An Attitude of Gratitude

a homily by Jaco B. ten Hove
(Co-minister of Paint Branch UU Church, Adelphi, MD)
delivered on Sunday, November 21, 1999

I read a poem recently that portrayed a hopeful future for our world. However, it began with this provocative line: "If we will have the wisdom to survive…"

I believe that we will not only survive but thrive into the 21st century and beyond, but that faith does beg a further question: Are there particularly wise behaviors that improve the odds for our collective survival?

We seem to be able to identify some of the obvious behaviors that decrease the odds for our survival, such as whatever depletes the ozone layer or otherwise poisons our nest. Identifying destructive behaviors is one thing we're relatively good at; changing them is often much more problematic.

But I'm always on the look-out for ways of being in the world-behaviors-that I might simply add to my life and by so doing help with one of the greatest challenges before us: what has been called sustainability. (When we have the ability to sustain something, we are able to keep it going, keep it alive and thriving at a healthy level.)

How, then, can we both achieve and sustain a good life for as many creatures as now live on this finite planet without sacrificing the quality of life for those who will follow us? I find this to be perhaps the single most demanding, all-inclusive issue of our generation.

One helpful response to the demanding challenge of sustainability is to see clearly how my personal behaviors might either increase or decrease the odds that we will survive to thrive. But this is hard! There seems to be so much beyond my control that I can get discouraged, feeling like I'm more a part of the problem than the solution. I need help in assessing my approach to this issue.

Wisdom, as the poet suggests, is a pivotal feature. "If we will have the wisdom to survive…" But you can't just manufacture wisdom, or buy it at the mall.

So we try to learn from the teachers and wise people of our culture. One of those, for me, is Joanna Macy, who, some years ago, wrote a very helpful book on "Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age." This was a guide about how not to get discouraged by the demanding struggles of this age and, instead, become ever more effective at gaining ground on them. She has gone on to lead very empowering workshops and has continued to develop her thinking, by integrating in her own life and work a number of disciplines such as deep ecology, positive thinking, systems theory, and Buddhist teachings.

I find Joanna Macy to be an inspiration and a source of wisdom about how we can survive and sustain ourselves well. In some of her most recent writing (Coming Back to Life, New Society Publishers, 1998, excerpted in Timeline Magazine, Sept/Oct 1999), she speaks of our time as a period in history when we, as a species, will probably either decline quite rapidly OR make the shift from an "unsustainable society to a life-sustaining one."

To support this latter option toward a life-sustaining society, she offers a list of five approaches that can help us in what she calls, "this great turning"-a turning toward behaviors that will help us survive and thrive.

I'm only going to mention the top item on her list, because it is the most pertinent today. The others are also very helpful, but the first, and perhaps foremost recommendation of for our survival from this wise and well-respected teacher is to increase the ways we might, in her words, "Come From Gratitude." This means we each might emphasize thanksgiving all year round, as we orient our world by the star of appreciation, and get in the habit of expressing gratitude-"Come from (a place of) Gratitude."

Macy rightly reminds us that this teaching is, in one way or another, a part of every noble religion tradition. It is a unifying and humbling attitude that sponsors openness, maturity and, she declares, sustainability.

This last aspect was a new thought for me. Yes, the activity of being grateful certainly makes a difference. But on it hinges the sustained survival of humanity? You may think, as I did, that this is a bit of a stretch-the notion that our collective survival depends on each of us cultivating an attitude of gratitude. But I thought about it a bit and realized that she may be onto something.

For instance, I challenge you-from this very moment on-to "come from gratitude." Live as fully as you possibly can from this posture of thanksgiving every day, every moment even, and see if your own single life isn't positively transformed in a week or a month. Then imagine if your whole family followed Joanna Macy's suggestion to "come from gratitude." Wow! Then imagine if this entire congregation actively adopted an ever-present attitude of gratitude. Then the entire DC area, the nation, etc. Imagine if everywhere people moved and interacted with thankfulness on their lips.

Sure, it's idealistic and it may not improve the economy, at least directly, but it would definitely improve the emotional climate of our world and probably the good of the whole in some very tangible ways, and thus increase the odds for sustainability. I now predict that "If we will have the wisdom to survive…" we will learn to increasingly "come from gratitude."

Now you might not automatically think of our best friend, the dog, as a normal source of world-saving wisdom, but many canines do have a leg up on us, so to speak, about this gratitude thing. Our hound dog, Stella, has a vast variety of body language, much of which seems to suggest how grateful she'd be for some tidbit of attention or taste. I wonder if she could speak if she'd ever need to say more than, "Oh, thank you! Thank you very much! Oh, yes, thank you, thank you, thank you!" Most dogs "come from gratitude" a lot!

But what would an attitude of gratitude look like among us bipeds? One specific way to keep steady on this path is to train yourself to always look for and appreciate the abundance around you. Abundance is a word that means there's clearly a lot of something.

