Which is more important: happiness or gratitude? I think the answer is clear, but the opposite view seems to get more play and more buy-in. The result is that we live in a world that is often marked by both unhappiness and ingratitude. What do you think?
In the United States, we are promised by the Constitution the right to pursue happiness, and that idea quietly underlies much of what modern society is about in these United States. That phrase was coined over two hundred years ago, and it has undergone a subtle change. We have shortened the phrase to this: a “right to happiness”.
Many people today live as if everyone has a right to happiness. We do not want to pursue happiness so much as we want it given to us. That view is conveyed and reinforced in politics, and in popular TV shows, movies, by Disney, in books and in many other ways. We rarely stop to think about it. We just assume it, and that assumption leads to unrealistic expectations and frustrations because happiness comes and goes and often eludes us. It can even elude us when we have everything we want!
Happiness is a relative term. The things that make me happy many not make my neighbor happy. The things I find to be most pleasurable, satisfying and fulfilling my neighbor may not value as much (if at all). Things that make one person happy might even make other people unhappy, because our desires often conflict with others. (I like to play music loud, but that doesn’t make my neighbor happy!)
Our happiness is often also connected to and affected by other people. Our happiness is often tangled up in how other people see us, relate to us and interact with us. Spouses, parents, family and friends, co-workers and even acquaintances, all impact on our happiness. The things we want from them they may not be able, or willing, to give us.
Happiness is often tied to things we cannot control. The fact that we cannot control them, itself, is a source of unhappiness. Unhappiness not only grows out of the way people treat us and interact with us, but from circumstances that we do not control. For that reason, and others, happiness is a spurious goal and an illusory right.
Happiness and gratitude may seem to be linked, but they are not. While happiness may depend to some extent on our gratitude, gratitude does not depend at all on happiness. We can be grateful even when we are not happy, but happiness is difficult to find without gratitude.
While we think of happiness as a right, we don’t view gratitude the same way. We tend to view gratitude as something others earn from us (maybe for making us happy). Gratitude may also be our response when we are thankful for things that we do not deserve or did not think we deserved. In fact, if we think we earned what we have, we might not be grateful for it all.
Gratitude can also be more than a reaction. It can be a choice. Happiness is a state of being we don’t control, but gratitude is an attitude we can choose.
Consider the situation of Martin Pistorius. At the age of 12, his body began to fail him. He eventually became unable to move, unable to speak, unable to do anything. He lapsed into unconsciousness…. for two years! When he began to “come to” at around the age of 16, he found that he was trapped inside his own body, isolated and utterly alone. All he could do was think.
I was entombed in my own body. I couldn’t tell anyone that I had returned to life. People knew that I had become more responsive, but they still believed I was severely brain damaged. And so I was fed and cleaned while being sat in front of reruns of Barney. I dreamed of smashing the television screen.
People looked around me and through me. However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t get them to notice me. I had woken up as a ghost.
Martin spent 12 whole years walled up in his own body, isolated from the very people who attended to him, unable to communicate with them, but most of the time being conscious and aware of everything. He remembers clearly, for instance, the time his mother said, “I hope you die.”
Martin had lost all control over every aspect of his life other than his thoughts.
You can listen to the NPR version of Martin’s story here
This got me to thinking. To some extent, we have little control over our lives, and much of the control we think we have is illusory. We don’t choose our most fundamental circumstances, our genetics, our birth parents or birth place, the chemical make up of our brains, our physical attributes and so on. Some of us go through much of our lives wishing for different circumstances, and much of our energy is exerted in efforts to change those circumstances.
While people in centuries past have had more fatalistic views of the world, modern America seems like a virtual smorgasbord of choices. Yet, happiness eludes us. Today, we champion choice and freedom and individual rights, but those things often look and feel like a cruel mirage in the dessert to many people who are trapped by circumstances that are beyond their control. There is always hope, but the reality falls short.
The one control we have that never is beyond our reach is how we react to the circumstances in which we find our selves. Martin Pistorius is the perfect example. The only thing he controlled was his own thoughts and his reactions to what was going on around him.
In the NPR piece linked above, we heard the story from a third party perspective. The story focuses on what Martin “did” by engaging his thoughts and tackling even the darkest thoughts head on. The author of the NPR piece, Lulu Martin, said, “He was trapped, with only his thoughts for company”; but that was not entirely true. The rest of the story, the story NPR did not tell, is the important one.
The circumstances Martin experienced were as dire as any circumstances a person could imagine. He had his own thoughts, but he had something else too, and that made all the difference. The most significant aspect of Martin’s story is told in his own words:
Soon after I started to become aware, God came into my life.
One night I suddenly “awoke” from sleep. It felt as if I were floating far above my bed. Instinctively, I knew that I was not breathing. I could see angels with me, a male and two females. They were comforting and guiding me, and although we did not speak, I could hear their voices. They wanted me to come with them.
For a moment, I wanted to go with them. I had nothing to live for, no reason to continue my journey. But I couldn’t leave behind the family that loved me.
The next moment, breath filled my lungs.
As I became fully aware, the only certainty I could cling to when so much didn’t make sense was that God was with me…. The people around me didn’t know I existed, but God did. And I knew he existed.
When Martin had no connection to any person, and no person even knew that he was “there”, Martin was aware of his connection with God. So, he engaged God. He prayed, and God answered, but not in the way one might hope for:
Sometimes my prayers were answered. Sometimes they weren’t. But when I felt disappointed and powerless, my conversations with God taught me that gratitude could sustain me. When the smallest prayer was answered, I gave thanks to the Lord. Caught in perhaps the most extreme isolation a person can experience, I grew ever closer to God.
God’s answer was to teach Martin to be grateful!
Happiness was not even a hope for Martin. Without any connection to anyone other than God – without Bible, church, instruction or any thing else – he learned directly from God the value of gratefulness, and it sustained him… for 9 more years!
Martin eventually was able to convey to a sensitive and observant caretaker the fact that he was conscious and aware. That led to the discovery of a way for him to communicate through a computer. He eventually recovered some motor skills.
Through is new ability to communicate, he developed a long distant relationship with a friend of his sister. When she came to visit, the relationship developed further, and they eventually married! Martin continued to progress to the point where he was able to work; he went to college; and he now owns his own business.
It is a remarkable story, a story that led Martin to say that now his face hurts from smiling so much. As remarkable as the story is, the most important aspect of it is the importance of God in our lives and the significance of learning to become grateful… even in the direst of circumstances.
Some might speak about human resilience, the human will to live and human ingenuity. Like the NPR story, however, focusing on those things neglects the prominence of God in the story. Martin’s relationship with God was the key. The NPR story misses the significance that God showed up when there was no one else, and the decision to be grateful in those circumstances carried him through those dark times when happiness was not even a faint glimmer.
It is hard to imagine being grateful in Martin’s condition. He was utterly dependent, and in that utter dependence, he had no illusions that he was in control. We may have more control of our lives than Martin had, but we ultimately have no control, whatsoever, over our own mortality.
All that we have was created by God and is sustained by God. The more we have, however, the more we tend to think we control our own destiny. We may even begin to think that we have a right to happiness.
Strip all that away, and we learn that the more important thing is to understand our place, that our relationship to God is paramount, and we grow in that relationship through gratitude. Our eternal destiny hinges not on happiness, but on gratitude.
The excerpts are from Trapped Inside My Own Body for 12 Years by Martin Pistorius published in Christianity Today.
Postscript: for additional thoughts on gratitude: