Gratitude, Love, and the Struggle for Spiritual Emotion

In 2020 I published a book about gratitude because gratitude, in part to address some misunderstandings. Gratitude is greatly misunderstood because spiritual emotions are misunderstood. Spiritual emotions are misunderstood because struggle is misunderstood. I’ve been thinking a lot about struggle recently, and the role it plays in the spiritual life.

Spiritual emotions are involved in virtues such as peace, contrition, joy, patience, love, and of course gratitude. These virtues certainly involve more than emotion but not less. For example, a person cannot be completely contrite without feeling repentant for his or her sins. You cannot be wholly patient while you’re feeling frustrated and agitated.

So growing in virtue involves, at whatever level, the formation of spiritual emotions. But part of the problem is that many modern Christians don’t have the categories for thinking rightly about emotional formation. We tend to assume that emotions just happen to us like getting a cold, and thus we disconnect emotion from effort, practices, and formative institutions, and we even disconnect emotion from antecedents in behavior and cognition. The assumption is that if we have to work at feeling a certain way, or if we have been influenced to feel a certain way by practices or institutions, then the resulting feelings are somehow less authentic, less true to ourselves, compared to dispositions that arise involuntarily and without effort. Thus, it’s easy to adopt a knee-jerk prejudice against deliberately engaging in practices and habits that work towards virtuous emotional formation. What this does to Christian discipleship is that we end up under-appreciating the role of effort and struggle in the formation of spiritual emotions like gratitude. We assume that dispositions arising after a period of struggle, and after a period of habit-forming behaviors, are somehow artificial and fake. Culture and advertising tell us so many times that we need to just be natural, or that we are at our most authentic when we are being spontaneous.

But that just isn’t how the world works. We arrive at the deepest and most permanent dispositions through hard work. If you think of the joy of a married couple who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, I don’t think anyone would doubt that such joy is the product of years of right habits, sacrifice, and struggle. Or if you think of the joy a wine connoisseur or an art critic feels in the presence of a particularly special specimen of their craft, we know that those feelings have been preceded by years of training, hard work, and struggle.

Let that sink in: through struggle and through habits that may initially feel unnatural, we arrive at our deepest dispositions, and we determine which behaviors eventually come to feel natural to us.

Let’s look a little more specifically at how this applies to gratitude. Left to ourselves to do what comes spontaneously, we will always default to grumbling and complaining. Spontaneously feeling grateful for little things in life actually comes downstream of habit-forming practices that you do whether you feel like it or not. And the cool thing is that when you engage in these practices even when you’re not feeling particularly grateful, they are still formative, just like being kind to your spouse is still formative even when you don’t feel like it.

Gratitude practices include things like,

  • gratitude journaling;
  • reframing, as we use Scriptural promises to help us interpret the hard providences of life as opportunities for growth, and even as blessing;
  • having specific times of the day where we call to mind something we are grateful for;
  • thanking people who have blessed us;
  • making a conscious choice to begin receiving commonplace blessings – even something as basic as clean water or shelter – as gift. This world that we live in is so full of blessings, yet often those blessings come to us disguised as ordinary life. Part of growing in grace is learning to see the world, and the unique circumstances of our life, in its true shape, as gift.
The Liturgy surrounding the Eucharist in the Eastern Orthodox Church continually draws our attention back to gratitude to the Creator.

The church institutionalizes some of these gratitude practices, like thanking the Lord before a meal. Or the liturgies surrounding the Eucharist – which is really the thanksgiving feast – continually draw our attention back to gratitude to the Creator. I’m in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and our liturgies are saturated with gratitude. Liturgy is formative, so even when it feels like you’re just going through the motions, you have the opportunity to be formed by the liturgy. But that too can sometimes be a struggle.

Remember, it is through struggle that we arrive at our deepest dispositions. In my book I illustrate this with the example of Nick Vujicic, an Australian who was born without any limbs. From Chapter 11 of Gratitude in Life’s Trenches:

Nick Vujicic was born with no arms and no legs

“If anyone had a reason to descend into self-pity and despair, Nick did. Throughout his boyhood, Nick was subject to constant bullying because of not having any arms or legs. Believing he had nothing to look forward to except a life of hopelessness, Nick descended into despair. At age eight he thought about committing suicide, while at age ten he tried to drown himself.
Observing Nick today, it is hard to believe that he once struggled with hopelessness and despair. Today he has an amazing ministry as a motivational speaker and evangelist.

Nick’s transformation began when he determined to reframe his life in positive terms. He learned to focus on the blessings he did have instead of grumbling about what he was forced to do without. Today as he travels throughout the world, Nick tells people that no suffering—regardless of how severe—has the power to rob us of inner peace, contentment and hope….

Nick Vujicic’s testimony contradicts a certain view of selfhood that has become prevalent in modern culture. The view is that “being true to yourself” involves doing what comes naturally, as if virtues that arise after a process of struggle are somehow contrived and artificial. According to this widespread assumption, the best we can do is be like Elsa in the Disney film Frozen: stop trying to be the good girl everyone expects you to be since the path to true redemption lies in learning to ‘let it go’ and be yourself—to realize the authentic person you are inside. According to this narrative, authenticity is often associated with pursuing the path of least resistance as you follow impulses, habits, and personality traits that come spontaneously. The implication is that spending years to develop habits and dispositions that are hard work is somehow repressive, hypocritical, and less “true to yourself” than following your natural inclinations.

