In those two years between her diagnosis and death, my friend demonstrated a resiliency in the face of personal pain and tragedy that inspired all who knew her. She knew there was no medical cure for her disease. She anticipated that her earthly life would be cut short, that she wouldn’t see her children graduate high school or get married. She was fully aware of the pain associated with surgeries and treatments. And yet, she chose to practise gratitude. She chose to be thankful to God for each moment of each day. She chose to live.
The power of gratitude has been celebrated for some time. It was three decades ago when Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman launched the discipline of positive psychology and began the scientific study of emotions such as optimism and gratitude. Up until that time, psychologists had focused predominantly on negative emotions such as anger, disappointment and shame. Subsequent findings are striking. Psychologists have learned that practising optimism and gratitude in times of success and stability strengthen us during times of adversity and turmoil.
Practising gratitude—feeling and expressing thankfulness and appreciation—can result in better physical and mental health, say psychologists. In fact, studies have shown that gratitude is associated with greater happiness, and who doesn’t want to feel happy?
The association between happiness and gratitude is an interesting one. You would perhaps assume that when we are happy, this makes us grateful. Not so, suggests bestselling author Brené Brown. Her research suggests that it is gratefulness that makes us happy. More specifically, it is gratefulness in difficult situations that makes us happy in spite of pain or loss or uncertainty.
The Apostle Paul knew this firsthand. He wrote Philippians, often called “the letter of joy,” from prison. Despite his uncomfortable present and uncertain future, Paul begins his letter with thanksgiving: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy” (Philippians 1:3-4). The church in Philippi was growing, and it is natural that Paul would give thanks for the ministry there.
Paul goes on to discuss his imprisonment, and those who were taking advantage of his situation. Yet Paul still responds with gratitude, saying, “I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:18-21). Even in light of death, Paul is able to respond with gratitude, and this results in joy—for him and for those to whom he writes.
My friend was also grateful in light of death. She was grateful for the simple things, like enjoying a good meal, feeling the sun warm on her skin, laughing with friends, reading to her children, teaching her students. It was a rhythm she established in her life before her cancer diagnosis, and it made her resilient in the face of disease and loss. Nothing, not even cancer, could steal her joy.
Brené Brown writes that “joy, collected over time, fuels resilience—ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.”
If we are going to be resilient tomorrow, we need to practise gratitude today. Not sure where to start? Try listing what you are grateful for in a journal, thanking God in spoken prayer, or telling your friends or family about what you are thankful for.
Before my friend’s passing, she had some family photos taken. Regardless of the outcome of her cancer, she wanted the pictures to be a centrepiece in her home. In the photos she wore a bracelet that simply said “blessed.” And because she lived a life of gratitude to God, in good times and in bad, she was.
Captain Laura Van Schaick is the women’s ministries program and resource officer.
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