Monday, November 22, 2010

Thoughts on President Monson's talk "The Divine Gift of Gratitude"

Lately I’ve been studying President Monson’s conference talk “The Divine Gift of Gratitude” to try to see if I can come to better understand it. It’s a relatively simple talk, yet I’ve found unexpected depths in it that I had not anticipated. I have to confess that I’ve felt for a few days that I needed to do a post on this talk and I’ve been very worried about it; I worried that I wouldn’t be able to adequately point out how strong and effective it is. Because it IS powerful. But I’m going to do my best.

Since President Monson is both a master teacher and a master storyteller, one of the things we have to do when reading his talks is to analyze every single one of his stories, no matter how small. Since his topic is on gratitude, what can we find about gratitude in each one of his stories?
This has been a marvelous session. When I was appointed President of the Church, I said, “I’ll take one assignment for myself. I’ll be the adviser for the Tabernacle Choir.” I’m very proud of my choir!
My mother once said of me, “Tommy, I’m very proud of all that you’ve done. But I have one comment to make to you. You should have stayed with the piano.”
So I went to the piano and played a number for her: “Here we go, [here we go] to a birthday party.” Then I gave her a kiss on the forehead, and she embraced me.
I think of her. I think of my father. I think of all those General Authorities who’ve influenced me, and others, including the widows whom I visited—85 of them—with a chicken for the oven, sometimes a little money for their pocket.
I visited one late one night. It was midnight, and I went to the nursing home, and the receptionist said, “I’m sure she’s asleep, but she told me to be sure to awaken her, for she said, ‘I know he’ll come.’”
I held her hand; she called my name. She was wide awake. She pressed my hand to her lips and said, “I knew you’d come.” How could I not have come?
Beautiful music touches me that way.
This beginning struck me as a rambling reminiscence when I first heard it, even as I smiled at his pantomime of picking out the old John Thompson song with one finger and his singing it in front of hundreds of thousands of watching Latter-day Saints.


I looked for gratitude and it is there. He tells us he’s so proud of his assignment as advisor to the Tabernacle choir (gratitude for their beautiful music and his chance to be associated with them in some way) because his mother once told him that for all he had done, she still thought he should have continued lessons with the piano.

Think about that—a mother who is disappointed that her apostolic son hadn’t stuck with his piano lessons. Hmmm. Yet let us pass over that and realize that this same mother gave birth to and raised this great man. President Monson, for his part, seems to have alluded to his own boyhood ingratitude for piano lessons, and repented of it, and we see in his attempt to plunk out a song for his mother a new thankfulness for the small skill he learned long ago.

Then he compares his mother’s frustrated expectation of him with a time that he was able to meet the expectation of one of the widows he visited. He ends this with the almost cryptic sentence “Beautiful music touches me that way.” It seems that he was speaking of how the Tabernacle choir’s beautiful music helps satisfy a deep yearning he had to please his mother and that the choir itself always fulfilled his own expectations and hopes for it, especially in times when he really needed it.

This is an incredibly complex way of expressing gratitude, but he manages to thank the Tabernacle choir, his parents, general authorities who influenced him, and even those he served.

My beloved brothers and sisters, we have heard inspired messages of truth, of hope, and of love. Our thoughts have turned to Him who atoned for our sins, who showed us the way to live and how to pray, and who demonstrated by His own actions the blessings of service—even our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
In the book of Luke, chapter 17, we read of Him:
“And it came to pass, as he went to Jerusalem, that he passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.
“And as he entered into a certain village, there [he met] ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off:
“And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.
“And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.
“And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God,
“And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan.
“And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?
“There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger.
“And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”2
Through divine intervention those who were lepers were spared from a cruel, lingering death and given a new lease on life. The expressed gratitude by one merited the Master’s blessing; the ingratitude shown by the nine, His disappointment.
My brothers and sisters, do we remember to give thanks for the blessings we receive?
Why was this story included? I’m sure we’ve heard it many times before. What does it mean to us? Obviously we are meant to take it to heart somehow. As I thought about it, I realized that we are the lepers. Every one of us has been made unclean by the terrible thing called sin. When we are made clean through the atoning power of Christ, we have just as much reason to glorify God with a loud voice as did the Samaritan in the story. Do we remember to give thanks?

