The Surprising Way Gratitude Connects You to Others

In this excerpt from her new book Grateful, best-selling author Diana Butler Bass shares the surprising way that the practice of gratitude connects us to others.

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- Posted on Mar 27, 2018

gratitude woman hugging flowers

Strange thing about gratitude—it always comes with a preposition. We are grateful for something, grateful to someone, and, often, grateful with others. Even in untargeted gratitude and when you are completely alone, prepositions show up. Imagine you need to get away, perhaps to struggle with a decision or a grief. During the winter, a friend loans you her beach house. It is the off-season, and you are alone. One morning, you wake up and walk at the water’s edge. The sun is rising, colors shimmer off the waves, painting them shades of blue, pink, and silver unlike any you have ever seen.

All of a sudden, your heart opens up. You feel grateful for the beautiful sunrise, grateful to your friend, and grateful with the soaring seabirds. There are no other human beings, but you experience gratitude. And, surprisingly enough, you also make community. In that moment, no matter how isolated the shore, gratitude connects you to nature’s rhythms, to a distant friend, and to other creatures. The sun and sea offer their gifts—indiscriminately, as they always do—but you still say “thanks” to them, to your friend, perhaps to God. There, on a deserted beach, gifts are given and received, praise returned, and a new awareness of connection comes alive. When it comes to gratitude, “me” always leads to “we.” “Gratitude takes us outside ourselves,” insists Robert Emmons, “where we see ourselves as part of a larger, intricate network of sustaining relationships, relationships that are mutually reciprocal.”

On November 22, 2015, Pastor Jason Micheli stood in the pulpit at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, and preached a sermon on gratitude. It was right before Thanksgiving, and it was the church’s stewardship season, a time when congregations are urged to consider gifts and generosity. In the autumn, a gratitude sermon was nothing out of the ordinary.

But this was not an ordinary day. Jason, a forty-something father with young children, was preaching for the first time in nearly a year—since being diagnosed with and treated for a rare and incurable form of cancer. He was better, and the cancer was “controlled,” but, as the congregation knew, he would have to do chemo every two months for the rest of his life. He stood in the pulpit, barely out of treatment, to preach a thanksgiving sermon for his community.

He began: “You all have done so much for us. You’ve fed us and prayed for us and with us. You’ve helped us with my medical bills, and you’ve sat with me in the hospital. You were there to catch me when I passed out in the chemo room, and you didn’t bat an eye when I puked in your car.”

But, he said, as much as he appreciated it, he actually hated all that help. “I’ve always been awful at receiving gifts,” he admitted, “I hate feeling like I’m in another’s debt. . . . I was a guy who kept score, which means I didn’t mind you being in my debt. I just didn’t want to be in yours.”

But he learned something: Gratitude is not about repayment of debts. It is about relationships. Through his cancer, Jason discovered that courage and hope could not be summoned magically; rather, strength and healing came through community. He spoke of the church’s greatest gift to his family in crisis: “We can endure all things because you’ve been with us. You’re with us. More so than all the stuff you’ve done for us, you’ve been with us.”

With no dry eye in the congregation, he continued, “It was kind of you to share my nightmare. It was kind of you to share in my pain and suffering. It was kind of you to share in Ali’s worry, in my boys’ fears and anxiety. It was kind of you to make my cancer—our cancer—yours too.”

“Thank you,” he finished, “for being with me.”

Gratitude is social. It is about, as Pastor Jason learned, “presence, participation, and partnership.” It is about being with one another, in life together. It is the thread of nature and neighbor, the seemingly fragile strands of gifts and goodness that weave our lives together.

Excerpted from Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.  Copyright © by Diana Butler Bass. Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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