A couple nights ago at work, I had a discussion with a co-worker of mine who lost his son this past year, only to discover a few months later that his wife had an aggressive form of breast cancer. As I asked him about his holiday plans, he explained that scheduling conflicts would cause his wife to go through her chemo treatment the day before Thanksgiving without sufficient time to recover from the session before. The holiday would largely consist of him taking care of his recovering, miserable spouse. He explained that the worst part was watching. Physical pain and misery was something he did not mind enduring himself. But having to watch a loved one suffer was something else entire. I shook this good man's hand, promised him my thoughts, prayers, and support, and slowly walked back across the trailer yard. As I did, I could not help the rush of tears that came as I thought about the struggles of my friend and his family. I had to gain my composure and wipe my eyes as I made it back to the loading dock.
One may say that such interactions should make you grateful for all the things you have. To some extent, this seems to me rather obscene. It is as if one is to take the attitude "better him than me." Suffering is part of fallen nature, yet appears to be the most incomprehensible aspect of a world supposedly created and watched over by a loving God. To be grateful that others are suffering rather than yourself is immoral in every sense of the word.
However, I highly doubt this is what is meant by the phrase "count your blessings." Gratitude is an emotion and attitude toward God, mankind, and life as a whole. It is a deep sense of appreciation for the very experience of life and those in it; an outlook bred out of genuine humility and awe. Numerous studies have been conducted that demonstrate the power of positive emotions. Negative emotions tend to restrict and narrow focus and thinking, while positive emotions broaden one's creative horizon. Positive emotions can also undo the effects of negative emotions, including the increased ability to cope with trauma. Studies indicate that as one's coping ability increases, so do positive emotions. "These findings suggest that, over time, positive emotions and broad-minded coping mutually build on one another, leading to improved coping skills and triggering an upward spiral toward enhanced emotional well-being." Another study found that practiced gratitude led to "more progress on [participants'] goals, fewer physical complaints, more frequent physical exercise, more optimism, and higher overall well-being. So, feeling the pleasant emotion of gratitude in the short run led to more optimal functioning and emotional well-being in the long run." This upward spiral can extend to groups and organizations due to the fact that witnessing moral behavior (e.g. helpfulness, gratitude, etc.) elevates and inspires others to become more helpful and gracious. Giving and receiving gifts, along with the associated gratitude, is "the moral memory of mankind. By mutual giving, people become tied to each other by a web of feelings of gratitude. Gratitude is the motive that moves us to give in return, and thus creates the reciprocity of service and counterservice."
An interesting midrashic telling of Moses
notes that in the description of the first 3 of the 10 plagues in Exodus - the blood, frogs, and lice - it was Aaron rather than Moses who struck the Nile River and the sand, the sources of these plagues. Why so? Because the Nile...had protected [Moses] from Pharaoh's decree that all male Israelite infants be drowned at birth. Similarly, the sand - which had concealed the body of the Egyptian taskmaster Moses had killed...had saved Moses from Pharaoh's wrath and from prosecution and death. In gratitude to the Nile and to the sand, Moses did not want to be the one to smite them with his staff, and Aaron was delegated by God to do so. The moral the rabbis were conveying is that if one has to show gratitude even to inanimate objects, how much more must we show gratitude to humans who have benefited us?
Gratitude is an essential quality that is too often forgotten and underscored. This Thanksgiving holiday, reflect on the love that makes the anguish possible, the friends and family that make life worth living, and the unique feeling of what it is to even exist. Be grateful for the blessings all around you by becoming a blessing to all around you.
UPDATE: President Eyring has a new article in the December 2011 Ensign entitled "The Choice to Be Grateful."
1. For reading on the problem of evil and suffering, see Truman G. Madsen, "Human Anguish and Divine Love," Four Essays on Love (Provo, UT: Communications Workshop, 1971); Blake T. Ostler, David L. Paulsen, "Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil," Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, eds. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002); Loyd Ericson, "'Which Thing I Had Never Supposed': The Problem of Evil and the Problem of Man," Sunstone 159 (June 2010); David B. Hart, "Tsunami and Theodicy," First Things (March 2005).
2. Barbara L. Frederickson, "Gratitude, Like Other Positive Emotions, Broadens and Builds," The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 156.
3. Frederickson, 2004, 154.
4. Aafke Elisabeth Komter, "Gratitude and Gift Exchange," The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Emmons, McCullough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 203-204.
5. Solomon Schimmel, "Gratitude in Judaism," The Psychology of Gratitude, ed. Emmons, McCullough (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 44-45.