taking the words of Jesus seriously

Editor’s Note: An interview with theologian Diana Butler Bass on her new book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks.

Thanks for your beautiful new book on gratitude. A few years ago I took an online course called “The Science of Happiness,” then attended the International Positive Psychology conference in Orlando. (Because where else would you hold a positive psychology conference?) It was remarkable how much interest there was in learning how to be happy. So: What explains this obsession?

I’m a bit of a deconstructionist about these things. When people are asking questions about how to be happier, it means that they’re not. It reveals a spiritual longing that people have.

I think Americans have a tendency to equate gratitude with stuff. It’s primarily about being thankful for economic benefits, like the things we have in our houses. It’s good to have a comfortable life, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not entirely what gratitude is. It’s not a thank-you list for material blessings. It’s a disposition of our character in which we can experience the fullness of life beyond our immediate circumstances.

You confess early on in the book that gratitude doesn’t come naturally to you, which I suspect might be the case for a lot of us.

The reason I wrote this book was not because I’m an expert in gratitude. I wrote from the exact opposite perspective, that of a gratitude klutz. When I write about church history or congregations or theology, I’m actually an expert in those things, and I have academic authority to speak about them.

I wrote this because gratitude had eluded me. I was getting into my late 50s, and I realized as I looked ahead, there are people who when they age are not very grateful, and in fact are full of regrets. But I also know older people who are wonderful to be around, and usually those are people that have significant practices of gratitude. I wanted to be more like them. So this book was, in part, a deeply personal impulse to put myself on a path and experience gratitude as part of the mature spiritual life. The book’s authority emerges from this desire and from my own struggle to be a better person.

I appreciate the honesty in the book when you say that sometimes that kind of gratitude is impossible because of very real impediments. You tell a story of surviving abuse when you were a teenager, and how you struggled for years to forgive.

That section is key to the personal authenticity of this book. Before I wrote, I thought to myself: “The last thing the world needs in 2018 is another book on gratitude by a privileged white lady.” When outsiders look at someone like me, they generally see a successful person. They don’t know about the times in my life when I’ve been victimized and have suffered.

For the book to be real, I knew I had to share the story about when I was a teenager and was abused by a relative. It was very hard to write about, as I’ve never told it in public. Never. But I wanted readers to know that I wasn’t telling them to feel gratitude even in the midst of their pain, but was sharing as someone who has found — after a really hard struggle — gratefulness beyond my pain.

Christians say the worst things to people in pain. I had a friend who was raped and a person who wound up being a pastor told her, “This feels terrible right now, but the Bible tells us we should be grateful for everything.” We do this all the time, saying you should be grateful for getting cancer, or that your spouse left you, or you lost your job.

But you should never tell a person who has been a victim of injustice or pain to be thankful for those things. Instead, the Bible says we’re thankful through or in those things. For isn’t the same as through. Prepositions matter.

I have been deeply angry about being abused. But at the same time, what I learned through the longer trajectory of life is that, ultimately, the violence did not own me. And that’s what I became thankful for. I still feel some level of pain — even rage — about it, but I can look back now and say, “Oh my gosh, no matter how horrible that was, I’ve never succumbed to letting the pain define me.” I can be thankful for my resiliency, and for my friends and family who helped me and loved me.

So this is not your typical hearts-and-flowers gratitude book. This accounts for suffering and despair and unexpected election results. Gratitude is not a happy pill or Pollyanna. This is gratitude on the ground with the feet of people who are fighting and marching for a better world.

You talk about several spiritual practices that can help cultivate gratitude. What are they?

In the book I share some of those. There’s a difference between a tool and a practice. When you’re planting a garden, sometimes you use a hoe, sometimes a shovel, sometimes your fingers — all these different tools can change over time. But the practice is growing the garden. With gratitude, the “tool” might be writing in a journal or doing meditation. For someone like Phyllis Tickle, it really was a lifetime of fixed-hour prayer. The tools are different, but the practice is thankfulness.

I’ve always wished I could be like Phyllis, but I’m a person who likes to change up my tools! Right now, two things are very helpful for me. One is poetry, which helps me to see deeply past the immediate moment to a deeper reality. So much of poetry is about seeing abundance and thanksgiving. During Lent, my husband and I read a poem before dinner together every night, and connected it to gratitude.

And the second thing is really kind of goofy. Instead of keeping a journal right now, I have a river rock with the word “gratitude” inscribed on it. That rock sits on my nightstand. Every night when I go to bed, it’s the last thing I see. When I wake up in the morning, I hold it in my hand and say, “Thank you for the new day.” Or “Thank you that the sun is shining.” So, this little act — of rock holding — frames my rising up and my going to sleep. It’s so important to me that I carry the rock around in my travel bag, so I can also have it with me when I’m in airplanes or at a hotel.

I’ve noticed that your last two books, “Groundedand “Grateful,” really go for the “Gr” words. So on a lighter note, I’ve come up with a list of possible future book ideas for you! These are topics I would love to see you tackle: grammar, grumpiness, greed, gregariousness.

I do think I do have another G-word book in me. I was thinking of a book called “Grovel.” That would be a good title for a book about prayer!

That would be awesome.

Another one I also wanted to write was “Grit,” but that one’s already been published. For now, I’m content with being grounded and grateful.

This article originally appeared at RNS.

About The Author


Jana Riess is the author of "The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less . . . Now with 68% More Humor!" and "Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor." She has a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University.

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