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Gratitude in unexpected places

How can gratitude help alleviate painful suffering? In a documentary on one young man's battle against alcoholism, Amelia finds a strong Christian undercurrent in a secular message about entitlement, gratitude, and climbing out of addiction.
The other day, I watched a documentary about an alcoholic in his mid-twenties. He had no job, no money of his own, no friends, and no responsibilities.

His apartment, much like his entire life, was in shambles. Empty vodka bottles were strewn all over the floor. A layer of garbage sat underneath the piles of empty bottles. Several-day-old pots of vomit stood alongside the bare mattress where he slept. More pots, emptied of vomit but never washed out, lined the side of the filthy couch where he'd sleep when he was too drunk to stagger to his mattress. And deep underneath all the rubble, buried but not hidden from anyone's view, lied the memories of his troubled childhood—a barrage of emotional scars, bruises, and still-gaping wounds that never managed to heal.

His father stopped by every now and then to throw out the empty bottles and to try and clear some of the wreckage, but no one had an inkling of how to put even the slightest dent into young man's psychological mess, which had caused his alcoholism in the first place. Alcoholism had decimated generations of his ancestors, and this man was, according to the experts, within less than one year of his own suicide or alcohol-related demise.

And so, with his full knowledge and consent, the family came together and sought help from a highly successful interventionist. She was successful both with her clients and also in her own once-desperate battle against alcoholism. She arranged for the young man to be placed in an inpatient detox facility, followed by a long term step-down program that would help to transition him back into living soberly on his own. He agreed and signed himself into the clinic.

He complied with the inpatient treatment, but it seemed that it was only because he had no other choice, having no access to alcohol there. His days were heavily regimented, beginning with an early wake-up call, followed by appointments with doctors and therapists. His bed had to be made, his laundry folded and put away, and his chores completed, all within the parameters of a strict schedule that ended with a mandatory bedtime in the early evening. Once he'd been sober for several weeks, one of his therapists took him on a field trip: He had to return to his apartment, face the material destruction he'd caused, and have a substantial role in cleaning it up. He hated the entire process, to say the least.

He hated it, but it worked.

When his interventionist visited him at the clinic one day, she expressed to him that she was saddened by his lack of gratitude. She thought he should have been more grateful for having made so much progress. He retorted with something about the unfairness of everyone expecting him to be joyful when all he felt was absolute misery. Very quickly, she rebutted that gratitude doesn't necessarily have anything to do with joy. Gratitude means humility.

Gratitude means humility.

What she said really got me thinking. After everything I'd thought and written about gratitude in the past, and after all the topics and ideas I'd managed to connect to humility, never once had I focused on the direct link between the two. I don't know whether this therapist was a Christian or not, but she was spot-on. Gratitude means humility, and humility means gratitude.

Without humility, we can't be truly grateful for anything. Being grateful implies that someone has done something for us, something we value, something we wouldn't have been able to accomplish on our own—at least not as easily, or else why would we be grateful? This implicit reliance upon another, whether it's on God or a fellow mortal, indicates that we're not all-powerful, all-capable, or all-knowing. The character trait that enables us to recognize our weaknesses, shortcomings and limitations is humility.

The reciprocal thought, then, is that we can't be truly humble if we're not also grateful. If we think that God hasn't done anything for us, that no one on earth has ever helped us, that others are persistently "out to get" us, and that life is generally painful and unpleasant, that's our pride talking, preventing us from seeing the truth. If we can't well see the truth, it's difficult to be grateful for it.

Pride stands in the way not just of gratitude but also of everything that's good about humanity and Creation. It tells us that we're entitled to disregard what God has revealed to us about Himself, about us, and about our place and role within the universe. It tells us that we deserve to have whatever we want at the moment, whether it's physical or conceptual. It also gives us the false notion that we have the necessary authority to obtain, by any means within our reach, these things that we want. According to Christianity, none of that's true.

Unfortunately, many of us tend to think that certain problems fall outside the jurisdiction of Christian truth—that Christianity ought to keep its comments to itself when it comes to matters like addiction or psychosocial illness. Most secular experts are quick to assert that problems such as these have nothing to do with faith or spirituality. They claim that all underlying mechanisms of these problems are genetic or biochemical, even the ones that involve actions that Christians call sin. In other words, their view is that some people simply have no choice but to sin in certain ways. They disregard the Judeo-Christian belief that we're created in the Lord's image, that we have any sort of free will when it comes to problems involving the mind and the spirit.

In truth, God gives us each the free will to choose good or evil, virtue or sin. If certain people are predestined to make destructive choices, whether we maintain that their predestination is by God or by disease, then the Christian faith would be of absolutely no benefit to these people; why should they pray or strive for holiness if their efforts would be, by definition, futile? Such a conclusion implies that some people—those who are "born" a certain way—are exempt from the responsibilities of Christian faith and immune to its benefits. Needless to say, the conclusion is faulty.

Life isn't easy. God never said it would be, but He does promise that having faith will help. What we often fail to realize is that a totality of faith is necessary for obtaining that help. We can't just believe in the easy parts—the forgiveness and salvation; we also have to believe the parts about hardship, struggles, and suffering. We're not entitled to avoid any of those things. We are, however, entitled to overcome them. In fact, it's expected of us.

A steady, uphill climb.

