Reflections on gratitude and seeing what you believe

By: Andrew S
August 30, 2012

Flunking Sainthood Gratitude Challenge

This month, I participated in Jana Riess’s Gratitude Challenge (although perhaps she may not be as happy about my participation, because I did not participate directly on her Facebook page, but instead on my own personal Facebook page.) The rules of the challenge were simple enough that even though I usually don’t do these things, I decided to do it anyway: every day in the month of August, write down five things for which you are grateful.

Now, I have heard the claim that if you just focus on positive thoughts, then you can turn yourself more optimistic. Our very own Jake wrote a while back about developing the capacity to see beauty. But I haven’t taken these ideas too seriously — how I feel is a reaction to day-to-day experiences…if I have poor experiences, then I’m going to feel poorly. I understand that different people can have different personalities that influence their reactions to different experiences, but I am not by disposition an optimistic person. I accept that. So, why would I do something like this?

Jana’s challenge was so…costless. I mean, what is the cost of making a Facebook status every day about five things for which I’m grateful? There is no social cost. No direct monetary cost. A very very negligible time cost.

Additionally, one thing that made it even easier for me to do this challenge is how my father has been telling me to be more gracious…and I’ve thought: easier said than done. How does one become more gracious, patient, kind, long-suffering, and all of those other good traits? (My father has said that he will share more in detail about this process…but that is still forthcoming. I guess I’m practicing my patience as we speak.)

So, I participated in the challenge.

Some days, it was difficult. I would have my facebook status open for hours to try to get to five things for which I was grateful. And I would often feel like the things for which I was grateful were inadequate…like I was giving frivolous answers. (What bewildered me was checking the Gratitude Challenge website on some days and seeing what others wrote — I thought that their answers were far more superfluous than mine.)

However, an interesting thing happened as time went on…I began noticing things in my life and thinking, “I want to write about this for today’s gratitude challenge.” I would savor these moments, however short-lived and ephemeral…and while the initial feeling of happiness or joy or peace or whatever it was would end soon…I would be carried forward by the prospect of being able to recollect it on Facebook.

Despite Houston objectively having some pretty terrible air pollution sometimes, I felt that there was something healthy in the environment, just permeating through my existence.

More on Faith

Last week, I asked the readers at Wheat and Tares what you thought faith was…and the response was really overwhelming, and very thought-provoking. I still have to write a more comprehensive post on my discoveries from the 90 comments to that discussion (which means I have to go back and process all of those comments), but one theme that I got from several comments was this: faith is not just belief or action or hope or desire…it is a bundle of belief and action and hope and desire in a positive feedback loop.

A second thing I got from the discussion is that the object of our belief or our doing or of our hoping or of our desiring may be different than we expect. A lot of discussions in the disaffected Mormon communities focuses about how certain policies are terrible, or about how certain historical events are unbecoming of an organization that claims to be the one true church on the face of the planet. However, when certain faithful members of the church say that certain issues with church history do not affect their testimonies because their faith is not in LDS church history, I can understand this when I think of their faith being in things like the life course that they have pursued…and then, their belief isn’t necessarily that the church’s history is morally unproblematic but rather in the idea that the life course that they are pursuing will help to improve them.

From here, I can begin to understand the claims of certain folks who say that “everyone has faith in something” (although I can also immediately understand the criticism that some folks may have that this might be conflating multiple, different definitions of faith.) As Joseph Smith wrote in the first of the Lectures on Faith:

If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action, in them; that without it, both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental.

Were this class to go back and reflect upon the history of their lives, from the period of their first recollection, and ask themselves, what principle excited them to action, or what gave them energy and activity, in all their lawful avocations, callings and pursuits, what would be the answer? Would it not be that it was the assurance which we had of the existance of things which we had not seen, as yet? Was it not the hope which you had, in consequence of your belief in the existence of unseen things, which stimulated you to action and exertion, in order to obtain them? Are you not dependant on your faith, or belief, for the acquisition of all knowledge, wisdom and intelligence? Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather? Would you have ever asked unless you had believed that you would receive? Would you have ever sought unless you had believed that you would have found? Or would you have ever knocked unless you had believed that it would have been opened unto you? In a word, is there any thing that you would have done, either physical or mental, if you had not previously believed? Are not all your exertions, of every kind, dependant on your faith? Or may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith? Reflect, and ask yourselves, if these things are not so. Turn your thoughts on your own minds, and see if faith is not the moving cause of all action in yourselves; and if the moving cause in you, it it not in all other intelligent beings?

