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In Theory: Finding gratitude in a complex world

A popular TED Talk lecture extolling the virtues of gratitude has been viewed nearly 6 million times on that organization’s website.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, says, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” He recommends adding “stop signs” in one’s day-to-day life as a reminder to contemplate “the wonderful richness that is given to us.”

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According to an article published on Beliefnet.com, gratitude is a central tenet of world religions, with thanks to God offered in prayer and observance. Ramadan, for example is “intended to lead believers to a state of gratitude.”

Outside of religion, psychologist Michael McCullough calls gratitude “an evolutionarily beneficial trait, hardwired into the human brain.”

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But many thinkers agree that gratitude is a rare trait, one that requires cultivation and focus. Steindl-Rast offers a simple start: “Grateful living,” he says, is brought on by “experiencing, by becoming aware that every moment ... is a gift.”

Q. What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving? Do you cultivate gratitude in your everyday life?

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OK, time to be honest. Gratitude doesn’t come naturally to me. And like a lot of other stuff I should be doing but don’t, I have to admit that I don’t consciously cultivate gratitude in my everyday life. Like most everyone else I know I should be grateful — or more so than I am. And like most of us I realize that I have things for which I truly can be grateful no matter what sore trial may be afflicting me at the moment. The trick is getting gratitude to spring up within me in an unforced way, unlike the way we were all made to sit down and write thank-you notes for our presents after birthdays and Christmases – glad when we got it over with.

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I guess a good start, for me at least, is to practice what John the Baptist said about Jesus Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). That is, my Daffy Duck “greedy little coward” fleshliness (see the 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon “Ducking the Devil”) must be crucified. Paul put it this way in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

I am grateful for God’s forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ, for my wife and children and for God’s calling for me to preach his word. I believe that the more Christ controls my life, the more thankful I will naturally be. Or, as Paul put it: “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude” (Colossians 2:6-7).

Pastor Jon Barta

Burbank

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As this goes to press I will be flying home after three weeks in Southeast Asia. Shortly before we arrived in Cambodia, their prime minister, via his puppet judge, had outlawed the country’s last remaining opposition political party.

The U.S. involved then-abandoned Cambodia in our imperialist stupidity in the region, creating an opening for the murderous reign of dictator Pol Pot. After his death, a fledgling democracy was attempted in this small and poor country. When it collapsed, Hun Sen, Pol Pot’s political descendent, came to power.

Now his dictatorship is secure and I fear that citizen participation in civic life, already low, will disappear. To see life going on without outrage or activism is no surprise since any dissent is severely punished. Witnessing this makes me very grateful for our democratic liberties, and high level of civic engagement.

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Democracy like gratitude is an activity, not a static state, and neither can be assumed; Cambodia isn’t the first democracy to end and won’t be the last. Just take a look at Freedom in the World 2017, and be sure to get all the way to the end where the United States is included on the list of “Countries to Watch,” ones at a turning point in their political history. Both the Trump and Obama administrations are cited as diminishing our democratic tradition and place in the world.

I am one of numerous locals who enjoy the democratic opportunity of the weekly Montrose Peace Vigil, to remind the community of our endless wars and the possibility of peace. If you are grateful for our freedom of expression, want peace and like to have fun, you are welcome to join us on the Peace Train. On Saturday evening, Dec. 2, we will be chugging down Honolulu Avenue for the eighth year as a Silver sponsor of the Montrose Christmas Parade. Email me at rmedford@ucla.edu to get onboard!

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose

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LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson described gratitude, or thankfulness, as one of the cornerstones of a happy life.

“Think to thank,” he told students at Brigham Young University. “In these three words, you have the finest capsule course for a happy marriage, the formula for enduring friendships and a pattern for personal happiness.”

I’ve found that when I express gratitude, whether to God during prayer or to the people around me, I see more clearly the good things that are part of my life. It’s a powerful antidote to pessimism and stress.

No one is immune to problems or heartbreak, but we’re better equipped to deal with pain and disappointment when we can see the good in our lives and the world around us. Perhaps this is why the scriptures are filled with admonitions to express thanks. The importance of doing this is underscored in Luke 17 when Christ heals 10 lepers and then notes that only one of them bothered to return to express gratitude.

For some people, an attitude of thankfulness may be a natural trait, but for most of us, it requires some effort. I’m one of those who needs the “stop signs” that Brother Steindl-Rast suggests. My reflexive outlook tends to be skeptical, if not pessimistic. Prayer helps offset this. Sincere prayer reminds me of God’s goodness.

I’ve found that it also helps to make myself pause and reflect on the love of my family, the goodness of many of the people I meet and the natural beauty of the world around me. In these moments, the stresses of work, traffic and making ends meet dissolve, and I remember that I am blessed.

Michael White

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

La Crescenta

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While I would in no wise wish to promote the views of the panentheist Steindl-Rast, I would agree that gratefulness is something we decide to put on rather than wait for given our circumstances. Christians have forever promoted the position that we ought to always maintain an “attitude of gratitude” despite what comes. In that way, yes, living gratefully fosters happiness, and happiness is rather fleeting if it is maintained only by how well we are getting along on a given day. The Bible says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Th 5:18 NIV). That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily thankful or grateful for tragedy, but we are still in relationship with God, and he cares for us, and he works even the plight of life to our ultimate advantage. We must be grateful toward God – thankful for Christ, and determine not to be ungrateful (as if God or life owed us anything).

I do think that people are generally ungrateful. Maybe it’s just part of our Western culture where people rate happiness by their general success compared to the neighbors. After all, we live in a land of plenty, and when our plate is less than overflowing, we often focus on the lack rather than what’s there; grumble, grumble. We also have a sin nature that is ever wanting to exert itself, so happy gratitude takes some measure of effort.

I believe Thanksgiving will come this week with many sitting around tables being asked what they are thankful for, and answers will come regarding new possessions, breakthroughs at work, that Charles Manson has left this world, and all kinds of strange and obvious things that make people feel momentarily thankful. I would personally thank God for accepting me and daily forgiving me; for allowing me a place to go, friends to journey with and a destiny of import. Things could be better, but things could be worse, and yet God is Lord, and he wills to bless us and ours. Thank you, Jesus!

Rev. Bryan A. Griem

Tujunga

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Somewhere in my 20s I passed from a state of impatience about what the world owed me for being such an exemplary human being to simply being grateful to be alive. It was like when Dante and pals climbed the frozen devil in “The Inferno” only to emerge with the world upside down.

While being grateful takes up more of my day, at least the time is more pleasant. This Thanksgiving, and every day, I wake to the miracle of my children, the gobsmackitude of being in love at my advanced age, the great good luck of my dog’s continued existence after a stroke, the usefulness of the phrase “consider the source,” the fact that, if one keyboard gets too gummed up with whatever residue is on my hammering fingertips, I possess the skills to hook up another one or, at the very least, swab the offending machinery with Q-Tip technology, and the presence of multiple communities, of which my beloved Unitarian Universalists are one, with whom to plan, contend, laugh, build and belong. And these are also the last thoughts I permit myself before I go to bed. Making gratitude mandatory ensures that it is as inevitable as the feelings of doubt, remorse, frustration and unworthiness we all feel.

There’s a stridently gluten-intolerant teen coming to Thanksgiving this year, and I’m even grateful for that.

Marty Barrett, Vice President

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)

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