“Count your blessings!”
Feels like a slap in the face when you tell someone about your heaviest burdens, the dark places that we see in abusive relationships. Yet, so often that is what we are counseled to do during the most difficult circumstances. It’s not only general authorities and Sunday lessons that give this counsel, but also self help books, healing websites, and recovery programs. Most, if not all, life improvement plans include gratitude as a daily recommended activity.
“At least you have dishes to wash, at least you have food to dirty those plates. You should be grateful.”
How is thanking God that we have more than our brothers and sisters gratitude? That isn’t gratitude, it’s guilt ridden pride.
I believe gratitude can be an enlarging and uplifting activity, different from what I’ve already described. While listening to Elder Utchdorf’s recent LDS General Conference talk I was inspired by his suggestions on how to live a life of ennobling gratitude.
“Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being thankful for things, we focus on being thankful in our circumstances—whatever they may be.”
He points out that being thankful for our circumstances DOES NOT mean we are pleased with them, or that we don’t do what we can to improve. Seeing our difficult circumstances with an attitude of gratitude means that we view them with trust in God and eternal perspective. Those 6 little words can seem impossible in the midst of pain and fear. But this is where faith has traction, where it really matters. Trusting in God in the midst of the worst is all about hoping for things we can’t see, which are true.
Honestly, that’s kind of a catch-22. As Mormons we hope for something we believe is true, but it is not a sure knowledge. It is a risk, it is being vulnerable. These are two things that abuse survivors find near impossible, especially if dealing with PTSD. Vulnerability seems like what got us into an abusive situation. We don’t ever want to be there again, why be vulnerable?
Vulnerability, sensitivity, and empathy is what makes your heart and soul different from your abuser’s. In most cases, an abuser acts from a deep, even subterranean, place of fear – they do not trust, they are not vulnerable, they are all about protecting themselves and their ego, at all costs. Making the choice to be vulnerable again, trusting those who are trustworthy, is what will give you your life back, what will heal your soul and enable you to find real love. Only you can make the choice if this is something you can undertake with your abuser, or if it means leaving your abuser. Being vulnerable, leaving my life in God’s hands was completely necessary for me immediately after leaving my abuser. So much was overwhelming, the only way I could do it was setting it at God’s feet. I am still learning how to do that, but I’ve done it enough to learn that it is the way out of this hole of fear and debasement.
Gratitude is seeing with eternal vision God’s promises. That they will be fulfilled in our lives despite how far away they feel now. A broken marriage, divorce, estrangement can all make the blessing of an eternal family seem impossible. Yet we are promised that for those who are faithful, the greatest blessings will not be withheld.
“Whatever the outcome and no matter how difficult your experiences, you have the promise that you will not be denied the blessings of eternal family relationships if you love the Lord, keep His commandments, and just do the best you can.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Believing that, or at least trusting that Elder Oaks believes that, will lead us to be grateful for God’s plan and his love and grace which allows us to receive promised blessings despite what happens on earth, when we do the best we can. (Your ‘best’ does not mean giving up your physical and emotional well-being to abuse.)
When our gratitude stretches through days of great trial, we will prove our faith to ourselves. We will be strengthened. I know, in the difficult moments you could care less about being stronger, you only want relief. But think of the other option, which is not being grateful and trusting God through trials. I’ve been in that place, where trust and faith were too scary. When we lose faith and hope, the very circumstances that God is using to refine us, will instead, destroy us. Ingratitude is a tiny destructive seed. Like kudzu, it infiltrates our lives, pulling down and covering all the good, obscuring our vision of a redeemed life and glorious future.
Instead, God asks us to open our eyes to what good may be coming to pass for our future. When we can envision that place of redemption, then we can make a road map to get there from where we are now. Then we can follow it. Gratitude more fully allows us to use our agency. It is acting on the reality of God’s love, instead of the lie of defeat and disappointment. Gratitude is not cute catch phrases that give us pride about our bounty while another child of God lacks. True gratitude is placing all on God’s altar, then recognizing what he gives back to us. Then we use those ingredients to make a wonderful life which glorifies God!
In Mary Oliver’s well known poem, The Summer Day she asks this question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
What is it you plan to do with what you have been given? If you look into your arms and see with grateful eyes a bounty of blessings you will have possibilities. Without gratitude you may drop what is in your arms and give up. Gratitude is a catalyst for change in good ways.
We are made of the stuff of eternities. Our present circumstances are only temporary, but they are the next step in our journey. Gratitude of the soul broadens our perceptions. When we look at our present circumstances we see more than the concrete items we hold. We can see how we will one day have beauty for ashes.
That phrase, “Beauty for ashes,” is found in Isaiah 61:3
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.”
In modern day we have lost appreciation for this lovely phrase because we don’t know what ashes can be used for. I looked it up and there are at least 30 uses for ashes. The ones that were most amazing to me, because usually we think of ashes as the leftovers after the good stuff has burned away, were the ones that describe how true beauty is brought about. Ashes can be used as: sanitizer, stain remover, odor repellant, oil remover, tenderizes, fertilizer, protects, repellant, melts ice, filters, dehumidifies, puts out fire, preserves, and heals wounds as you may remember from the famous story of the Haun’s Mill massacre. Every one of those uses is an object lesson in the gospel. Whether it’s a reference to repentance, to growth, to preservation, or healing; ashes are a very apt lesson as to how gratitude can turn something that looks like nothing, into the very thing we need.
We do need all these things as survivors of abuse- healing, preservation, growth, and repentance. I believe that while your situation now may seem too heavy to bear, and it seems like all those things you’ve sacrificed for are burning down to ashes, God can use those ashes for your good. Do not fear in losing things, God is over all. As Job, who lost everything, one day we will be able to say,
“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return…; the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”