Gratitude isn’t a habit it’s a practice

imageI was surprisingly at ease,” former President Jimmy Carter said at his press conference, recalling his emotions when his doctors told him they had found melanoma on his brain after doing surgery on his liver.

“Call it clear thinking or mind over matter. Or simply: grace,” writes Sarah Kaufman in the August 21st issue of the Washington Post. “Grace – meaning elegance, calm equanimity,” she goes on, “is the only strategy that makes any sense, really… a text book coping strategy, what any therapist would advise,… but how difficult, unless you’re in the habit of feeling grateful.”

This grace, she concludes, is Carter’s habit. She’s got the wrong grace.

Kaufman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in “criticism,” as it applies to contemporary dance. Now that’s grace of the elegant kind. But it’s not the grace going on with Mr. Carter. That grace, while it is elegant and engenders calm, is of a different ilk because it comes from a whole different source.

What Mr. Carter has spent a lifetime pursuing isn’t a “habit” of gratitude, it’s the practice of gratitude.

So what’s the difference?

Habits compel us. They are automatic and patterned responses which are out of our conscious control. Practices, on the other hand, are intentional. They are things we choose to do again and again, but they require an effort of own will – a turning toward and choosing.

Over time, both habits and practices can become very much a part of us. Their effects “show” in us, even if we don’t see them ourselves. Habits are rarely, if ever, healthy things: fingernail-biting, smoking, and addictions of all kinds lead to dis-health and tend to enslave us. What we think of as “good” habits like exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep are not really habits at all. They are practices, chosen each time, consciously and without compulsion.

The “habit” of gratitude Ms. Kaufman calls grace in Mr. Carter’s behavior is not a habit at all, and it’s certainly not a “coping strategy” initiated strategically to “deal” with the circumstance. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of practicing the posture of gratitude before a loving God.

Day after day, we can choose again and again to enter the presence of the One who deals gracefully with us, in spite of our faults and failings, yet shines the light of redemption on our lives and offers the gift of forgiveness. That’s the grace Mr. Carter has known, and, in the hardship of a very difficult diagnosis, it surprises even him! After a lifetime practicing the presence of God he falls naturally into the calming arms of the One who has for nearly 90 years said to him, “All will be well.” He has come to trust that voice.

Habits will fail us. Oh, they can be comfortably familiar, offering distraction or temporary satisfaction, but they don’t satisfy or quench. Habits can steal our freedom; practices can grant it. Ironically, habits, which we seem to control, take it from us, and practices, where we release control, offer it to us.

Gratitude isn’t habit-forming but it is gratifying. Gradually, as we make it a practice, it shapes our outlook in the best and worst of times, a familiar destination along a well trod path.

Clear thinking and mind over matter get us only so far. When life’s circumstances tax us beyond our own resources, grace is more than a strategy. But it takes practice.

A Monkey Bar Faith

2012-11-04_08-19-50_377 (2)

We let go of Mommy’s hand to enter pre-school.
We let go of Daddy’s hug to board the bus.
We let go of our beloved teacher’s smile
only to do it again next year because we must.

We let go of the hand of the principal
as she wishes us well on our way.
We let go of our first boss’s hand
who understands why we can’t stay.

We let go of the friend who moves away
or the paw of our beloved pet.
We let go of our great, great grandmother
who it seems we had hardly met.

We let go of the neighboring couple
who were never home anyway,
We let go of our causes, however just.
And, so reluctantly, the years that were promised us.

We let go, bit by little bit,
of our children, so full of fun.
We may let go way, way too soon
of a mother, father, brother, son.

Letting go is a way of life it seems,
that none can hope to avoid.
It’s a holding and releasing –
not to re-fill the vacant void.

But to pivot on our out-stretched hand
which holds fast, so high and strong,
To the bar which secures it surely
until we deftly swing along.

Strange to say, we were preparing
for a life of loss and sad goodbye,
As tiny children, on the monkey bars
of playgrounds far and wide.

2012-11-04_08-20-27_760 (2)Where Mommy took us,
and Daddy held us,
where teacher wrapped our blistered hands.
Where principal scolded us,
and boss emboldened us,
when the time came for grown up lands.

I’m so grateful for the happy hours
I spent swinging from bar to bar.
A blessed assurance that every hand-hold,
has its limit
and every pivot
invites my reaching
for exactly where You are.

The Shaping of Us

There is something fascinating about driftwood. It’s lighter than it should be, yet strong and durable. Weathered and aged, yet youthful and beautiful. It never fails to call my attention when it washes ashore. One small piece demanded picking up. It was a perfect miniature canoe, cigar-shaped and sized with a space hollowed near the center for a tiny mouse to paddle homeward. I set it in my hand where it perfectly balanced, as it would on a wave or on display on dry land.

I pocketed my treasure, well, I would have, if I’d had pockets. Instead, I tucked it into the waist band of my running shorts and promptly forgot about it. Until after I had sprinted up the mountainside in a rainforest downpour and  the small canoe, drenched and darkened fell out upon the floor, undamaged, but for its folding.

Its folding. Softened by the rain and compressed for the journey, it was sorely misshapen. It still had the look of a canoe, but it listed badly and tipped when I tried to set it upright. It had been so perfect. Now, it was deformed. I felt responsible.

I know! I will soak the poor craft and re-shape it to its old form!

FullSizeRender (11)Sure enough. Water makes it supple and the hollow makes it pliable, but the hand that shapes, well that’s the rub. It needed molding and holding, but I was more bend and press. It requested patience and care, but I was more fold and prop. This treasure needed a loving hand to roll it and tamp it and stand by while it dried. My ingenuity and a friendly yellow straw were poor substitutes.

How grateful I am that the hand that is re-shaping me is not mine.

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