Now, just from reading this, I sense rather strongly that what is used by faith here is a far broader, more universal term than how it is often used in religious senses…but as it goes here, I don’t disagree with it.

I think that the reason I don’t have a problem with much of the stuff I’ve quoted above, or most of the stuff that was discussed in my previous post’s conversation, is because a lot of it ties in to what is becoming an increasingly strong foundation for human psychology, but that is probably a topic for another day. (As an aside, a lot of the psychological mechanics that I can see that seem to correlate with some of these issues seem to be viewed in a less-than-positive context in a secular psychological realm.)

Faith and Gratitude

The latter half of the title to this post comes from a quotation by St. Augustine:

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

St. Augustine

Before this month (and before my post on faith last week), I would have been quite skeptical of this quote. In fact, I still have some major reservations (and those reservations deal with some of the unflattering psychological facts that this quotation draws up…but again, that’s a different discussion.)

But one thing that I definitely have seen with the gratitude challenge is that I had to take a first step to do it. Maybe, in order to do it, I had to have some sort of self-efficacy in my ability to be able to accomplish anything through the challenge…or maybe I was just profoundly bored, so there was that much of a hurdle to jump over.

Regardless of the hows and whys, over time, the reward certainly has been that I “see” what I “believed”. With this pattern in mind, I don’t know what “challenge” or “experiment” I will try next (and there are tons of things we could talk about regarding that), but I do like the idea of starting things on a trial basis and seeing how they will unfold.

The thing that I find most fun in my private life, just thinking about this subject in my head, is playing with the question of what sorts of things I should try next. It seems to me that of course, plenty of Mormons would like me to “try” Mormonism again. Plenty of (insert religion here) would like me to try (insert religion here). I have been disinterested in buying any sort of package deal, if instead I can take lego blocks from wherever and make my own structure. Yet it seems to me that the playing field is set up in these ecosystems — you buy into it all, or you don’t buy into it at all. One of my friends wrote the following in conclusion his most recent blog post:

There are so many things I’ve wanted to do over the years. I want to wander about some Pacific islands. I want to write, not in fits and starts for a few paragraphs, but steadily, till I have something I can proudly call an example of my creativity. I want to figure out if there’s any merit to the peace I see in my religious friends’ lives, or if my atheist friends are closer to the truth. For the next few months I’ll be living in a strange sort of interlude, neither student nor professional. I don’t know when I’ll next have a time in my life as ripe for this kind of freestyle exploration, and my top immediate priority should be using it to the fullest.

The thing that got me was the either/or assumption that I discerned from his comment about peace and truth. Is there any merit to the peace he sees in his religious friends’ lives ***or*** are his atheist friends closer to the truth?

Similarly, via email, I was invited to read the book The Question of God: CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life — although as someone who is effectively illiterate when it comes to long-form writing, I’ll just have to add this to my list of long-form works that I’ll get to eventually. Although I haven’t read the book, I have taken one step to avoid judging the book purely on its cover — based on some of the reviews and analyses I’ve read regarding this book, it appears that the author means to set CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud as representatives of two worldviews that are “either/or” against each other. The idea being that you can look at these two folks who started out with relatively similar standings and experiences, and then you can see for yourself which one ended up “better off”.

But I don’t know — who is to say that peace-bringing practices are “owned” by the religious? Who is to say that we couldn’t find people practicing peace-sustaining practices across the map — of all the kinds of theists and all the kinds of atheists — and that we couldn’t find people for whom peace utterly escapes them across the same map?

Tags: , , , , ,

11 Responses to Reflections on gratitude and seeing what you believe

  1. Mike S on August 30, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    This is the key quote for me: who is to say that peace-bringing practices are “owned” by the religious

    I don’t know that the secret to “peace” is necessarily owned by ANY specific religion (or non-religion). Instead, it comes from living a life of integrity. For example, there are many Buddhists (who might not even specifically believe in God) who are more at peace than many Mormons I know. The converse is also true.

