What Creates a Grateful Heart?
by Sharon Simpson
What are you thankful for? The question brings a host of answers from the seniors I meet across our campus of care. One afternoon, while returning to my car, I encountered two women admiring a blush rose blooming beside the parking lot. I commented on the beauty of the rose and how it may be missed in its location. “Oh no,” said one of the women, “we come every day to look at its beauty.” Their hearts filled with appreciation and gratitude as they examined this rose.
From the simple enjoyment of a flower to the complex and meaningful appreciation for the people whose lives have been woven into the fabric of their own, seniors express their gratitude in many ways.
For seniors, gratitude comes in and through and in spite of a lifetime of events – some wonderful, some enduring, some disappointing… some deeply painful. For elderly seniors, gratitude comes at a time when their health may be failing, they may be facing chronic pain or the loss of their lifetime partner. Some of these difficult challenges can tax gratitude to its very limits. And yet, in the midst of these losses… thankfulness.
For some, gratitude is overflowing and for some, gratitude is a rare gem. I’ve often wondered why. Are people pre-dispositioned to a spirit of thankfulness – some more than others? Are some glass half-full while others are usually glass half-empty people?
There certainly are seniors whose lives are full of bitterness and resentments. There are seniors whose lives are full of gratitude and many seniors who carry the fairly common combination of bitterness and gratitude at the same time.
I’m reminded of a conversation with an elderly woman. She was anxious about her finances. Like many others, she was concerned that her money would run out and she would have to move out of her apartment and live on the streets. The fear of being homeless has been found to be one of the most common fears for senior women – “Will I run out and be cast off and forgotten like a bag lady on the streets?”
Her husband had passed away and she said, “He left me to struggle and scrimp on my own.” She cried as she spoke… tears of anger, not sorrow. Her heart was full of anger, bitterness, disappointment and fear.
When it turned out that her financial fears were unwarranted, I was confused. Why was she so upset with him? Did she want a more lavish lifestyle than he had left for her? Her husband had, in fact, left her with a sizeable pension from his hard labour over his lifetime.
It wasn’t the money. It was likely something, or rather, many somethings had taken place over their years of marriage that had hurt her, caused her to distrust, to fear and to become embittered toward the man with whom she had spent most of her years. With each something, there was a turning away from him – and from love. Little by little she turned away from love and forgiveness toward disappointment. She eventually turned toward anger and deep resentment. Perhaps hate.
I did not know her husband, nor do I know how large or small these offenses were toward her. What I do wonder is if there was another way? Was she destined for bitterness in her old age? Do wrongs against me always add up to create a bitter heart – or can there be gratitude even when I have been continually wronged or disappointed?
I sat with a dear friend, well into her 90s. She shared how deeply grateful she is for everything in her life. Her beautiful apartment is set up so that she can sit comfortably, gazing out toward nature while she spends time each day in prayer and fellowship with the Lord. “I couldn’t do this for most of my life,” she shares, “my first marriage was very difficult. I stayed with him, but it was tough each day. We didn’t leave those type of men back then.” I understood that she was speaking of abuse. “The freedom that I have to be a Christian now is wonderful every day. When my husband passed away, I went to church the very next Sunday. I wasn’t raised with it, but I watched a chaplain share God’s love and I knew I wanted it, too. I felt free… and I’ve been free ever since!” Her smile echoed the joy and gratitude in her heart.
How is it that after years of abuse, this elderly woman had found a place of gratitude?
Perhaps, the answer is found in the longings and disappointments of the heart. Listening to your own heart and its deep desires may unlock more for us than we expect.
Longings and disappointments. We all have both. What are your longings – your deepest desires? Have you been disappointed? Have you found that God has been attentive to your heart?
There was a time in my life when I struggled more with envy than I do today. It is top on the list of the seven deadly sins and, like the others, will be fatal to spiritual progress. During that season, I spent a lot of time comparing all that I know of my life to the very little that I know of other’s lives. When I expressed this to a friend, wondering how another’s life could look so very desirable and perfect, she said, “Well, all we can do is hope that she has a lousy marriage to make up for the perfect life.” Her sentiment shocked me out of my envious green cloud and the Holy Spirit struck a conviction directly into my heart. I did not wish for her marriage to be lousy. I had allowed envy to dictate my longings and my disappointments. Confession. Supplication. Dear God, help me to see what You have given me in my life. Help me to recognize the person You’ve created me to be and the path on which You have directed my life. Help me to be genuinely grateful for the person You made me and the life You’ve given me.
And this is the slow path of turning. One disappointment at a time. One longing at a time. It takes courage to name a longing, especially a longing unfulfilled. It takes courage to face a disappointment, especially ones that leave you devalued. And yet, this is the work of gratitude.
And so, at Thanksgiving, we are given an invitation – an invitation to name those ways in which we are grateful – without comparison to others, without envy. An invitation to see our life as it is, with longings, disappointments and wounds. With this invitation comes a turning – a turning toward God’s heart, His comfort and His healing. And with each turning, comes a small step toward joy, forgiveness, freedom and deep gratitude.
Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place.