Tis the season to overthink gratitude. I doubt turkeys are grateful for Thanksgiving.
Many years ago, I sat listening to a sacrament meeting talk and wondering about how to define a blessing. The speaker listed many blessings that she was grateful for, such as running water, electricity, warm homes in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, broadcasting General Conference so more people can hear it, and so forth. Everything she listed was a temporal blessing – a modern convenience created by technology. She waxed eloquent about how we, in this dispensation, are more blessed than those in earlier dispensations who didn’t have these blessings.
I love modern conveniences. Sign me up for indoor plumbing forever. However, modern conveniences are pretty recent arrivals on the scene. For centuries, millennia even, humankind has lived without hot and cold running water, electricity, and television. Yet earlier dispensations had the fullness of the gospel. Are we more blessed than they are? Is modern technology a blessing? Will we have indoor plumbing in the Celestial Kingdom?
After puzzling over the idea for some time, I decided to define a blessing as anything that brings you closer to God. If modern conveniences bring you closer to God, then they’re a blessing. Like you can use electricity to read the scriptures at night, and use your phone to coordinate a ward response to someone who needs help. But modern conveniences are NOT a blessing if they drive you further away from God. Like you can use phones to fall in love with an old flame and commit adultery, or you can read the Internet to find entire groups of people to hate.
Trials and tribulations split the same way. Some trials and tribulations bring you closer to God; some make you think there is no God. Some force you to redefine God.
Yesterday, those of you in the USA who celebrate Thanksgiving probably had to go around the table and say something you were grateful for. Is what you expressed gratitude for also a blessing? Does it bring you closer to God or just make your life easier?
Is it possible to not be grateful for something that brought you closer to God?
Or conversely, can you be grateful for something that drove you away from God?
Or forced you to redefine God?
Thanks for this refreshing perspective. My Thanksgiving arrangement was less than ideal but better than none, a mixed bag for me. This helps me see the nuance of gratitude in a useful way. It helps me neutralize the pain that occupies so much of the space where I’ve been taught that (my) gratitude is an expectation, and instead how I might think more critically — and accept what I cannot change. And in so doing, I change just what’s within my power and find some balance, for which I’m grateful.
Or if they draw you closer to others than they are fulling the second great commandment
What a wonderful and practical definition for blessing. Granted, I continue to struggle with my definition for “God” with a capital G. But through posts like this, and through my interaction with organizations like Community of Christ, I’m usually able to focus on seeing God as a driver of compassion and peace. And yes, in only the last 24 hours, there were definitely a range of modern creature comforts, some of which proved to be blessings and others not.
As an example, the turkey I cooked was a gift from my employer. I regard Thanksgiving dinner as usually the most overproduced, needlessly complicated meal of the year. Still, I have to say I was blessed by the gift of this bird. The work of preparing it and then sharing it with a neighbor who also spent most of the day alone was certainly a blessing. They in turn made some dishes and we had a nice meal for which gratitude came easy.
Is it possible to be ungrateful for something which brings me closer to God? I think absolutely. Struggling to think of a personal example I can share, but I feel like Yes is the right answer to these questions you’ve posed. Thank you for this post, it was a welcome addition to my Black Friday.
@MDearest – I’ve had some mixed-bag Thanksgivings too. Those sorts of experiences made me think hard about what I really valued in my life, and what sort of lines I wasn’t willing to cross. I, too, dislike the expectation of gratitude. I’ve focused on letting acceptance take the place of gratitude. It brings a similar sort of peace, but without the need to force a positive feeling about an experience.
@Jake C – I deliberately spoke about things that bring us closer to God, rather than church, as you picked up. That may or may not involve church, depending on our individual faith journeys. I’m glad to hear you had a companionable Thanksgiving. I spent mine with friends. We kept it really simple and no one was exhausted at the end of the day.
Also – I got a manicure from my friend’s young daughter. I currently have fingernails painted five different colors and I’m really looking forward to wearing my Tgvg manicure to the office on Tuesday.
Is it a blessing to be the victim of a deadly illness in which you are very sick but you survive (but with sickness)? The glass half full mentality says YES but the glass half-empty says NO, the real blessing would be that I didn’t get sick in the first place. Some among us offer prayers of thanks for surviving while others wonder why they have to live sick. If my house burns down and I lose half my kids in the fire, but half live, am I supposed to be thankful?