Most of us never really hit our metaphorical rock-bottom; we only tread water, hovering somewhere vaguely above it, yet we consider whatever we're facing to be the ultimate in pain. We don't often think about how much worse our situation could be, and we miss an opportunity to be grateful for that. We don't often look to see how much we might have done to cause our misfortune, and then, not recognizing the Lord's patience with us, we miss another opportunity to be grateful. It doesn't often occur to us that our suffering is a gift from God—one that absolves us of a worse suffering or one that alerts us to something wrong inside of us, something we need to change—and we miss yet another opportunity to be grateful.

When we don't bother to recognize the good, all that remains within our focus is the bad. And when all we concentrate on is the bad, we lose perspective and compromise our ability to help ourselves and to receive help from God and others. We just want the situation to go away on its own, without our having to be involved in any of it. But when we realize that it isn't going away on its own, we decide that we'll settle for pity instead. When others fuss over our suffering, it can feel like they've displaced a portion of the burden we were carrying. But what's necessary isn't to spread the burden around to make it seem lighter; what's necessary is to isolate each individual problem and to deal with it. "Dealing with it" entails either learning how to carry it or how to remove it altogether; this is different for each of us and for each situation that we face.

For every complex problem there is an easy answer, and it is wrong.
— American satirist H. L. Mencken

What we learn when we do hit our true rock-bottom (or, in rare instances, sooner) is that we're responsible for most of what's wrong with us. When there's nowhere further down we can go except inside of a coffin, we choose either to pursue that option or to do whatever it takes to start climbing back upward. We also learn that there's no climbing out of any hole, nor is there climbing over any obstacle, without discipline. The proverbial magic bullet doesn't exist; there's nothing that will remediate our problems in one shot. Our hope is in the Lord, of course, but not necessarily in the form of a miraculous cure or sense of relief. What we learn to cling to instead is the hope that God will help us to take the first step and that He'll continue to help us the rest of the way up—and into eternity, for that matter. We hope and pray for endurance, fortitude, the courage to persevere, and a continuous renewal of our motivation to succeed. When we start to live this way, we have no choice but to be grateful at every single moment. Gratitude comes naturally.

Of course, we don't have to hit rock-bottom to learn these things. We can learn them simply by humbling ourselves.

The truth is that none of us deserves a quick fix; none of us is worthy. Even Christ, the only sinless One, the only One truly worthy of the absence of any hardship whatsoever in His humanity, still needed to experience suffering—albeit to save the world, not to fix Himself. Our struggles are nothing in comparison, and our lives are absolutely worthless in comparison; yet, somehow, we feel like we deserve a free ride. Faith doesn't tell us to think that way. Reason doesn't tell us to think that way. Only pride tells us that. Pride is the extreme opposite of humility.

Like so many of us, the young man in the documentary wanted his road to recovery to be easy, but it wasn't. He didn't deserve "easy," just like none of us does. At the end of his inpatient stay, he declined further treatment and, needless to say, when he went home and slipped back into the only lifestyle he'd ever known, he relapsed. According to an update at the end of the program, though, he changed his mind after the relapse and resumed rehabilitation. God help him to stick with it this time.

Whatever our particular problems are, we typically think that checking into a clinic, or visiting with a doctor, or popping a pill, or simply having the resolve to change is going to make everything better, but it doesn't. Any of these might help to take the edge off of our suffering in some instances, but no meaningful improvements come until we start working for them. And it wouldn't be called "work" if it didn't involve effort.

Effort starts, sometimes, with simply going through the motions. The recovering addict might not feel good, but he still has to make his bed. The depressed person might not want to, but he still has to get out of his bed--and then make it. Eventually, after enough days or weeks or months of every hour being structured in some way (more or less, depending on the severity of the problem that needs fixing), the process will start to feel less mechanical. Eventually, it'll even start to feel good. Supplemented with healthy habits such as good nutrition, physical activity and cleanliness, and with healthy spiritual habits such as prayer and receiving Holy Communion, the spirit will grow to be quite strong. It will grow strong enough to overcome any difficulty.

If we're too proud to think we need to exert this kind of effort--if we think we're above hard work, or if we think our problem is unsolvable and that there's no constructive way to cope with it, we can kiss any hope of healing goodbye. If we're willing to work at it, however, and willing to be grateful for the tiny improvements we see, we'll eventually start to see larger and more lasting improvements.

When we confront our problems head-on--willing to do or sacrifice whatever's necessary to overcome them, it's very likely that we'll be successful, but it's not likely that our success will last forever; consider recidivism rates after imprisonment and relapse rates after addiction rehab. But if we work toward the glory of God, our success is absolutely guaranteed. The Lord didn't create any of us to be involuntarily chained to any of the destructive habits that He calls sins. When we ask Him for the right kind of help for the right reasons, He gives it to us. He gives it to us on earth, and He promises that He'll give it to us for eternity. When we want to heal for the right reasons, God always helps.

Saint Paul reminds us--in fact, in today's epistle reading--that none of us is exempt from suffering. But being the children and heirs of God, if we suffer with Christ we'll also be glorified with Him. Moreover, he reminds us that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us, if we can endure in faith until the end (Romans 8:16-18). I don't think it can be stated any more plainly than that.

May God help us in our struggles to recognize which responsibilities are ours, and may He give us every help we need to fulfill them.