President Monson names a bunch of blessings that come from gratitude, and they are scattered all over the talk:
  • “Sincerely giving thanks not only helps us recognize our blessings, but it also unlocks the doors of heaven and helps us feel God’s love.”
  • “President Gordon B. Hinckley said, ‘When you walk with gratitude…you walk with a spirit of thanksgiving that is becoming to you and will bless your lives.’”
  • “We can lift ourselves and others as well when we…cultivate within our hearts an attitude of gratitude.”
  • “Someone has said that ‘gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.’”
  • President Joseph F. Smith, sixth President of the Church….said…: “The grateful man sees so much in the world to be thankful for, and with him the good outweighs the evil. Love overpowers jealousy, and light drives darkness out of his life….How much happier we are in the presence of a grateful and loving soul…”
  • Gratitude freely expressed minimizes feelings of regret when we lose a loved one.
  • It helps us find blessings in the midst of serious challenges.
President Monson’s talk also contains a list of ways to cultivate gratitude:
  • Rejoice over what you have.
  • Look for and acknowledge the Lord’s hand in all things.
  • Live in thanksgiving daily for the many mercies and blessings the Lord bestows upon you.
  • Pause and contemplate our blessings.
  • Refuse to remain in the realm of negative thoughts.
  • Consciously cultivate an attitude of gratitude until it becomes a habit.
  • Cultivate, through a prayerful life, a thankful attitude toward God and man.
  • Appreciate what money can’t buy: our families, the gospel, good friends, our health, our abilities, the love we receive from those around us.
  • Remember the happy days of the past and express gratitude before loved ones are gone.
  • Take an inventory of what you have.
About a third of President Monson’s talk is devoted to recounting the story of Gordon Green’s family and how they found blessings during difficult challenges, and this calls for serious attention and study. I will include the story below along with things that stuck out to me.
Gordon tells how he grew up on a farm in Canada, where he and his siblings had to hurry home from school while the other children played ball and went swimming. Their father, however, had the capacity to help them understand that their work amounted to something. This was especially true after harvesttime when the family celebrated Thanksgiving, for on that day their father gave them a great gift. He took an inventory of everything they had.
On Thanksgiving morning he would take them to the cellar with its barrels of apples, bins of beets, carrots packed in sand, and mountains of sacked potatoes as well as peas, corn, string beans, jellies, strawberries, and other preserves which filled their shelves. He had the children count everything carefully. Then they went out to the barn and figured how many tons of hay there were and how many bushels of grain in the granary. They counted the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and geese. Their father said he wanted to see how they stood, but they knew he really wanted them to realize on that feast day how richly God had blessed them and had smiled upon all their hours of work. Finally, when they sat down to the feast their mother had prepared, the blessings were something they felt.
Taking an actual count and making a list is a very good way of cultivating gratitude. Gordon’s father is very wise because not only did he teach his children to work, but to notice and tally the fruits of their labors and their blessings from God. I would add that not only is it good to count tangible blessings, but intangible ones too. And if that weren’t enough, there are times when it is good to count the cost we save because of what didn’t happen. [Like the times when the car made it to the repair shop before it died. Or the time the surgeon noticed and removed the cancer while operating on dear husband for something else.]
Gordon indicated, however, that the Thanksgiving he remembered most thankfully was the year they seemed to have nothing for which to be grateful.
This should be a heads up that counting one’s present blessings may not work in all circumstances but that something very special and almost miraculous is coming in this story. We need to be alert to look for it.
The year started off well: they had leftover hay, lots of seed, four litters of pigs, and their father had a little money set aside so that someday he could afford to buy a hay loader—a wonderful machine most farmers just dreamed of owning. It was also the year that electricity came to their town—although not to them because they couldn’t afford it.
One night when Gordon’s mother was doing her big wash, his father stepped in and took his turn over the washboard and asked his wife to rest and do her knitting. He said, “You spend more time doing the wash than sleeping. Do you think we should break down and get electricity?” Although elated at the prospect, she shed a tear or two as she thought of the hay loader that wouldn’t be bought.
I have to point out once again how wise Gordon’s father is, simply from examining these paragraphs. Gordon knew his father was saving for a hay loader. That indicates that Gordon’s father involved the family in decisions about what they were going to save for and got family buy-in so that they were united. And a hay loader is pretty practical.

Interestingly enough, Gordon’s father changes his mind about what to get at an interesting time—while he decides to step in and take a turn at the washboard helping his wife wash clothes. As he did a task that his wife usually did, we can discern that he began to appreciate more fully the hard work his wife did to keep the family’s clothes clean. (Principle: Gratitude for what others do can come when we take over their duties for a little while.) Because Gordon’s father was now grateful for all that washing, he was filled with a desire to really lighten his wife’s burden—with electricity and a washing machine. He was willing to sacrifice his own plans to help her.

