An Unexpected Stumbling Block to Gratitude

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Gratitude is more than a mental exercise, more than a formula of words. We cannot be satisfied to make a mental note of things which God has done for us and then perfunctorily thank Him for favors received.”

— Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude

I try to be grateful. I recognize the blessings in my life (at least a good number of them) regularly and acknowledge that they are gifts and not earned. But reading this quote from Merton makes me realize there is one aspect of gratitude that I’ve conveniently overlooked.

Rather than being content with my blessings, I always want more of a good thing.

I may recognize the good things in my life and feel grateful for them, but I’m not usually satisfied with the actual amount of the things that I have. I almost always want more. As I write these words, I’m away in a coastal town. It’s a beautiful location – inspiring views of the ocean, plenty of trees to provide shady spaces, cool ocean breezes during a heat wave for most of the country, stunningly beautiful places to walk, and friendly people. And although I am grateful and thank God daily for all of this, my mind is also busy calculating and planning how I could find a way to live here and have this every day!

Although I’m not perfunctorily thanking God for the blessing of being in a special spot, I’m not that far away from it. I’m thanking Him but then implicitly requesting more. As if the gift of my time here is not enough.

I suspect this behavior isn’t a unique quirk of mine but is a typical human response. We want more good stuff and the absolute minimum amount of the bad stuff. And now I understand why non-attachment is such a common spiritual theme.

Non-attachment, or indifference, is a difficult concept. It doesn’t mean we can’t have preferences and things we care about deeply. But it asks us to consider how much freedom we have in pursuing those preferences. Do we let the pursuit of certain things get in the way of living the spiritual life we desire?

It’s easy to see how the pursuit of “more” can lead to struggles with addictions. And from there, we can recognize how that pulls us away from God and from being the person we want to be. But even our subtle desires for more can affect our happiness and internal sense of peace. We might not even notice this is happening. It’s not a big step from desiring something to feeling that we’re entitled to it. Then, rather than feeling gratitude, we’re feeling deprived that we can’t have more of what we think we deserve.

My desire for more is ultimately a desire for control. And it means I don’t trust God to continue bringing good things into my life. Somehow I believe I could do a better job if I were in control of everything! This sounds silly when I say it out loud, but apparently, there is some part of my brain that believes it since that’s how I act.

So, I am renewing my focus on gratitude, with a new emphasis on appreciating how each gift has its own timespan. Not everything is meant to last. Maybe the fact that the good things in life are somehow limited makes them even more precious.

A Closing Prayer

Dear God, thank you (really and truly!) for the numerous blessings you provide each day. Help me better appreciate them fully for as long as each one lasts, without getting caught up in scheming how to get more. Help me trust that you will continue to provide gifts and graces in my life, providing what I need rather than what I’m convinced I want. Let me appreciate the natural cycle of receiving things and then letting them go. And give me the insight to understand (in my heart and not just my head) that letting go helps make space for new blessings to arrive. Amen.

6 comments

  1. Life itself is limited and we always want more. But, in parallel, don’t be sad because it’s over; be happy that it happened — whatever the “it” may be. Easier said than done, of course. Thank you for the reminder.

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  2. Cathy. I just put in my work notice. I will be 69 in almost 2 months. I am praying to want less as that is how it will be. I don’t feel I deserve much. I’ve worked hard my whole life but everything hasn’t turned out to be as I thought. I will be with less materially but pray that spiritually I will be rich. Pray for me. Thank you. Deb Hunt.

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    1. Deb – congratulations on your upcoming retirement and shift to a new stage of life! I know changes like retirement have their challenges but they also bring opportunities that we never could have anticipated. I’ll pray that your new stage of life brings you growth, joy, and many other graces.

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  3. i agree that appreciating a place or experience and understanding it is a gift from God while wanting somehow to capture and “own” it is not uncommon (and perhaps universal as you suggest). i do that, and it cant be just two of us :>

    In fact, maybe that was Peter’s motivation suggesting to Jesus during the transfiguration: “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” ?

    i find liberating myself from trying to own yields a much richer experience of God’s goodness while present in that place or experience. i feel closer to God and i more intensely feel His peace.

    thanks for this week’s sharing!!

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    1. I’ve often regarded Peter as rather clueless (since he often misses the point of what Jesus is teaching) but I have indeed rivaled Peter in my desire to “build a tent.” And I can’t help but laugh at that. Since Jesus clearly loved Peter even in his cluelessness, and Peter did eventually “get it,” I have hope that I might also learn to get better at all of this! And maybe that is exactly what the gospels are trying to tell us.

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