Q: Life has handed me some very trying times lately. I have just been laid off from my job, one of my children is having trouble in school, and my father is very sick and needs help. I know I should feel grateful for all that we do have–a roof over our heads, food, and support from friends and family–but what I really feel is anxiety, fear, and fatigue. What should I do so that I can feel grateful even in times that challenge me physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

A: This is the kind of question I am slow in answering. What slows me down is respect for what you are going through, respect for you. In your situation, almost any answer must sound glib. What I can do is wait and let myself feel your anxiety, fear, and fatigue as fully, as painfully, as I can before attempting to answer.

When I ask myself, would I feel grateful if I had just been laid off from my job–not to mention the other challenges you are facing–the answer is no. How could anyone in your position feel grateful? But gratefulness is not a feeling; gratefulness is an attitude. Even though we have a grateful attitude toward life, we may or may not feel grateful. We may think that we “should,” but our feelings are not under our control; only our attitude is.

With all that is weighing on your mind right now, this is not the best time for making fine distinctions between attitude and feelings. Still, you might want to think this through. It will at least take your mind off your problems for a moment, and it might do a lot more for you.

What is gratefulness like, at those times when your feelings do agree with your attitude? You feel a trust in life that overcomes fear. This trust makes your heart feel wide open and free, the very opposite of those anxious feelings that make you clam up, feelings that squeeze your chest together until you can hardly breathe. When being grateful and feeling grateful are in harmony, it takes a lot to make you feel fatigued; your courageous trust invigorates your body, your mind, and your spirit.

Now, that deep trust in life is not a feeling but a stance that you deliberately take. It is the attitude we call courage; and courage is quite compatible with feeling afraid. In fact, courage presupposes anxiety; it is the attitude of one who goes ahead in spite of anxiety, and fatigue. And isn’t this what you are doing, difficult though it is?

Your question suggests to me that in the midst of your difficulties, you still wish to be grateful. Let me assure you that this wish alone proves your trust in life, your openness, your courage. A grateful person trusts enough to give life another chance, to stay open for surprises. Since you are doing this, you are grateful, whether or not you can feel it. Like a ship in dense fog, you will have to go on automatic pilot. But the fog will lift. Better still, by going forward you will get out of the fog. As you stay open in grateful trust, grateful feelings will start to bud.

Times that challenge us physically, emotionally, and spiritually may make it almost impossible for us to feel grateful. Yet, we can decide to live gratefully, courageously open to life in all its fullness. By living in a gratefulness that we don’t feel, we begin to feel the gratefulness we live. This is not a quick and easy recipe, but you will find that it works.

–Your Brother David

Beliefnet.com, 2001

Br. David Steindl-RastTrust
Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

About the author

Brother David Steindl-Rast — author, scholar, and Benedictine monk — is beloved the world over for his enduring message about gratefulness as the true source of lasting happiness. Known to many as the “grandfather of gratitude,” Br. David has been a source of inspiration and spiritual friendship to countless leaders and luminaries around the world including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton, and more. He has been one of the most important figures in the modern interfaith dialogue movement, and has taught with thought-leaders such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, and Roshi Joan Halifax. His wisdom has been featured in recent interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Krista Tippett, and Tami Simon and his TED talk has been viewed almost 10,000,000 times. Learn more about Br. David here.