Habits of the Heart: Gratitude

To be grateful is to be, at that moment, blessed and happy. If it becomes a habit of the heart, gratitude lays the foundation for a life of joy and peace.

That’s because, first of all, gratitude is a response to having received a gift, and a meaningful gift suggests that someone thought enough of you to offer it. You matter to the giver, and we all want to matter. We want to feel that somebody cares about who we are, and the more thoughtful the gift the greater the sign of caring. Gratitude feels like being on the receiving end of love.

At the same time, gratitude points beyond ourselves, and beyond the gift, towards the giver. Anything that focuses our attention on something or someone other than ourselves is liberating. It frees us from the ego’s endless demands for reassurance. A paradox of self-esteem is that we only find it when we stop clamoring for it.

One reason people remain ungrateful is that their craving for self-esteem lures them into a pervasive sense of deserving. They tell themselves that they are worthy because of all the things they’ve accomplished and accumulated. Success and all its trappings become the basis for self-esteem. But if I deserve everything I have because I’ve earned it, what reason do I have to be grateful?

Ironically, the most gifted people are sometimes the least grateful. They have so many gifts to occupy their attention that it’s easy to forget the giver. People who are smart and healthy and full of energy, blessed with a winning personality and lots of opportunities, tend to do well in life, and their success becomes a source of status, which in turn feeds self-esteem. But where did all those gifts come from that generated so much “success”?

The gifts came, first and foremost, from God. Those who count their blessings and recognize their source enjoy all the benefits of gratitude—including, not least, the amazing awareness that the Maker of heaven and earth loves them enough to shower them with such good gifts.

People who claim credit for their own advantages give up gratitude for the seductive satisfactions of pride. It’s a bad trade. Pride is anxious and insatiable, always needing to be fed. Gratitude is calm, contented, and free.

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