If Nick Vujicic had followed his natural inclinations, he would not be around today. Gradually, by cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit in his life, Nick trained himself to have a different attitude, and to move out of the spiral of envy, self-pity, and despair that came naturally to him in his early boyhood. In his book Life Without Limits, Nick shared how this struggle involved monitoring his thoughts and battling negative impulses. By retraining his attitude, Nick was able to realize God’s plan for his life and discover his true self.”

Retraining your outlook on life is rather like trying to learn a foreign language. When someone first begins learning a new language, the unusual words and grammar feel strange and unnatural, and it is easy to slip back into the native tongue. It takes a long time, and lots of hard practice, before a person feels comfortable with the new language. However, if the person perseveres for long enough, eventually the new way of talking begins to feel natural. Similarly, when we retrain our outlook on life, it often takes a long time before the new attitudes begin to feel normal. But it is our choices—the thousands of tiny decisions we face every day—that ultimately determine what attitudes and behavior come to feel natural.

The assumption that being true to yourself involves following impulses that come naturally (read: spontaneously and without effort) impacts how we think about love, which is another spiritual emotion like gratitude. I want to say a few words about love and then I’ll close.

My parents are preparing to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this October. Looking at their relationship now, anyone might be forgiven for thinking that their love for each other just came naturally, in the sense of being effortless. But they will be the first to tell you that this is not the case. What is natural to them now after 50 years of marriage is the product of thousands of right habits, sacrifice, and struggle over decades.

This is not how we tend to think of love today. The hit songs on the Billboard Hot 100 for June and July, both performed by the South Korean boy band BTS, encapsulate how Millennials and the Generation Z have come to think about love. “Butter,” which topped America’s charts for June and the first half of July, describes love as something that easily happens to you and is “smooth like butter” – a force beyond yourself that effortlessly pulls you in. “Butter” was knocked out of first position by “Permission to Dance” from the same group, which was the “B side” of Butter. It also articulates the philosophy that the good life is easy: if we keep the right vibe and aren’t fazed by what’s standing in our way, then we can “break our plans and live just like we’re golden / and roll in like we’re dancing fools.”

By contrast, love songs in the past emphasized the lover’s struggle to obtain the beloved. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet #116 celebrates the overcoming of tempests, time, and even “the edge of doom,” in order for the lover to obtain and keep the beloved. For Shakespeare, romance involves struggle and struggle is romantic. But struggle is not a generally welcome concept among digital natives, for whom the outside world has been mediated by Google and its ethic of instant gratification. The practice of struggle, like the concept of contemplative lingering, comes to be an anachronism in an age when more and more of our needs can instantly be satiated by algorithms.

This puts digital natives in a difficult position. Research shows that members of Generation Z have a deep longing for emotional connection, and love tops the list of reasons why they want to marry. Yet they are also unwilling to put in the work that makes lasting love possible, and are more likely to get an immediate fix through cohabitation or premarital sex.

David Masciotra and others have noted the precipitate decline of romance in film and popular culture. In Masciotra’s 2018 article, “How America Grew Bored With Love,” he refers to the work of the 20th century psychologist, Erich Fromm, who understood that a society that denigrates effort and struggle will eventually denigrate romance.

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“Erich Fromm, a Jewish psychologist and philosopher who moved from Germany to New York to escape Nazi persecution, wrote in his brilliant and forever salient book The Art of Loving that love, like any art—engineering, painting, playing an instrument—requires knowledge and effort.

‘Our whole culture,’ Fromm explained, ‘is based on an appetite for buying.’ As a result, most people think of love only as an acquisition—how can they be loved—rather than learning how to love another. Falling in love is involuntary, but to protect and preserve a more mature and long-term love, the lover must have the discipline, maturity, and faith to ‘stand in love.’

Writing in 1956, Fromm eerily predicted the ‘disintegration of love in Western Culture’: ‘If love is the capacity of the mature, productive character, it follows that the capacity to love in an individual living in any given culture depends on the influence this culture has on the character of the average person.’…

In a culture that runs on the fuel of instant gratification, love—and even mutually respectful and pleasurable sexuality—can look like too much effort. The phrase ‘hookup’ is indicative of people who believe that romance should function like an electronic device—plug it into a power source and press the ‘on button.’

Love and sexuality are the most exhilarating elements of life. But Fromm writes that to truly experience and exercise love, one must ‘begin by practicing discipline, concentration and patience throughout every phase of life.’

That last thought – that by practicing the virtues of discipline, concentration, and patience throughout all of life we create the conditions for experiencing true romance – reminds me of something I read in Phillip Cary’s book Good News for Anxious Christians. Cary told of one woman he knew who was habitually attracted to men that were bad for her. After a string of troubled relationships, she decided to marry a man that she was less attracted to but who was good for her, and they remain happily married to this day. In fact, this woman is much happier with her husband than she was in any of the relationships with the men for whom she felt overwhelming attraction. According to worldly ideas about emotion, such a relationship is less authentic, less “real” than those for whom the attraction was involuntary. Yet we have seen over and over again that our deepest dispositions, inclinations, and even emotions, are the result of struggle and habit-forming behaviors practiced over long periods of time.

Without the virtues of maturity, self-restraint, and delayed gratification, there cannot be true romance, only hook-up culture. The rich and exciting drama of romance – which navigates like a dance through the complex matrix of shyness, initiation, commitment, and finally disclosure – comes to be replaced by relationships that are purely transactional. For relationships built, however unconsciously, on the paradigm of the marketplace, there can be no contemplative lingering, which is associated only with an inefficient disruption of forward movement. At best, contemplative lingering comes to be merely the cessation of activity and, at worst, an indication of malfunction. Thus, it is no surprise that as the philosophy of the machine and ethic of the marketplace increasingly come to define human self-understanding, romance has been a primary casualty.

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