Monday, November 22, 2010

Gratitude through the lens of charity

(please notice that the title of this post has been done in APA style. Thank you.)

This is the talk I gave in church last week. It was about gratitude sort of...

For two years, I lived downtown in Seoul South Korea. It was my first experience living overseas and as you can imagine I experienced a great amount of culture shock. Seoul itself is a beehive of a city that in recent years has become a strange conglomeration of cultures. Because of the US military’s presence, there are outback steakhouses (sometimes two across the street from one another!), gaps, starbucks, dunkin donuts(Koreans LOVE them some donuts) and mcdonalds sharing storefront space with boshintang restaurants (that’s DOG SOUP!) and little cobbler stands where you can get your shoes resoled for under 4 korean won, which about 3 us dollars.

Every day, I walked through the streets on my way to the bus that would take me to the newer, highrise dominated suburbs and after a while, the oddities of seoul stopped seeming so odd. I grew used to the smell of bundegi ( steamed silkworm larva, a popular street snack ) and the strange site of little children licking their lips and saying, “YUM DELICIOUS” as they stared at our pet goldfish swimming around in his tank. Eventually, even the anachronisms of this asian city ceased to call attention to themselves and everything started to look about normal. But there was one thing that continued to bother me. Every day as I made my way through pighead alley to the bus stop at 8 am, I would see an old man (and we’re talking 80 year old man) with a makeshift wheelbarrow loaded to overcapacity with cardboard boxes. Every day, he would pull his cart through the street alongside a sea of yellow taxi cabs and brand new Hyundai sedans. It was like a scene out of a national geographic.

I learned from some of my Korean friends that this was a common way of making money for older Koreans. All night long while the city sort of slept, these adjushis & adjumas (or old men & women) would pick through the recycling, load up their carts and then turn them in for a very small sum of money. There were sort of turf wars for the best garbage gathering place, and occasionally, I would come home late at night and discover an old man in my garbage hut, bickering with someone over who’s beat this was and who got to take the load. The man that I saw each morning bothered me in particular because he seemed too feeble to be hauling such a heavy load. Sometimes his cart was so heavy that he could barely maneuver it across the street with his bent back and gnarled weatherworn hands. Korean drivers are crazy to begin with, but their patience evidently ran even thinner when it came to the junk carts. I watched regularly as he tried in vain to heave the cart from one side of the street to the other, waiting cars honking and yelling for him to move! My heart was heavy as I watched him struggle morning after morning and I wondered about his life. Surely it was miserable. SURELY it must be miserable. He couldn’t possibly be happy. I didn’t understand where he got the strength to live each day, to get back out there and haul his load through honking cars and sometimes vicious rain and cold.

One particular morning, I was feeling very sorry for the old man as I contemplated his life again. I’m pretty sure I was wondering why God would allow him to be so much more miserable than me in this life. when suddenly (and I think by inspiration) I had this thought: Who am I to assume that his life is any less happy than mine simply because I have more things and different life work? Is it not entirely possible that within the scope of his life, there have been times when his peace and happiness and contentment have eclipsed mine? If I believe in the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then I must also believe that the gifts of spirit are available to all his children regardless of station in life.

This thought has been important to me as I contemplate my own life mission. As I prepare to work with the world’s poor and vulnerable populations, I must be able to see them not as objects of my pity or condescension, but rather as brothers and sisters with different life trajectories, no less capable of bearing the burdens placed upon them with joy and peace. I know plenty of people who have everything and still find themselves with gnarled hearts and bent spirits, unable to navigate their loaded carts through traffic.

So what does this mini, personal revelation have to do with gratitude? I submit that it is a lesson in Best practices…of HOW to cultivate a spirit of gratitude in true Christian form. I think that we can all agree that being grateful is important. It’s a moral truism that almost no one would find problematic. It’s such an important principle in the gospel of Christ that our prayers are structured to include a hefty portion of thanksgiving before just about anything else. I don’t need to spend 15 minutes convincing any of you that being grateful is a worthwhile pursuit. You’re already working on it. You’re here. You’re seeking to connect. Gratitude is part of that connection.

What I do think is worthwhile is thinking about how we use charity, the pure love of Christ in our efforts to be a grateful people.

