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Gratitude before, during, and after a challenge

From the November 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal

This interview was originally recorded as a podcast on November 26, 2018 and was adapted for the November 2019 issue of The Christian Science Journal

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In this Christian Science Sentinel podcast, Rita Polatin talked with Christian Science practitioner Melanie Wahlberg about how it’s possible to express gratitude at all different times. With insights from the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, Melanie offers answers to questions and shares how we can discover the uplifting, healing power of gratitude.

Melanie: I think this time of year, especially, many of us are thinking about gratitude—maybe even as something that we should be feeling more of in order to make our lives go better. But what I’d really like to get into on today’s program is a fuller sense of the good God has here for us already, a spiritual reality. And how to see more of what God sees made practical in lives of freedom and purpose, brotherly love, purity, and joy. Gratitude just flows naturally from understanding more about divine Love and being a child of God. 

Rita: Well, that’s a great lead-up to our first question: “I find it difficult to be grateful when I am resentful of the problem, especially if it is long-standing or if I’m resentful toward a person or persons involved with the issue. Any suggestions?” 

Usually if I feel resentful about something or someone, it’s because I think my opportunities for good or for experiencing good are somehow being limited. I’ve found that feeling resentful usually means feeling small or powerless.

In the New Testament, St. Paul talks about the carnal mind, which is that voice that doesn’t have any real mind or power; it’s just suggestions of all kinds of limitations coming to our thought. There’s this wonderful Bible verse that’s helped me not to feel overpowered by these suggestions—this is in Psalms 118, verse 5: “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place.” I love the imagery of that. That large place is mental and spiritual. It gives relief from the tormenting feeling of resentment. 

When we turn from that sneaky, snaky voice of the carnal mind in order to listen to divine Mind, to God, it brings us new concepts of freedom and possibility. We spontaneously find ourselves feeling grateful, not dutifully looking for things to feel grateful about. And then our resentment toward the problem or the person diminishes, and we get some mental space to discover new paths forward. 

This idea of a large place is so helpful in lots of situations, but maybe especially in family and work situations. We have to work those out. We have to find mental peace. And when we’re willing to give God audience—to ask God, divine Love, for a bigger perspective, one that includes progress and blessing for everybody—then we don’t feel resentful anymore. It takes humility. It takes moral courage to pray that way. But then we go from victims to healers, and we can bless those around us. 

That’s very helpful. And I love that idea. Gives you dominion over the problem. That leads here into our next question: “I’m learning that gratitude can be a natural part of a person’s being, just like reverence and respect for life. It doesn’t matter what is happening, may happen, or has happened. I actually see this atmosphere of brightness and cheer in my surroundings. How can I work with this newfound understanding in a deeper and consistent way that reveals what I know is true, and true for all: eternal radiant health and wholeness?”

Oh, I really like the tone of this question, because it’s expansive. You know, it’s opening up to the possibilities of how we can bless a wider circle. 

A few years ago, a friend shared a relevant idea with me; it has to do with prayer. He said, “Take the world into your arms each morning and tell it not to be afraid.” I love the sense of that. I think sometimes when we’ve experienced the transforming effects of gratitude previously, or maybe especially if we read or hear about another person’s healing that grew out of a grateful outlook, we’ll think, “OK, I need to do that this time. For my problem to go away, perhaps I need to express gratitude.” But in order to sincerely feel grateful, to authentically just let it flow from our heart, we need to become more aware of the good that God has for us right now. There’s no self-will involved. It’s an appreciation for God. 

And so, in order to bless and include a wider circle like our family, or our community, or even the world, our prayers can start with simple spiritual facts. As the book of Genesis states, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (1:31). Starting from that standpoint, the standpoint of perfect God and perfect, complete creation, gives us a standard. And then if something seems inconsistent with that, like shocking news reports or extreme weather or illness, we can challenge what we’re seeing and humbly ask God to show us the truth of the situation. That’s really helpful for handling our own fears. And then it’s just natural to broaden our prayers from there.

So comforting. Can you say that beginning part again? 

Sure. Take the world into your arms each morning and tell it not to be afraid. 

Our next question is, “How can I understand myself and others as spiritual, and derive benefit from this view, while still seeing others with material eyes?”

Interesting. This question is so relevant, because expressing gratitude often takes spiritual sense, going beyond what our eyes and ears are telling us. 

