By Stephen Carter
Based on a sacrament meeting talk given 25 November 2012 in the Orem, Utah 6th Ward.
Preparing this talk on gratitude became daunting almost immediately. Before I even began researching, I could already hear an insistent voice trying to take control. It wanted me to say things like, “I have so many things to be grateful for” and then list those things: family, job, health, the songs of birds, blue skies. It wanted me to exhort you to live your life in a constant state of gratitude. It wanted me to dig the beauties out of every tiny moment of life and remind you just how gosh-danged lucky you are.
Gratitude talks make me feel giddy, amazed, and grateful—for about five minutes. Then I get the feeling that I’m somehow being duped. If the sun happens to rise today, if the car starts, if the cat refrains from vomiting on the carpet, I get suspicious. I feel like these nice little events are prowling around the edges my life waiting for a chance to trap me. It’s like discovering that those lovely treats you found in your hotel room’s fridge were $5 each. During the hours of your innocence, you guzzled the fizz with wonderment, amazed at the benevolence of the universe. Meanwhile, silently in the background, your bill ticked upward, tracking each drink you quaffed, each chocolate you snarfed.
In the end, gratitude talks make me want to descend into a life of austerity and numbness so that when the gratitude goons corner me in an alley demanding my wallet or my kneecaps, I can say, “You must be looking for someone else. I did not request, and therefore am not grateful for, the birds that sang prettily this morning while I walked through the natural grandeur lining the Provo River Trail. The fresh breeze that carried the subtle scent of lavender just happened to coincide with my path. The river babbled at everyone who passed it, and has done so for years. I was merely taking my morning constitutional and neither requested nor appreciated these incidental events.”
I wonder if this kind of feeling gets especially bad when you have something huge to be grateful for. For example, my sister’s husband was shot in Afghanistan a few years ago, and she spent a week or two wondering if she was going to have a husband anymore. Then when his condition stabilized, the doctors didn’t know how much his brain had been affected by lack of oxygen. If she ended up with a husband after all, would he still be the person she had married?
Happily, she received her whole husband back. What a wonderful thing. Against all odds, she has received this amazing gift. What should her response be?
What form should gratitude take?
Mormonism tends to emphasize the parental nature of God. We talk about heavenly parents and how they interact with their children. We tend to cast these divine parents as emotionally healthy individuals who are interested in promoting the well-being of us, their children. What kind of gratitude would such parents be interested in cultivating?
Since I can’t speak for our heavenly parents themselves, I’m going to talk about this question from my own point of view as an ostensibly emotionally healthy parent. How would I want to see my own children develop and express gratitude? After all, my wife and I have fed our offspring, clothed them, sheltered them, and paid for their trips to Disneyland, so they certainly have much to be grateful for.
The thing that interests me most about my children is not whether they have completed their homework, done their chores, or practiced piano for the day but how they have exercised their distinct natures. Each of my children is very different from the other, and their unique traits and talents manifest themselves in surprising ways. When they do their jobs, take care of each other, or bathe, day-to-day life becomes easier and more pleasant. But the joy of parenthood comes from watching the unique seeds of my children’s personalities mature.
I’m not talking about how I feel when they earn good grades, or win a competition, or attain any other worldly success. I would be proud of them if they graduated magna cum laude, went to Harvard, and founded the next Facebook, but what I really want is to watch them discover their own souls; to watch them construct a creative space precisely them-shaped; to watch their uniqueness sound out clearly into the universe—no matter what that sound is.
Even though I love my children as children, I am also looking forward to interacting with them as adults. My dad was an imposing figure during my young life. He has a great big genius brain that conceives, develops, and patents internet architecture; he could (and still can) beat me at any board game with one brain lobe tied behind his back. I thought that he would always be bigger and smarter than me my entire life. I thought we would only ever interact as parent and child.
Then I decided to go to graduate school and pursue something utterly different than anything my dad had studied: writing. Fiction, to be precise. When I finished, I moved closer to the homestead and found out that my dad had begun writing his own fantasy novel—and that he was interested in talking with me about it. That conversation was the first time I talked as an adult with my dad. I think we both liked it because we later went to a writing conference together and spent many a subsequent dinner talking about the craft. And then we started talking about other things: politics, religion, barbecue recipes—the subjects that require mature minds. I even helped him develop a patent.
I guess you could say that the universe became a larger place when I grew up. At first, the universe had my dad’s brain to run on, but it became bigger as I created my own perspective and body of knowledge to interact with my dad’s. When I was ready, we started creating ideas together and working on projects as peers, becoming a diverse and potent team.
So though I am enjoying my children’s younger years, it excites me to think about how they will grow up and become their own people, how they will explore the world differently than I do, how they will come back with a resonance of their own. I look forward to hearing their thoughts and combining our worldviews. The universe will become a larger, more interesting place as they grow.
According to the Book of Moses, God said, “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). This is a one-sentence summary of what I’ve been talking about. God’s glory is to help us into eternal life—to become spiritual “grownups” ourselves. To add our own special flavor to the universe.
So, if my approach to parenthood is similar to our heavenly parents’, then it seems to me that the best way to show our gratitude is to become eminently ourselves. We need to recognize the parts of us that are uniquely our own; the bits that can eventually make the universe a bigger, more diverse, more possibility-ridden place. I think Jesus’s parable of the talents backs me up here. He told about three servants who are given ten, five, and one talent each by their master. The servants who make the most of their unique set of talents please their lord, while the one who hides his away ends the tale small and powerless. Notice that the master didn’t tell the servants how to work with their talents; he wanted to see, given free rein, what they would do. It seems that our heavenly parents aren’t as interested in obedience as they are in creation. After all, the first thing Genesis shows us is God mucking around in the matter unorganized, seeing what it would take to make a world.
However, this leads us to an important question. How do we find and cultivate our unique selves? How do we isolate our essential ingredients? The cultures we are embedded in usually want to cast us into a mold as soon as possible. They want to define us and give us a path to follow—one that likely has little to do with who we actually are. Our cultures want us to define ourselves by our jobs, by the games we play, by our social status. They want us to spend all our labors keeping the cultures going.
In other words, the cultures we are surrounded with want us to be Marthas. You remember that Jesus stopped by Martha and Mary’s house, and Martha, being a good hostess, busily set about taking care of her guest. Mary, on the other hand sat and listened to Jesus. Her sister’s idleness frustrated Martha to the point where she finally asked Jesus if he wouldn’t tell Mary to get up off her fanny and help out. Instead, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
Something in Mary’s soul resonated with Jesus’s teachings, and even though all social and familial pressures called on her to act the role of a good hostess, she bravely sat down and chose the good part.
Being grateful isn’t busily running around trying to pay back all your gifts. It’s connecting with the source of those gifts. It’s listening to the source that loves your soul.
And let’s not forget the last thing Jesus said about Mary’s choice, “it shall not be taken away from her.” So much of what we choose each day, so much of what our cultures give us, can be taken away. If we have built our identity on those things—our jobs, our callings, our status—then we are bound to lose it. When you’ve lost everything, who are you? Have you built a soul worth the name? Job lost everything, but his soul—potent, intelligent, and frank—remained and won an interview with God simply by being itself.
Paul warned us about rushing about trying to repent of all our sins, trying to obey every commandment, trying to live perfectly. It isn’t going to work, he said, because it’s impossible. But the reason it is impossible is not to discourage you or to burden you with eternal guilt, but to point you toward the development of your soul, toward building a direct relationship with God. I think his warning applies to gratitude as well. Don’t run around trying to keep up on your gratitude payments; don’t wallow around feeling that you’re unworthy of your blessings. Instead, sit down. Listen. Choose the part that cannot be taken away. Foster your unique soul. Cultivate a direct relationship with your heavenly parents.
That is the gift we can give back.