Reflections on gratitude and seeing what you believeBy: Andrew S
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.
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?