For instance, there is an abundance of beauty and love on this planet, but we are often taught otherwise by a consumer culture that depends upon us thinking more about scarcity, which is the opposite. (Scarcity means there's an obvious lack of something. Whatever we seek is scarce.) We're convinced about scarcity by advertisements, which tell us that we don't have enough love, that we aren't beautiful enough as we are, so that we'll spend our money to acquire what will then allegedly satisfy us.

But hmmm, what'd'ya know-there's always something else to buy that's "new and improved" or "updated," that'll satisfy us even more, and before we realize it we are seductively drawn into worshipping at the Temple of Scarcity. We always want more because we see ourselves as having less than we need or deserve. We worry that there just isn't enough to go around but then, despite how much we acquire, we can still end up shrinking, inside at least.

Coming from scarcity will obscure an attitude of gratitude. For instance, if you consciously or subconsciously assume that there isn't enough of whatever to go around, any thankfulness you do feel could be mostly because you're glad you've got your piece of the pie. This is a shallow gratitude that only goes inward. You may feel a vague guilt about the implications of this self-centeredness, but what can you do-it's survival of the fittest, after all, in a world where there just isn't enough for everyone. And the worldview of scarcity gradually pervades your attitudes.

A theology of abundance, on the other hand, preaches that there's plenty of what really matters if we but look for it and value it and share it. Reaching outward with an attitude of gratitude multiplies what really matters. Wise people throughout the ages have known this and tried to tell us, but we often seem to get distracted by those seductive material pursuits.

I think immediately of that humble carpenter rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who spread the good news of an abundantly, eternally loving god. This message inspired our ancestral Universalists to focus on the abundance of love, and reject the scarcity thinking of other dubious doctrines, such as original sin, predestination and hell, all concepts that serve to shrink our inherent worth and dignity.

"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus suggested, paraphrasing the Golden Rule that had actually been swirling around in numerous other cultures even before he ever heard of it. But have you ever stopped to ask WHY we should love our neighbors as ourselves? Because it works, that's why! It's a direct way to increase the love in your world, which would be a goal of most people, I suspect. Loving others as you would be loved can transform scarcity into abundance.

But there's also a reason why this doctrine of love and abundance has been honored in the breach for centuries: it's not nearly as easy as it sounds! We fallible humans can get very stuck in our protective, insulating behaviors, unless and until we find motivation or resources to help us convert the scarcity we've probably been taught into an abundant future for ourselves and those around us. This personal "turning" toward love and abundance can be accomplished at any time, but it takes some doing. It's worth the effort, to be sure, but it's also a challenge.

I think of two siblings I know, close in age to each other and to me. They were raised in the same household and I have heard each describe in similar terms the struggles of their family, but to meet them today, you'd never believe they came from the same setting. One is a really a whiner, difficult to befriend, is having trouble professionally, and is often negative and judgmental. The other is upbeat, an effective leader in progressive circles, beautifully artistic, with lots of friends all over.

When I look at these two friends of mine-and unfairly oversimplify their lives, I admit-what I see is a stark contrast between their attitudes: one comes from a tight place of scarcity, the other from open abundance. The one sibling often seems to compete harshly for any scrap of goodness, chasing people away in the process. The other sibling gushes gratitude, embracing the whole world with love and uplifting art. Same background, way different life results. Somewhere along the line, the two siblings took divergent paths.

I think it matters whether we intentionally "come from gratitude" or worship at the temple of scarcity. It matters in our individual lives AND it matters to the healthy survival of our kind. How we are raised indeed plays a part in our basic attitudes, but it isn't the last word. We can make choices as we age, and transform our attitudes.

We often teach the doctrine of abundance to our children and then maybe forget it ourselves. How many of you know the kid's song about the "Magic Penny"? Sing it with me:
Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.
It's just like a Magic Penny: hold it tight and you won't have any.
Spend it, lend it and you'll have so many, they'll roll all over the floor…

Yes, love is something that if you give it away, you end up having more. We intuitively know the paradoxical truth of this message that we send to our children, but it also seems to escape us every day, unless we cultivate a year-round attitude of gratitude.

Giving thanks is one of the easiest and most effective ways to spread love and save the world. Yet it's also easy to forget to do. "Coming from gratitude" might just be the behavior we can intentionally add to or increase in our lives to help our kind survive and thrive with wisdom.

If I can do more of that, I may yet become the good person my dog thinks I am!

So may it be!


Along with our deep appreciation for the extra-special music today, we are grateful for the whole Paint Branch community and its way of "life that enfolds us, and helps and heals and holds us."

May you go forth from this place with uplifted heart, renewed and
1: eager to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, especially as we enter
2: ever-ready to "come from gratitude," especially as we enter
Thanksgiving Week, embraced by the Spirit of Life, with which we will close our service.

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