I got your attention, didn’t I? This is not to say that I am its master; I am well aware of my lack. Nevertheless, the secret is plain in front of us. The secret of a good life is thankfulness.
When I thought about this, and I reflected back upon how I came to this conclusion, a certain juxtaposition happened, between this thankfulness, and suffering. Many people look to the heavens and ask, “How could a good God allow all this suffering?” It’s a fair question, and it’s one that I cannot give a satisfactory answer to, at least not directly. And I suppose that is my point. If I concede the inevitability of suffering—- in some form or other, and in some degree or other—- what about the rest of it?
Suffering indicates that I am alive, and that I have some awareness of the privation of which suffering is the indication. If we have any chance to suffer well, then we must have some notion of wholeness or goodness. In a certain sense, evil must be known by negation. Physical evil, or misfortune, we might say, is a distinct category from moral evil, where a knowing creature decides to willingly do something that is wrong.
One thing that is certain is that existence is not meaningless. If I can identify a better state of things in my suffering, if I can long for more peaceable days, if I can describe a more desirable outcome than the one I’m experiencing, there is nothing meaningless about that suffering. To say that it has meaning is not to say that it is desirable, or good in itself. There is a certain courage and strength which simply endures suffering. It is an accomplishment to bear up under suffering, and it is worth celebrating.
I think we have a tendency to try to move to the lessons or the wisdom from suffering too soon, as if it is somehow unspiritual to wish that pain would go away. It is also an odd expectation we have of ourselves, that we need to somehow vindicate the goodness of God in the midst of our suffering. If we are conscious of that goodness, far be it for me to tell anyone else not to speak of it. At the same time, the weight of the entire cosmos is not on me, to proclaim the goodness of God at every moment of my suffering, as though no one would ever believe in God again, if they saw me groaning or weeping.
Have you read the Psalms lately? It doesn’t seem that King David and others were overly concerned that their frank honesty would harm God’s name. I do draw a firm distinction between honesty, and blasphemy or unbelief, but again, we probably worry about this more than we ought to, in the sense that our difficulty is not hidden from those around us. It might be profoundly more honest for us to say that we are struggling to endure our suffering, rather than “spiritually” trying to pretend it isn’t happening.
But I began by speaking about thankfulness. We can be thankful for lots of things, great and small. There is a vast array of trite greeting cards and country songs, proclaiming thankfulness for little things, and little towns, and whatever else. Even so, if every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, as the letter of St. James tells us, there is very likely a lot of thankfulness wrapped up in our simple enjoyment of everyday things.
Many people have tied themselves in knots, trying to make lists of things to be thankful for, and sometimes feeling guilty when they don’t find a lot of success in making lists, or in the enthusiasm for making a list. Perhaps what we should do is think about all the things that gave us pleasure in the day—- provided they were not evil—- and to give a word of thanks for those. Piety and prayer do not have to be as complicated as sometimes we make them out to be. And if I can be thankful for an array of small things, even if the entire list of those things is beyond my awareness, then I am better prepared for the times and places when I will suffer and groan, and my prayers will be tears.
Have you ever been present, when a little child is asked to pray the meal blessing before a meal? Oftentimes it seems to go “off the rails” because the kid will thank God for trucks and trees, candy, cap guns, and only heaven knows what else. And isn’t it funny? But why is it funny? We’re the ones who forgot to be thankful for those little things, those things that made us happy, and propelled us through another day in one piece.
Faith like a child, indeed.
We also forget what a great gift the Christian liturgy is. Every occasion of worship is an ample opportunity to proclaim our thankfulness to God through Jesus Christ. I don’t know about you, but I have not always had the experience of thankfulness, at every second or occasion of those public declarations. Yet that is the glory of thanksgiving as a normal practice. We say that we are thankful for all that we have been given, and we are invited to grow in our capacity to actually experience the feeling of thankfulness.
In the end, we know about our various sins, rooted as they are in a lack of thankfulness. A generous and magnanimous person is someone who can be thankful for the good gifts that others receive. It is a very hard thing, to be that sort of person. But even as we contemplate this, we are basking in the generosity of the God who is generosity by definition. For certain, we will be who we graciously practice to become.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.