I’ve attended many a testimony meeting in which a member publicly thanks Heavenly Father for his/her blessings in light of a major trial that they experienced. And they talk about prayers answered. And yet nobody ever publicly asks why God sent them the trial in the first place. Am I supposed to have the faith NOT to be healed too?
I agree that forced gratitude for trials is … well, it is religious abuse. Telling someone who is in pain to be grateful for the blessings of that pain is just cruel, but religious people do it to each other and themselves. I know during my healing process from child abuse some well meaning people tried to tell me that there are blessing I should be grateful for. No, there are no blessings ever worth that. To be expected to find blessing is just plain more abuse. Period. People were trying to make me “let go” of anger by telling me there were blessings to be found. They couldn’t stand the pain, so they wanted me to pretend there was no pain, for their benefit, not mine. They didn’t want to deal with my anger or pain, so they were telling me to find “blessings.” They were just minimizing the pain and denying my right to be angry because it inconvenienced them.
But, if we are not forced to deny the pain and anger, then we are free to find the kind of blessing Janey is talking about that bring us closer to God, or teach us empathy for fellow humans. We don’t have to ever be grateful for the total. But we can be grateful for fragments or results, which is a different thing. Janey’s kind of blessing is there, if we are able to hold ambiguity and not deny the negative feelings. One can hold both gratitude and pain/anger at the same time. There can be gratitude for the things learned or closeness achieved or for the children that survived the fire at the same time as there is anger over the fact of the trial and all the pain it cost. As long as we leave room for the anger and the sorrow our trials bring, we can at the same time be grateful for the good things that came out of it, or just that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. An example, a while back we were traveling 8-15, and had a a guy stop us as we were pulling out of a parking lot after a lunch break. He was in the uniform of a tire store, so my husband was suspicious when he started to say that our tires on our RV trailer needed replacing. But then he showed us the big bubbles just under the tread in three out of four tires. If we had pulled back onto the freeway, those three tires would have had blowouts. It could have badly damaged the trailer, as our daughter just found out when she had a blowout on her trailer, that did significant damage to the body of the trailer, or it could have rolled the trailer. So, we were grateful he stopped us. We were *not* grateful for the 1,700 dollars tire bill at a time when we had several other unexpected large expenses. And we were *not* grateful the the delay while the tires were all changed. But, we were grateful he stopped us, even if it looked bad with him in his tire store uniform.
In recent years I’ve kind of refrained from talking about ‘blessings’ in general, mostly because they don’t happen to everyone at all times. I think we’ve all heard miraculous stories of something along the lines of “I had to choose between buying food and paying my tithing, I chose to pay tithing, and then a miracle happened when the RS president/bishop/neighbour showed up with food at my door”
I have had a few really terrible challenges in my life in which a seemingly unexpected miraculous turn of events saved the day. For example, one of my children was born with some complications and nearly died after delivery, and was confined to the NICU for some time, then my child had an unexpected recovery and the condition she was diagnosed with had disappeared over night. It was a miracle, it was a blessing. And for some years after the fact I would talk about in church as one such tender mercy of the lord and evidence of God’s love. But after a while, I would think about all the people who went through similar experiences but had different outcomes. Was our child spared because of our faithfulness while the children of others died because their lesser faithfulness? Were we more worthy? Probably not. So nowadays I find it increasingly inappropriate to crow about blessings and miracles over the pulpit in a talk or at a fast & testimony meeting. Is it really a manifestation of the grace of God when some are spared and others are not?
Rather, I think it’s more important to give love, empathy, and support to those who do suffer and have lost loved ones, and drop the whole discourse around “god is good, because he saved me from X”, because not everyone gets saved all the time. Things happen randomly, and I think our mission as children of God should be more about helping others get through/cope with the random challenges that are part of the human experience.
Great post and comments. While we’re rethinking blessings, there’s another wrinkle I want to mention: How many of our perceived blessings come at someone else’s expense?
For example, modern transportation is a big blessing until you remember that your car pollutes the atmosphere and contributes to climate change. The clothes on your back are a blessing but it’s possible they were made by exploited workers. The meat on your plate is a blessing for you—not so much for the factory-raised animal who knew only suffering until it died to feed you. The first Thanksgiving is a story about pilgrims being grateful for peace offerings from the Natives—people they would exterminate a few years later.
