from the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of Reflections magazine. For more from that issue, go here.
by Jennifer Wickham
The word “gratitude” has appeared in our public consciousness with increasing frequency in the last several years. The internet is full of information about journals, beads, crystals, diets, and meditation exercises to help us practice an “attitude of gratitude.”
Posts on Facebook and other social networks encourage us to accept gratitude challenges lasting anywhere from 21 to 100 days. There are countless classes, retreats, and book studies on the topic. The Bible, naturally, is full of passages about giving thanks and having a thankful heart.
Over the years, I have relied on many of these tools to help me become more grateful. Some tools—and some periods of my life—have proven more fruitful than others. Likewise, some terms are more appropriate than others to describe the role gratitude plays in my life. Is it a discipline? An attitude? A practice? A habit? The answer is probably “yes” to all of these, but for me, gratitude seems more like a relationship which must be cultivated.
Depending on the context, “cultivation” refers to many different things: preparation, utilization, growth, training, development, acquisition, and application. In the context of a farm or garden, soil must be prepared for planting. Seeds must be planted and tended as they grow, and mature plants may be propagated or left to go to seed so that new life may continue. Harvests may be gathered and used to sustain and foster life of a different sort. All of this involves cultivation. So it is with gratitude.
Because a spirit of gratitude was cultivated in me as a child, it is oftentimes (but not always) as natural to me as breathing. I am keenly aware that I lack, and I know that all I am (and have) comes from the abundant generosity of God’s grace in my life. Henri Nouwen once observed, “Perhaps nothing helps us make the movement from our little selves to a larger world than remembering God in gratitude. Such a perspective puts God in view in all of life, not just in the moments we set aside for worship or spiritual disciplines. Not just in the moments when life seems easy.”
I try to be aware of the world I inhabit and seek to sharpen my eyes more acutely to the tiniest of blessings around me. I believe that living this way breaks up the soil of my heart and makes room for all types of useful seed-planting by God and others. I also know that if I am not nourished and fertilized, my life will not produce anything suitable for harvest. I will be of no use to God, myself, or anyone I may encounter.
There is a traditional type of Native American companion planting arrangement known as a Three Sisters Garden. Corn, beans, and squash are sown together as three interdependent sisters who grow and nourish one another. Corn provides a natural pole for the beans to climb, and the beans, in return, help make the corn sturdier and wind-resistant. Beans also contribute much-needed nitrogen to the soil. Squash leaves are a natural mulch to help preserve soil moisture and discourage the growth of weeds. Each benefits from the others, and none would do as well alone as they do living within their garden community. Are they aware of this dependence on one another? I wonder.
For me, cultivating gratitude means recognizing the situations, people, and things around me that make me better. Some provide nourishment. Others offer shelter or comfort. Still others, because of the challenges they bring, prune me and force me to grow as I should. It is my responsibility to pay attention and ask for God’s wisdom to understand and appreciate them. And as my relationship with God deepens, the hope is that my eyes become more able to see the world around me in the way God does.
Gratitude is a symbol of resurrection in my life. It allows me to recognize abundance in my scarcity. It helps me discover hope in times of despair. I am reminded that life begins again, even when seemingly absent in times of death. All impossibilities become possible. I am encouraged by this, and the worries I carry no longer occupy the biggest spaces of my life. The eyes of my heart open and see all the ways God faithfully sustains me day after day. And, as a sister in the garden, gratitude makes me available to others so that I too can nurture, shelter and cultivate resurrection in those around me.
Practically speaking, there are things I can do to cultivate gratitude. I must pray and remember to forgive. I should complain less. I could choose the positive rather than the negative in every situation. I need to recognize all unwarranted gifts – especially the ones so easily overlooked. It is also important for me to plant myself with others who seek to live the same way. My life is enriched by a community of people who pay greater attention to their blessings than to their insufficiencies. Worry and fear strip away gratitude and separates us, but gratitude makes us able to tend one another in a spirit of Godly abundance. Needs are met. People are fed. Pain is healed.
As we enter a season of sowing and harvesting, consider where you are planted. Be mindful of what is, and has been, planted within you. Thank God for every good and perfect gift: the meager and the grand. Cultivate gratitude in yourself, and find ways to cultivate it in others. Above all else, remember that every good and perfect gift comes from God.
Jennifer Wickham is the wife of an Episcopal priest and the mother of two sons. She is in charge of outreach and development for a nonprofit agency in Corpus Christi. She attends All Saints’ Episcopal Church. Reach her at email@example.com
Questions for Study and Reflection
1. When you pay attention to the world around you, what new blessings do you see that you have overlooked before?
2. What things, people, situations nourish and fertilize your life, make you better?
3. What practices could you institute to help grow gratitude in you? In your family?
4. Who or what are the beans, corn, and squash of your daily life?