Moroni 7:47-48 But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever, and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
Wherefore my beloved brethren (and sisters), pray unto the father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons (and daughters) of Christ; that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall SEE HIM AS HE IS; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified as he is pure. Amen.

As I’ve thought about this scripture, I’ve wondered how charity will make it so that we will be able to see Christ as he is and I’ve come to the conclusion that love, specifically Christ-like love as described in the preceding verses (envieth not, is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, suffereth long, etc) creates a new perception of the world – a new way to see everything. It’s as though you’ve put on a pair of clarifying glasses in which you can suddenly see things from someone else’s eyes. I call it looking at the world through the LENS of CHARITY. I employed my charity lenses recently when I was feeling hurt by one of my friend’s seemingly careless actions. I prayed to Heavenly Father to help me look at the situation with my other eyes and suddenly, a new possibility opened up to me that helped to still my pain and understand that maybe there was more to the story than I could begin to perceive in my emotional state. After talking to my friend, I realized that indeed, there was more to the story. The lens of charity helped me to see things as they really were instead of how I perceived them. I believe that seeing things as they really is a gift that we must ask for and practice receiving. It is this gift that will ultimately makes us able to see Christ as he really is. We will see him through the same lens of charity that we have cultivated in this life.

Now for gratitude-

A few years ago, psychologists undertook a research study to determine how gratitude interacts with happiness. They used the idea of a gratitude journal and tested it against several different conditions. One condition was having subjects focus only on their hassles or struggles. You can imagine that this yielded very few positive results. The other condition that they tested against the gratitude journal was what social scientists called “downward social comparison” which they defined as ways in which participants thought they were better off than others. This is a happiness intervention that I bet we can all relate to. How many of us when feeling low about something quickly try to think about someone who has it worse than we do in order to feel better?

My friend's mom was very fond of reminding us, anytime we were dissatisfied with the fact that we were not married yet, to just think about that women who don’t have both of their legs or women who are put into arranged marriages. While it was sometimes good for a laugh, it didn’t really help us feel better about OUR own situation. In retrospect, I think this type of comparative gratitude can lead to a great deal of sorrow not only by diminishing or negating the authenticity of our own experiences but also, paradoxically intimating that someone else’s experience is more miserable than ours and that perhaps God has been kinder to us than to them. It’s a recipe for a slick kind of pride and denies the basic tenet of our understanding of who God is and that he gives gifts equally yet differently to each of his beloved children. It is the antithesis of seeing things with the lens of charity.

The results of the study showed that subjects who used the daily gratitude intervention (such as a gratitude journal) reported higher levels of positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to the subjects in the other group using downward social comparison. They were also more likely to have helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another person.

Science is simply reminding us of what King Benjamin said LONG LONG ago in his sermon to the nephites when he said, “ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.

Perhaps thou shalt say, the man has brought upon himself his misery. Therefore I will stay my hand and will not give unto him of my food nor impart unto him of my substance that he many not suffer for his punishments are just.

But I say unto you, o man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent and except he repenteth of that which hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?"

Though King Benjamin is talking about the ways in which we impart of our material goods to the needy, his point is that we must focus on our own status with God in order to live the better law. It is the same principle that we see in the scientific study about gratitude. If we focus on what we are grateful for without using downward social comparison, we are better able to access our lens of charity. We can begin to see our brothers and sisters life experiences as different but equal with our own and treat them with dignity and respect instead of pity and condescension. We will be better able to acknowledge that God is working in the lives of every one of his sons and daughters. And we will see more clearly things as they really are instead of how our fallen intellect and narrow perceptions make them out to be.

Most importantly, we will be kinder to ourselves , HAPPIER and more content with the things allotted us in this life because we will understand that EVERYONE has a load to bear. Some of us carry our loads in the form of cardboard. Others are hauling around mental anguish, inability to move forward, fear, loneliness, exhaustion. But in each case, God is present, succoring and teaching. In each case, the atonement of Jesus Christ is sufficient to heal and bring peace. Our role in this great work of revelation (because I believe that missionaries are ultimately only revelators, wiping the dust off truth that exists in each person from birth) is to first believe and be grateful for that knowledge and then lovingly help others to see it as well.


Marianne & Clayton said...

I loved your talk. I'm thankful to have friends who are strong in the Gospel and not afraid to share their testimonies.

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