How curious that his wife was both elated, yet saddened. Yes, she would appreciate the electricity and a washing machine, but she still couldn’t think of foregoing the hay loader for her husband without a little pang. How often we are like her; as sudden unexpected blessings come to us we sometimes have a hard time letting go of what we previously planned for and thought we wanted before. Sometimes it is hard for us to see how much more beneficial for us the present blessings will be. (I could write a whole post about how my college career played out like that.)
So the electrical line went up their lane that year. Although it was nothing fancy, they acquired a washing machine that worked all day by itself and brilliant lightbulbs that dangled from each ceiling. There were no more lamps to fill with oil, no more wicks to cut, no more sooty chimneys to wash. The lamps went quietly off to the attic.
Electricity brought immediate blessings and they knew exactly how it helped them. No lack of gratitude here. Of course, it is always easiest to be thankful for a blessing just after you receive it.
The coming of electricity to their farm was almost the last good thing that happened to them that year. Just as their crops were starting to come through the ground, the rains started. When the water finally receded, there wasn’t a plant left anywhere. They planted again, but more rains beat the crops into the earth. Their potatoes rotted in the mud. They sold a couple of cows and all the pigs and other livestock they had intended to keep, getting very low prices for them because everybody else had to do the same thing. All they harvested that year was a patch of turnips which had somehow weathered the storms.
Then it was Thanksgiving again. Their mother said, “Maybe we’d better forget it this year. We haven’t even got a goose left.”
In no way were the Greens to blame for their difficulty. It was simply a result of difficult conditions and they weren’t the only ones that suffered. For them to lose their crops like that is just as serious as if they lost a job. With no income from crops, they had to get income by selling their animals.

Notice that Gordon’s mother thinks they have hit rock bottom. She can see no reason for celebrating Thanksgiving or even anything to celebrate it with. Yet they still have a patch of turnips!
On Thanksgiving morning, however, Gordon’s father showed up with a jackrabbit and asked his wife to cook it. Grudgingly she started the job, indicating it would take a long time to cook that tough old thing.
Gordon’s father worked very hard to come up with something to have as a main dish for Thanksgiving. (Maybe he shot the jackrabbit as it was nibbling the turnips? ;-) ) But notice Gordon’s mother’s attitude. She is thinking too much about not having a goose for Thanksgiving to appreciate that without her husband’s efforts, she wouldn’t even have the jackrabbit. Watch how her ingratitude spreads to her children..
When it was finally on the table with some of the turnips that had survived, the children refused to eat. Gordon’s mother cried…
The children are also infected with ingratitude and turn up their nose at what Gordon’s father got them and what Gordon’s mother did to try to prepare it for dinner. Who can blame Gordon’s mother for crying now? I suppose our ingratitude must make our Heavenly Parents mourn the same way when we turn up our noses at his blessings because we have expected something better.
…then his father did a strange thing. He went up to the attic, got an oil lamp, took it back to the table, and lighted it. He told the children to turn out the electric lights. When there was only the lamp again, they could hardly believe that it had been that dark before. They wondered how they had ever seen anything without the bright lights made possible by electricity.
Gordon’s father is incredibly wise. While his wife and children are troubled by their want, he assuages their grief not by giving them something new, but by taking something else away temporarily. This brings them all to an immediate awareness that things are not as bad as they thought. Suddenly they remember how wonderful electricity is as they experience a brief “vacation” from its convenience. Undoubtedly it was easier for them to endure this brief, voluntary loss than the more sustained, involuntary financial losses they had experienced over the year.
The food was blessed, and everyone ate. When dinner was over, they all sat quietly. Wrote Gordon:
“In the humble dimness of the old lamp we were beginning to see clearly again. . . .
“It [was] a lovely meal. The jack rabbit tasted like turkey and the turnips were the mildest we could recall. . . .
“ . . . [Our] home . . . , for all its want, was so rich [to] us.”
I thought very hard about this part. I wondered just how that realization about the blessing of electricity suddenly seemed to also bless their meal and their feeling for their home. Surely this wasn’t just empty words; there had to be something more behind it. Then I started to understand. Perhaps the briefness of their break from electricity suggested to them the possibility that their financial troubles would also be brief. Perhaps just like turning off the lightbulbs and using the oil lamps helped them appreciate electricity, losing their harvest and their animals for a year helped them more fully appreciate the plenty they had had… and would someday enjoy again.

I shared these last thoughts with my husband and he thinks I’m reading too far into it, but I can’t shake the feeling that maybe that is something we can learn from this story. What do you think? Is there anything in particular in this talk that really speaks to you? How is the principle of gratitude blessing your life?


Heather M. Collins said...

I feel the same as you, that there is more to that ending than immediately meets the eye.

In the Book of Mormon, there is a time immediately before the Savior comes to the Nephites, in which they cannot light any fires. Fire was so basic and rudimentary to these people who had built temples and fought wars, they could scarcely imagine a time when they couldn't light one whenever they wanted. In that way we can understand the darkness to be a sign of the times.

The briefness of that time is important because the coming of the Savior was not far hence--a matter of days.

Michaela Stephens said...

Interesting tie-in to the scriptures there, Paradox. So the three days of darkness helped the people better appreciate Christ as the light of the world.