    Interestingly, there do seem to be some “core components” to living a life of integrity and peace. Treat your fellowman with respect. Be honest. Don’t kill. Avoid harmful substances. Appreciate the Divine in the world and universe around us. Etc. While the specific implementation of these differs from religion to religion, the core principles are essentially the same.

    And of all of these, in my personal life, the one that has brought me the most peace is a recognition of how intertwined we all are. This completely changes your outlook on the world and how you treat people. Ironically, it took studying Buddhism where this is more explicitly emphasized to understand it in Christianity. It is plainly there – where Christ Himself boiled the entire thing down to loving God and loving your fellowman, but we seem to get bogged down in the minutiae of Mormonism and lose sight of the big picture. And when we do that, we lose peace.

    Stepping away from the minutiae of Mormonism and truly focusing on the world around us (as you’ve done this month) lets us regain that peace.

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 4

  2. Howard on August 30, 2012 at 9:23 AM

    Excellent post Andrew! Very well organized and articulated.

    Peace results from the absence of dissonance. The Mormon form of this is ” living the gospel”. But there is more. If you decontaminate your thinking and manage yourself with a layer of mental self observation and objective decision making that effectively considers emotion and dissonance you approach self actualization. There is no Mormon equivalent for this, as they used to say; when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  3. anonlds on August 30, 2012 at 1:22 PM

    I don’t think I agree with the idea that honesty brings peace. The human mind is capable of incredible acrobatics to preserve a sense of self. Most people believe they are better than average. If people knew the truth about themselves would they be more at peace? I don’t think so.

    This doesn’t mean their isn’t any correlation between peace and truth though. I think someone who has achieved peace is more about to handle and accept the truth. But peace is a requirement for accepting truth. Truth doesn’t bring the peace though. The peace comes from humility and acceptance. Reality can be pretty harsh though.

    I heard recently that depressed people are just people who see the world as it is and the world sucks. It’s the happy people who aren’t in touch with reality.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  4. Will on August 30, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    I think Mike S hit it right on the head…Integrity equals peace. This is why so many people, from so many walks of life can be at peace. Peace comes from living what you need to be true. Hell is living a lie no matter how you were raised.

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 4

  5. Bonnie on August 30, 2012 at 11:46 PM

    Andrew, I’m sorry to have been a bit “out of it” and missed really engaging with your piece. I love it.

    I find it interesting that you begin by talking about gratitude, segue to talking about faith, and end by talking about peace. I got the jump between the first two, but I have to make an assumption about the connection of the third idea. Is it that gratitude, which may sharpen our sense of discernment and enlarge our ability to make leaps of faith, seems incongruous in the life of an intellectual, who finds great dissonance in the mere discussion of faith?

    I have to agree with Mike and Will that integrity is the secret to peace – integrity to what we know to be the highest example of moral living, not the minimum expectations of the line mentality (focusing on rules). But I also have to add Joseph Smith’s observations on faith: that it is conditioned on knowing that God is, having a true understanding of his character and attributes, and knowing that the course of one’s life is acceptable to him.

    This final condition of faith (Lecture the Sixth on Faith) makes requisite a relationship with God that places us in harmony with issues far outside our mortal experience. This confidence is intangible, but incredibly powerful, an endowment of grace that far exceeds our mortal judgments of one another. This faith, then, is the ultimate peace, and is connected causally. Is that what you also meant to do by making these your #2 and #3 points? Brilliant.

    Regarding gratitude, I was changed in my twenties by this habit as it was central to my path to overcoming bi-polar. Not some ephemeral gratefulness, but a consistent program underwritten by a psychologist that I put into practice in my life and which had the fortunate effect of altering my chemistry sufficiently to allow me to function at a mostly normal level. I am like an alcoholic; there are certain behavior and thought patterns that I can NEVER indulge again, but I’m “clean and sober” for 21 years (“Hello, my name is Bonnie, I have a mental illness.”)

    When Pres. Monson spoke about gratitude in Gen. Conf. some time ago I was transfixed, because waves of confirmation washed over me that he was right: a wholesale embracing of this value would do exactly for us what we need right now. Crazy how incomprehensibly simple things can have such a dramatic effect.