Are there things in our lives that make us feel closer to God but in reality inflict suffering on others? I think it’s certainly possible. I imagine a great many members are grateful for the Proclamation on the Family even as it’s weaponized against their loved ones in ways they might not even be aware of.
To be clear, I’m all for gratitude. But I also think it’s important to try to see the bigger picture and how we fit into it so that our gratitude doesn’t become blissful ignorance.
A very good point.
I grew up in Utah, but have lived outside of the USA for several years now. I was back in Utah visiting family in July recently, and attended church for the sunday prior to the 4th in which, speakers talked about the blessings of living in the USA and ‘freedom’ and all that. Now, from growing up in the USA, and in Utah in particular, I assumed I would be used to this, but after living for years overseas, it was kind of jarring hearing all that outwardly nationalist rhetoric again for the first time in several years.
Don’t get me wrong, living in the USA is, in many respects, better than living in many other parts of the world, but that’s mostly due to the ‘blessing’ of cheaper consumer goods. The ‘blessing’ of being able to buy a bunch of bananas for a couple bucks or a 12 pack of socks for $10, comes at the expense of other people overseas who are forced (by the USA, even if indirectly) to produce them and receive meagre wages for doing so. American members of church, and well, Americans in general, kind of carry this implicit assumption that things are good(ish) in the USA because we’ve turned the freedom dial up, and other countries just won’t do that for some reason.
In reality, the *relative* economic security enjoyed in the USA and other ‘first world’ nations is the result of coercion and enforcement of unequal extractive relationships with other countries and their workers and labourers. We’ve largely (but not entirely) exported and outsourced oppression overseas so we can have cheaper stuff and more leisure time. Is it really a blessing to get brownies from your ministering sister when the chocolate was definitely produced by child slave labour overseas?
It’s a hard truth, one that most americans (and citizens of first world nations in general), don’t know about/reject/rationalize/don’t want to think about, even enlightened liberals. But when you even let yourself think about it, and recognize the injustice in it (even though, as an individual you are powerless to stop it), it gets hard to think that your relatively easy life is a result of ‘blessings’ when it comes at the expense of so much human suffering.
Sometimes I talk about my hard blessings. These are major challenges that later (sometimes MUCH later) I consider to have brought good into my life. For example, I say with complete honesty that I was blessed with infertility. It was incredibly hard; some aspects continue to be hard. But as I look at my life now, I believe that infertility brought with it some results that have absolutely made my life more what I need it to be.
Some events in my life are not blessings, but the results of those events can be blessings. My sister dying when I was in my late teens was not in any way a blessing. However, it resulted in blessings. My mother and I knew from that point on that we would never face anything alone, that we would always be able to count on help and support from each other. My father and I learned that we were a team who could accomplish much together. I would give a lot to have had my sister with me through all the intervening years. But at the same time, I think it would be hard to lose the closeness to my parents I gained through that experience.
I loved your definition of blessings being something that brings you closer to God. So were these two things actually blessings? On the whole, I think they were.
I like your definition of blessings being something that brings you closer to God. I think that’s what the word blessing usually means when it’s used in the scriptures- (Mosiah 2:24, when you keep the commandments God immediately blesses you. Malachi 3:10, God will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing upon you. – Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall prosper in the land). I agree and believe that if you keep the commandments, you’ll be closer to God and that is a blessing (that’s the blessing that is promised).
However, it’s also true, that since God/Christ created the world, EVERYTHING we have comes from them- and so it is appropriate to give God thanks for everything. We can give God thanks for our lives, our health, modern conveniences, having enough food, having a nice house, having enough money, etc… That causes people to also refer to those things as “Blessings”.
The trouble comes, that when we refer to having health, a nice house, and money as blessings- then people substitute material things that we like for the blessing of being closer to God- and they think that keeping the commandments is going to bring them material things (health, a nice house, the car not breaking down, people doing kind acts of service for them, monetary rewards, etc…)
It would be better and less confusing if we had two words for the 2 different categories of blessings. I don’t believe that keeping the commandments will bring me physical or material things that I like, but I do believe that keeping the commandments will bring me the blessing of being closer to God.