The SPiritual Discipline of Gratitude

Today's UPI column

So There I was...

…Getting my clock cleaned weekly.

I was training to be a counselor. I was in my last term. I had 18 months of clinical practicum in my backpack. End of tunnel in sight – didn’t expect that light to be an oncoming train.

I had a new supervisor, and she did not appreciate me. I don’t think that there was anything about me that she liked. And her disdain of all things Peggy Parsons was apparent in the first session. Our meetings focused on listening to, and critiquing tapes of my counseling sessions – my clients signed up for this by getting a cheap student driver counselor. From the get go it was apparent that she thought that I could do nothing right. I remember her criticizing the tonal pitch of one of the sounds that counselors make to show empathetic listening. She didn’t like it when I spoke, she didn’t like it when I was silent. Realizing, of course, that a good supervisor would never give ONLY criticism, she occasionally faintly praised ridiculously small things; as in “Well, Peggy at least you called your client by their proper name – that was adequate.”

I never did figure out if there was anything I did to precipitate her treatment of me, but I do know that moment that I sealed the deal.

After weeks of tearing apart my work, we ended a meeting and I looked up at her shelf of books by feminist theologians and psychologists and said “Gee, you know, I would have thought that feminist supervision would have been a little more nurturing than this.”

It wasn’t a clever thing to say. After that she called the school I was to graduate from, and the clinic where I was doing my practicum and tried to get me fired and held-back. It’s pretty rare to get held back a grade in graduate school, but she tried.

At that point I was starting to wonder if, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, I really sucked at this. And if I did not, how I was going to get through the last couple of months of the ordeal.

I hired an independent person, another clinical supervisor, to give me some perspective. He listened to my tapes and told me that I was doing fine. I asked him for advice on surviving an upcoming exit interview, when my supervisor would meet with me and the director of the clinic where I was working. The one I was hoping would hire me after my graduation. I was certain that she was going to try and make sure that I did not get that job.

His advice; “Thank her.”
“For what? – abusing me?”
“Yes, call it diligence and thank her for it. Make a list of everything you could possible think of, and thank her for it. Thank her for providing you with a chair to sit in, thank her for agreeing to see you, thank her for her attention to detail. Start with that list – take up as much time as possible and then when she gets her say, argue with nothing and thank her again, in detail. Gratitude is your only option, any other response will look like defense or offense and they will both fail. But Peggy – you have to thank her sincerely, you can’t sound facetious when you do it.”

I didn’t like his advice, but I took it.
It was nasty hard to do, but I did it.

The look on her face was pretty precious, but the bottom line was that I graduated, got the job, and that woman has become an unnamed footnote in my story.

That was my first awareness of gratitude as a spiritual discipline.
I am grateful to her for that. Really.

My mom taught me to say thank-you – but that was usually for things that were good, and that I liked. She gave me a way to express my natural gratitude.

The discipline of being grateful when things are going to hell in a hand basket came harder and later.

But I have come to believe that it is a foundational spiritual discipline. It is the discipline that frees you to learn all the others. It completely circumvents resentment. It takes anger and divides it into that which requires action and that which can be released. Eliminating resentment and reducing anger allows you much more time for attention. It makes failure bearable. It sweetens everything that is already sweet.

If I start and end my day with gratitude, nothing that happens in between has the power to ruin tomorrow.

A couple of years back I received a second-hand instruction from a Benedictine nun. It was shared with me by a friend, and it dropped immediately into that hole in my soul that is truth shaped. She said, “Pray this prayer daily; Thank-you for everything – I have no complaint.”

I have tried to do this, not just daily but hourly and moment-by-moment. It is not easy. Some things, like interruptions and thwartings, do not fall easily into the gratitude basket.

I wrestled for a while with thanking God for things that I did not really believe that God was sending me. I do not believe it is God’s explicit intention for me to be sick or stupid or in harms way. But then I came to believe that these things were part of the global package and that for all its faults I choose to believe that the package is good.

Most of my problems are the consequences of my own foolish actions. I realized that having painful consequences for stupidity was indeed a gift from God, how else was I going to know when to change?

A smaller percentage of the things I hate are the consequences of other people’s stupid actions. But I have learned to thank God for this because it gives me a chance to be perfected in my own reactions, and to step up to the plate for things like justice and peace.

The smallest percentage of my grief is in response to things that are not in human control, like death and sickness. This IS God’s deal – it is part of the set-up. I do not like it very often. But I have come to accept even these things, and trust God in them.

The hardest part of this prayer is the “choosing not to complain” bit. For years I have used God as my unedited sounding board. If I have to yell at somebody, why not God, I mean God’s a tough mother and can take it, right? God has always seemed patient about this, and after I rant a bit, I always feel better and settle into a better place. So to give up complaints, seemed to be giving up one of my favorite coping mechanisms. It also seems at odds with justice. There is a lot of bad stuff going down on this planet; don’t we need to make an issue of certain things?What I have discovered is that forsaking complaint and going straight to gratitude has zero affect on the truth, in fact, it makes truth clearer, and you can move straight to action.

Dear God, thanks for this mess – I have no complaint – please get my back as I step into the middle of it.

Sometimes I need to do something. Sometimes I need to be something. I have found that gratitude is the fast track to the place where God needs me most, and where I most need God.

All this matches my own experience of the teaching power of gratitude -- although I don't think I've ever had so dramatic a lesson in this department as you have, Peggy. I'm moved by your description of it!

Francis of Assisi taught this sort of extreme gratitude to his disciples, as also did Rebbe Zusye the Hasid, the Tibetan master Marpa, the Sikh guru Nanak, and various Zen and Hindu teachers.

And of course Paul teaches it in Ephesians 5:20 and I Thessalonians 5:18, though not pointedly enough to get the message across to the casual reader; and Christ at least seems to imply it in Matthew 5:44.

The ability to learn gratitude for seeming injustices and hardships is, in fact, a primary test of a person's readiness for discipleship in many spiritual traditions throughout the world.
thank you for not letting me have a hamster, i hear they keep you up at night.
thank you for not letting me have a hamster, i hear they keep you up at night.
Thanks Peggy, this post came just when I needed it.

Life has presented me too with someone to deal with where there is little else I can do but be grateful and try not to dwell on everything else. Ironically there is indeed much I have to be grateful to her for, but none of it would be/have been willingly given had she any inkling of it!

I think I maybe need to write it all out in a list and fix it to the fridge door or somewhere, for those times when remembering all this is hard.
Thank you for this important lesson. I shall remember this.
Peggy, thank you for this instructive life lesson on gratitude. I could not agree more that it is indeed a spiritual discipline. A wise man once told me to be aware that even when it may appear you are losing, you can still be winning. I shall try to have no complaints.

I have linked this page to my site to share with others. Thanks again.
Peggy, thank you for this instructive life lesson on gratitude. I could not agree more that it is indeed a spiritual discipline. A wise man once told me to be aware that even when it may appear you are losing, you can still be winning. I shall try to have no complaints.

I have linked this page to my site to share with others. Thanks again.
Thank you for this awesome post. I've just printed it out to use as a part of a discussion I'm leading tonight with college students on gratitude as a spiritual discipline (that's the phrase I googled that got me to this post).

Also - given what I'm dealing with from some cantankerous church members right now, I really needed this word myself!

I love the bit about thanking someone who is so aggressive and hurtful toward you. It is very hard to do. You are definitely more evolved than me to be able to do something like that sincerely. (I'm not quite there yet.) But it makes a great point of how gratitude changes your attitude - and your perspective. Great post!
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