    And I’m so sorry about the scheduling of our posts. Please forgive my ineptitude.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  6. Andrew S on August 31, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    re 1

    Mike S

    Ironically, it took studying Buddhism where this is more explicitly emphasized to understand it in Christianity.

    I find this idea really intriguing…and I have been playing around with it a lot…the idea that you can be so accustomed to seeing something in one way that you can’t learn to see it in another way until you leave it or try to learn a different thing.

    re 2

    Howard,

    If you decontaminate your thinking and manage yourself with a layer of mental self observation and objective decision making that effectively considers emotion and dissonance you approach self actualization.

    I don’t think I understand this…

    re 3

    anonlds,

    I don’t think I agree with the idea that honesty brings peace. The human mind is capable of incredible acrobatics to preserve a sense of self. Most people believe they are better than average. If people knew the truth about themselves would they be more at peace? I don’t think so.

    One of the main things I’ve been seeing across so many religious traditions is the importance of stepping away from the “self.” e.g., “Whoever loses his life will find it in Christ” or the Islamic idea of “submission to God” or the concept of “ego death” or “anatman” (“not-self”)…and the analogous concepts continue.

    I think the entire point of all of these systems is that when we abandon those self-concepts, then we don’t have to keep working to defend them, and we don’t have to feel the stress of trying to defend them.

    re 4

    Will,

    I love this:

    This is why so many people, from so many walks of life can be at peace. Peace comes from living what you need to be true. Hell is living a lie no matter how you were raised.

    re 5

    Bonnie,

    I guess I must have had something going through my head when I was planning this post that didn’t get put down…I think the point I was trying to make in the last section was that with faith, it so often seems to be all-or-nothing. There are so many people who denigrate the “cafeteria” approach to things. But when I did the gratitude challenge (and indeed, I have not read Jana Riess’s Flunking Sainthood, but I imagine that this was true of all of the 12 practices she attempted), its impact did not depend on me buying every single thing that anyone has ever said about gratitude. It did not depend on me buying into a package deal.

    So, I guess for the intellectual, the conclusion would be more like, “OK, so there are a lot of things that don’t make sense…but should that stop you from keeping the stuff that does? Or should that stop you from trying out the things that do not seem as objectionable?”

    This final condition of faith (Lecture the Sixth on Faith) makes requisite a relationship with God that places us in harmony with issues far outside our mortal experience. This confidence is intangible, but incredibly powerful, an endowment of grace that far exceeds our mortal judgments of one another. This faith, then, is the ultimate peace, and is connected causally. Is that what you also meant to do by making these your #2 and #3 points? Brilliant.

    I 100% can NOT take ownership for that connection, haha…will have to continue thinking about that.

    Please…do not apologize for your post’s timing…Wednesday morning is my assigned time, so I should have asked further in advance if I wanted to post at any other time.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  7. [...] latest post on Wheat and Tares, Reflections on gratitude and seeing what you believe, went up [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  8. Howard on September 1, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    Andrew,
    This comment is about becoming conscious of one’s thinking through introspective examination, deconstruction and reconstruction and taking control of it through mental discipline, to act upon our thinking rather than be acted upon by our thinking.

    To decontaminate one’s thinking is to remove biases, conflations, useless thoughts, ruminations, etc. to the extent possible.

    Mental self observation is a layer of one’s mind that is used to observe one’s thoughts while one is thinking or doing something else. This is a management layer that can be used to edit and apply useful judgements while also considering emotion and dissonance.

    When this is largely conscious it is a description autonomous thinking that approaches self actualization.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  9. Andrew S. on September 1, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    Howard,

    I think I was most tripped up on the following that you had said:

    If you decontaminate your thinking and manage yourself with a layer of mental self observation and objective decision making that effectively considers emotion and dissonance you approach self actualization.

    “A layer of…objective decision making that effectively considers emotion and dissonance”?

    So is the goal to reduce emotion and dissonance, or to stop letting them cloud “objective” decisionmaking?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  10. Howard on September 1, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    The goal is increased autonomy and reduced dissonance. Emotion is to be considered and weighed in the processed but not necessarily reduced.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  11. [...] discussion series like war and peace, attitudes towards sexuality, the poetry of wearing pants, on gratitude, and a Mormon in the cheap seats on being told you don’t understand the [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Archives

%d bloggers like this: