The Complex Nature of Gratitude

The last night of my vacation with my husband, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner in the restaurant at our hotel.  While we sat at the table holding hands, the restaurant manager – who had been floating around greeting people as they arrived – paused and came back to us.

“I love that,” he said, pointing to us holding hands.  “Don’t stop doing that, ever.  It’s wonderful, isn’t it?  Being together?  Enjoy it as long as you can.”

He went on to explain to us that his wife of twenty-six years had died two years ago, and that not a moment went by that he didn’t think of her.  Seeing people in love reminded him of their relationship even long after she had died.

“You must miss her so much,” I said.

“I do,” he said.  “Oh, I do.”  And then he smiled.  “But at the same time, I can’t be sad.  There isn’t one single part of it that I’m sorry about, even having lost her. I’m just very grateful, you know. The love of a lifetime–we had a wonderful journey, a beautiful one.  I’ve lived the life of a thousand men!”

It was such a delightful, unexpected, honest response.  His words have stuck with me ever since that night.  And I could sense it in the way he spoke, and in the joy he seemed to take in the couples gathered in that restaurant.  No regrets.  Joy for mourning.  Instead of sorrow over what was lost, gratitude for what had been given.

A lot of times we talk in the church about having an “attitude of gratitude,” the importance of thanking God for everything.  And we should have a grateful attitude, and it is important.  But sometimes I think we underestimate exactly how important it is or, perhaps, we don’t think about what gratitude really means.

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” 1 Thess. 5:18 reminds us.  For many of us, that gratitude takes the form of lists: a simple rattling-off of the good things in our lives.  God, I thank you for my family, and my kids, and the nice weather today, and food on the table and a roof over our heads…

It’s not bad to be grateful in that way, for all good things do indeed come from God.  He means for us to enjoy them.  And yet the restaurant manager’s words reminded me that gratitude can also be infinitely more complex, even when it’s shaded with pain and loss.  It’s easy to be grateful for your wife when she’s sitting there sharing dinner with you; it takes something else entirely to be joyous and grateful for your time with her when she God called her perhaps before you were ready to say goodbye.  It’s easy to be grateful for your child when they’re well, content, and successful; it takes something else entirely to be grateful when your child is struggling, rebellious, or has disengaged entirely.

Gratitude is more than I thank you for…  Gratitude, as I see it, is about accepting whatever we are given – good, bad, and ugly – with the joy that comes of understanding of God’s true nature.  If we know that God is good, that He loves us, and that what He has promised us is true, then we should be able to warmly thank Him through and for times of pain, times of hardship, and times of struggle.  If we are willing to accept whatever we are given and to approach it with a godly attitude – not one that seeks self-satisfaction, personal pleasure, or short-term desires – then we will find God’s hand in it, and we will be able to take joy in whatever that experience is.

What I saw in the restaurant manager that night was the hard-earned gratitude that comes from experience and loss.  It’s not a gratitude that develops from a moment of pleasure or joy, but rather from a simple, godly attitude that takes the long view of life, that realizes what happens here is only a small part of something much larger, deeper, and more meaningful.

I can’t say that I’m skilled at practicing that sort of gratitude yet.  Finding the peace and the perspective within myself to be joyous and thankful about something – even if it’s passed by, even if it was cut short, even if it wasn’t perfect – isn’t something that comes easily to me.  But the peace and deep joy written on the face of the restaurant manager reminded me that it’s something worthwhile.

I’ve lived the life of a thousand men!

One day, regardless of what has happened, I want to be able to say something similar.








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