In the textbook on Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the author, Mary Baker Eddy, explains, “Spiritual sense, contradicting the material senses, involves intuition, hope, faith, understanding, fruition, reality” (p. 298). I really love this ascending list of ways bringing us to seeing things as God sees them. This starts with intuition. Whether someone identifies themselves as a believer or not, we’ve all had instances where our intuition was a better guide than the five material senses. You know, like when your intuition tells you that your friend is going to tell you the truth about something even though it might be easier to lie. Then you’re at least partially seeing your friend with spiritual sense, and you’re valuing the divine quality of honesty and expecting to see it in that person. 

We spontaneously find ourselves feeling grateful, not dutifully looking for things to feel grateful about. 

So Mrs. Eddy starts with intuition, and then I find as we practice cultivating spiritual sense, intuition grows into hope and understanding. We don’t always need to completely throw out what our eyes and ears are telling us, but we need to see it in the right light. We need to understand what’s real and reliable and what’s a distraction, what’s not true. And I think the benefit of this view is mental clarity. It’s seeing more as God sees. 

Those last two links in that chain that Science and Health mentions when describing spiritual sense are “fruition,” which I would call healing, and “reality,” which is heaven, heaven on earth. We might still see some of the same stuff with our eyes, but we have a completely different and redeemed feeling about it. 

Our next questioner goes right to the heart of the topic. He says, “What does it mean to feel gratitude during and after a challenge?”

I can give an example here. Just after my second daughter was born, my midwife told me I had a condition that made nursing the baby very painful, and I began to experience this pain. Our older daughter wasn’t two yet, so I had two babies that I was taking care of. I was certainly praying for healing during this time. I got good insights and was learning new things, but hadn’t felt much progress physically. 

One day, I summoned the energy to clean up our apartment and prepare a special dinner for a couple that we were friends with. And then after dinner, the six of us, my husband and I plus the two girls and the couple, went to a park across the street. And we were having a wonderful time. 

While we were walking, our friends happily announced that they had just completed the paperwork for adopting a baby boy. Well, we were completely surprised! We didn’t know anything about this at all and were delighted; I just felt this surge of pure joy go right through me. And then right on the heels of that, I thought, “Oh Melanie, you don’t have time to feel joyful right now—you’re praying for healing.” I laughed out loud when I realized what I had just thought! Actually, nothing could have been more helpful to me in piercing the discouragement and doubt that I’d been feeling, than some heartfelt joy. And that joy just opened the door to gratitude. 

I began to feel grateful that a child who needed a home was going to be paired with a couple that I knew would be great parents. I was grateful for my two girls and for our safe apartment, even if it was pretty modest. And I felt different. Nothing had changed yet physically, but I turned a corner that night; my life felt fuller and more purposeful instead of like a string of painful moments that I was trying to shield myself from. And that, to me, is what it means to feel gratitude during a challenge. My thought was off myself and my problems and on the good that God was providing all around me. 

The needed physical adjustments didn’t happen overnight, but nursing the baby became a nonissue, and taking care of my girls became a joy. I still remember the first time I nursed the baby with complete comfort. That was the time for gratitude after the challenge. That was pretty easy, and it just flowed from my heart. The condition completely cleared up, too. Everything was healed and restored, and I nursed my daughter normally for the next year.

Just to clarify, being grateful during the challenge did not mean that I needed to feel grateful for the discomfort. I don’t want to give the impression that I was grateful for the discomfort and learned something from it. What I was grateful for was God’s loving response. The Bible says, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). These days, if I think back on those early months with my second daughter, I don’t remember discomfort or frustration. What I remember is that joyful moment in the park, and the gratitude, and the very many happy, healing moments that followed that were a blessing for both of us. 

Our next questioner writes, “How do I deal with the pain of infidelity and divorce after dedicating myself to working to keep the marriage together? How do I find happiness, joy, and harmony restored in a spiritual and proper way without seeking human gratification?”

There’s a paragraph explicitly about happiness in Science and Health. I often turn to it when circumstances seem disappointing—when I’m working and striving to be a good person but not really feeling any joy. The author, Mary Baker Eddy, worked through her husband’s infidelity and then a divorce. And she was able to write the following (here she is using Soul as another name for God): “Soul has infinite resources with which to bless mankind, and happiness would be more readily attained and would be more secure in our keeping, if sought in Soul. Higher enjoyments alone can satisfy the cravings of immortal man. We cannot circumscribe happiness within the limits of personal sense. The senses confer no real enjoyment” (pp. 60–61). Well, that’s a pretty radical statement, that the senses aren’t what give us real enjoyment. That brings us back to spiritual sense, praying, and allowing intuition, hope, faith, and understanding to guide. 

