The Joy of the "Examened" Life

G.K.Chesterton wrote that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. The happiness he talked about is not merely our flourishing in a rich, free, at-peace, democratic culture and nation. It is that – but it is more: our happiness is the joy brought to us by Jesus Christ, magnified (doubled) by the wonder that we are the ones given that privilege. The examen helps us to reflect on how we keep ourselves grateful for all that.

So what is “gratitude”? Isn’t it instructive that psychologists began the serious study of gratitude only with the millennium, around 2000? Quickly, it spread through academia. Now the University of California at Berkeley has the “Greater Good Science Center.”  (I wonder where that magis came from.) If a student wants to research a question on gratitude, he or she can get a full-ride scholarship to write the doctoral dissertation.

A lot of studies mention good old Cicero, who said that gratitude is “the parent of all virtues.” He got into virtues; the psychologists are interested in health. One clinical test is called “GRAT: Gratitude, Resentment, Appreciation Test,” to measure mental health. And piles of results of this and many other tests are now reported in the Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology.

Psychologists conclude that gratitude is more important to living with a deep sense of well-being than even good physical health. In fact, this is a summary of the research:  Grateful people are more flourishing, are happier, less depressed and stressed, and have better relationships.

Grateful people remember their positive experiences more readily than the ungrateful. They are better at controlling their part in their environment. They show stronger personal growth, greater self-acceptance, and have a stronger and clearer purpose in life. 

The grateful handle problems better and learn from mistakes when they make them. They have fewer negative reactions to what happens – avoiding problems, not denying them, not taking blame on themselves if it doesn’t belong there. And they don’t need dope as much as the ingrate!

So much for health. What about virtue? How do I know I am grateful/ungrateful?  Here’s some clues for the Examen.

I am not pleased with my gifts.  One African American woman carried a sign at Ferguson:  “We don’t belong here.” She doesn’t appreciate the gift of the U.S. (and maybe we can figure out what erodes her gratitude). I don’t like myself – wish I were taller/smaller – yellow/black haired – stronger/faster. This is at root the capital sin of sloth, from which sprouts ingratitude, root of all sin – and also workaholism, laziness, resentment, and a lot else.  The virtue that uproots this is the virtue of humility:  authentic humility means I accept what is and who I am and what is happening to and in me.

Another sinful stance: I feel like I owe something to God, I am indebted, constrained to prove to God that I am good, anxious to pay off my sins and guilt. This is living, not grateful, but being indebted. Somehow, it makes me God’s equal – who loaned me something and I now have to pay it back. The virtue that uproots this vice is the one described by the First Great Commandment: Love. Allowing myself to be loved by God, and then in turn, loving like God.

And a third sinful stance: I think what I have is mine by right – not given me. I think as homo economicus:  I have economic rights. I own things and they are mine. What I have of the earth is mine and no one else has any claim on it at all. I think as homo politicus: I have human rights – endowed by my Creator – equal to all others – and I can and am going to define what those rights are (or accept them from my political party). I think as homo “enlightened-illminatus”:  these are “the brights.” I decide who I am and what I must/must not do and why I exist. This is Pride. The virtue that uproots this is the one we are talking about: gratitude.

I think and I believe that all is gift. The virtues that grow out of this root of gratitude are many. Notice three: 

Magnanimity: I am always aware of my horizon – God’s eternal love, where I am destined to live forever – and glad for what is at hand. 

Appreciation: I notice persons, things, happenings, behaviors and like my God, I find them good. I acknowledge their value and their meaning in themselves. I keep a positive feeling and connection with all of it.

Compassion: the power of feeling with others, going along with them in their experiences even when they are entirely different from my own.

Here’s a prayer exercise.  Imagine someone important to you. Sit with them, perhaps over coffee or wine, and tell her or him what makes you grateful for them.

And here’s another one. This one has been in the Church for centuries, and now it is on the web as good psychology. Right.  Write a “Thanks Journal.” Every night, just before I kneel for night prayers, I write down the date  and then 3 to 5 things good for which I thank God. Weekly, read back through the past week (anyhow, I try to).

This is how to do what the Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians: “Always be joyful, pray constantly, and for all things give thanks; this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thess. 5:16)