These are tough times for us in Melbourne and Victoria, and anxious times for everyone and everywhere else in Australia. COVID-19 has affected our lives in ways we would never have imagined: socially, economically, psychologically, personally.
There’s no easy answer to the problems surrounding us: unemployment, under-employment, increasing poverty and disadvantage, struggles with children’s schooling and care, mental illness: the sense of our lives contracting further and further into diminishing spaces, without the freedom even to breathe aright in our masks.
Gratitude is one way to enhance our resilience and endurance in these difficult days. Psychologists tell us that our brains are wired for the negative—a survival instinct so that we are always prepared for the worst. But our brains also need to be re-trained so that they don’t fall into a pit of despair and hopelessness.
The practise of gratitude is one way to do that. It helps not only our mental health but also our physical wellbeing. It soothes our sense of frustration and helplessness so that we sleep better, live better and relate better to one another.
One way to begin this practise is to name three things for which we’re grateful first thing in the morning. They may be very small things: the warmth of the bed, the thought of that morning coffee, the small, furry creature in our home who greets us as we awake. We need to be specific and ask ourselves why we’re grateful for these things, what they do for us (make us feel safe, bring us joy, give us a sense of connection and belonging); otherwise it becomes just another chore without meaning
The practise of gratitude may seem at first a task but it soon becomes organic, natural to us. It’s not a question of forcing ourselves, ‘counting our blessings’, pretending everything is fine when it isn’t. Instead, it’s about becoming more and more aware of the things in our lives that do give us a taste of satisfaction and safety even in the midst of struggle, difficulty, loss.
But where is this gratitude, which is so good for us body and soul, directed? To whom are we grateful? Yes, in part to the friends, family and colleagues in our lives who bring us joy, and to the beauty of the world around us. But there is more to it than that. Christian faith, along with Judaism and Islam, is clear about the answer: gratitude is directed first and foremost to God, to the God who gives us life, who loves and sustains us.
The apostle Paul understood that. He concludes his first letter to the Thessalonians — which is the earliest book of the New Testament — with these words: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God …’ Of all people, Paul knew what it was to suffer, to struggle, to experience failure. Yet he lived by these words and they sustained him through persecution and distress and eventual martyrdom.
The practise of gratitude is spiritually good for us, putting us in a state of mindfulness before our Creator, and therefore before one another and creation. Gratitude lies at the heart of the spiritual life, the centre of our connection to a mysterious Being who lies beyond yet also among us, regardless of our formal beliefs, and who connects us to the living, breathing, pulsing world around us.
In these tough times, let’s face the dangers and the privations, the fears and the restrictions with courage and a resolute sense of reality. But let’s also develop the practise of giving thanks: most obviously for our lives, for one another, for creation. But, above all, let’s give thanks to the One who made us and all things, who loves us and desire only to lead us into life.
Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee is the Stewart Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity College, University of Divinity. Professor Lee is an Anglican Priest and scholar of the Bible with a wide publication list.