Being grateful during the challenge did not mean that I needed to feel grateful for the discomfort. 

I know from experience that we can’t feel completely happy in the present if we’re still struggling with our sense of the past. Prayer and a new outlook are the only way I know of to truly heal. And I mean truly heal—not just manage or ignore, but heal the past. 

Christian Science heals the past by showing us what was really going on. By this I mean spiritual reality—what can’t be seen by the senses. What was really going on was that God was expressing His goodness in His creation. And so to bring this back to gratitude, I don’t think you need to make yourself feel grateful about the marriage you had. I mean, at least don’t start there. Start with Soul. Start with letting God tell you about the good that’s in your life right now—things like the sense of purpose, the ability to show kindness to others, the dominion that you already express. By “dominion,” I mean our God-given ability to make progress, to learn new things, and to do them successfully. And even to feel a light, joyful sense about your activities. 

From there you might have some memories of times when God was actively shepherding you during the marriage. That’s something you can sincerely be grateful for. Not something you have to conjure up. Gratitude that just flows from the heart is the kind of happiness that redeems past and present, and that’s really what you’re looking for. It fills up our hearts and our moments with a joy, a quiet joy that we can really count on. 

Here’s another question: “How do I feel grateful when I am unemployed and everyone else is going to work or talks about their jobs? I am grateful that they have jobs and purpose, but I feel left out.” 

When I’ve been in a situation like that, where I need something that everybody around me seems to have found effortlessly, I haven’t always been able to immediately and sincerely feel grateful for their good fortune. I’ve had to rely on God and the Christ to open my eyes to the good around me. I can give another example here. 

At one point our family of five was outgrowing our small apartment, and I’d had it! I had mentally set a timeline for when we should find a bigger place to live, but nothing was falling into place. Then some new friends invited us to their home for New Year’s Eve. Well, when I walked into their gorgeously decorated house, my first feeling was not gratitude that they had a spacious home that met their needs. I have to admit, I actually felt some pangs of jealousy. 

So I was quiet for a while that evening. But I remember looking around and seeing the kids playing together and the adults talking and laughing, and realizing that I had a choice to make. Did I believe that God, the all-loving divine Principle, blessed some people and ignored others? A line from Science and Health opened my thought up, and that was: “Love is impartial and universal in its adaptation and bestowals. It is the open fount which cries, ‘Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters’ ” (p. 13). There Love is capitalized, and the author is using Love to mean divine Love, or God. Well, that was helpful. Maybe our next home’s location wasn’t obvious yet, but my opportunity for joy and purpose was not limited. I just needed to rely more on that spiritual sense that I talked about earlier in order to recognize that, spiritually speaking, my family wasn’t squashed into a too-small environment. 

My husband and I wanted to serve God. We wanted to help humanity and grow spiritually. And we wanted to raise our little children to do the same. So our apartment was definitely small in terms of square footage, but our lives had big potential. I think I began to appreciate our hosts’ generosity in that moment, and I actually had a wonderful evening. All that happened really quickly, that change in thought—faster than the time it takes to explain it. 

By the time I got home from the party, my outlook had changed. Our apartment actually looked cozy to me, instead of cramped. And we found a couple of ways to rearrange the furniture to make the small space work better for us. 

We lived in that apartment several more months before we were able to move. And I never felt that sense of frustration again. I think I loved every square inch of that apartment. Then it was easier for me to be happy for my friends who had larger homes. It was easier for me to sincerely feel grateful for them. I was feeling a greater sense of God’s abundance, and my friends’ blessings were just proof of that abundance. So I might say to the person submitting the question, you’re not left out. 

Second, the healing here is not necessarily you getting a great new job, although that’s a likely outcome. The real healing is finding satisfaction and purpose and supply right where you are. This is a special time for you to commune quietly with God, to pray for yourself and for anyone feeling unemployed or underemployed. And that brings a brighter, more accurate outlook, and then your experience comes into line with this—and a natural gratitude begins to flow.

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