate went and then the teacher said, "You know, you're both technically correct. Either one of those descriptions is right. But it makes all the difference in the world whether or not you focus on what is there and are grateful for it or whether you focus on what is not there and therefore are depressed by it. That happened sixty years ago and here I am reminding myself and reminding you that the choice in the face of an ambiguous situation, the choice to be grateful is incredibly significant. That was when I was six years old. I lived along time since then, but everywhere I look this basic truth about gratitude is always confirmed.
When I open the Scriptures, I find that Jesus was a practitioner of the creative power of gratitude. One day he was faced with five thousand people at an out-of-the-way place. The sun began to go down, the crowd began to get restless, and his disciples said, "Let's send them away because they are going to get unruly."
Jesus said, "Wait a minute. How much food do we have here?"
Someone said, "Well, there is a lad here with five loaves and two fish." The Scriptures say that Jesus took what was there and gave thanks. And then he began to distribute it and, lo and behold, that little became much. There was enough to feed the whole multitude.
There is something about gratitude that has a way of multiplying our sense of resources. It is the secret of creative coping. Of all the options we have, it is perhaps the most creative and the most gracious of all. I've also seen this principle worked out not only in Scriptural times but in our daily lives.
Years ago I was serving a church in Texas. I went one afternoon to call on some parishioners who were in the hospital. I went into a room of a eighty year old person who had all kinds of physical difficulties. And I'd no sooner gotten into her room than she began a catalog of complaints. She said, "I hate being in the hospital. I hate having to be away from my home. Things are so busy and noisy here I can't sleep at night. The bed sheets are like they are made of sandpaper. The food here is awful." Everything she said about her condition, of course, was exactly true. I tried to listen to her with empathy, tried to remind her that her community of faith was praying for her. I even offered a prayer that she would remember that it was God's hold on her and not her hold on God that was the basis of our security. But nothing that I could say seemed to dent that terribly depressed spirit in which she reacted so negatively to all of her circumstances. To be honest, I left her room a bit depressed myself because I was powerless to do anything to make her feel any better.
I went down the hall and found that I was to visit another eighty year old lady who had a similar set of problems and so I braced myself to have to go through this same kind of complaining. But the minute I walked into her room, I sensed it was a different atmosphere. I said, "I'm sorry to find you in the hospital."
She said, "Well, I'm sorry, too, but I have some problems that my family cannot handle. I'm really grateful there are places like this where I'm going to be able to get some help."
I said, "I guess you find it hard to rest in the hospital with all the coming and going."
She said, "You know, my family works during the day and I frankly get lonely. I love all the interaction between the nurses and these wonderful young students that are here. Every time the door opens I look forward to meeting a new friend."
I said, "I guess it's pretty hard to sleep on a hospital bed."
She said, "Do you know what? We just change the sheets at home once a week. They change them here everyday! I call that real luxury, don't you?"
Well, I made one more try. I said, "I suppose the food here in the hospital is not the same as what you have at home."
She said, "You know, my daughter-in-law is a wonderful cook but she cooks the same food the same way and, frankly, I get a little bit bored. I love the variety here in the hospital. To be honest with you, eating anything is a difficulty to me because I only have two teeth left, but, thank the Lord, they hit!" When she said those words, I felt like stepping back and giving her a full military salute! Here was a person who was choosing to be grateful for things that were going for her and her gratitude made all the difference in the world, in the spirit with which she was coping.
Therefore, I would like to suggest that for everyone of us, gratitude is the best thing to do in the worst of times. If you can focus your attention on all the things that are going for you in a positive way, that puts life into you, that energizes you. In the worst of times, gratitude is the best of thing to choose. I invite you to embrace that quality.
Floyd Brown: I ask your indulgence on this because I've got to give you a personal thought and as a minister I think that you can really relate to this. As a broadcaster I've had many people from hospitals who ask me to stop by and see them. There was one young man I went to see and was dreading it because he had polio when he was a kid. I walked into that room and he had the biggest smile. When I left there I was walking on air. He was just so happy to see me. As a minister, I suppose you've seen hundreds of instances like this where gratitude really helps others.
John Claypool: I believe that we humans are not free to determine our circumstances but we are free to determine our attitude. The decision to be grateful for what we do have, to maximize that, and to let it energize us is tremendously creative. It's what puts life into us versus taking life out of us. Complaining and blaming just simply take the energy out of us and keep us from being able to cope. But I've had that experience, too.
Brown: What is the one thing that you are more grateful for than any other?
Claypool: In my life I am most grateful for the sheer gracious gift of life itself. When I realized I had nothing to do with being born into this world, that it was given to me totally and completely by a generous mystery that wants me to be living into the three words: life is gift, I think that is what I treasure more than anything else in the world.
Brown: That really covers it all when gratitude is there. But to show our gratitude, what should we as believers do?
Claypool: I think we should say thank you and offer thanks in our prayers. But we should also be generous in what we do in our relationships to other people. We can show our gratitude by being a generous, caring person to other people. I guess it's as much what we do as what we say that really shows our grateful hearts.
Brown: It's wonderful that you put gratitude in that perspective. And we do have so much to be thankful for.
Claypool: We do.