Your book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches has been creating quite a stir since it came out earlier this month. Within days of the book’s release it became an Amazon best-seller in its category, and it has received a string of positive reviews. Rod Dreher wrote that “this book will open closed minds, gladden weary hearts and change people’s lives,” while Bishop John, Antiochian Orthodox Bishop of Worcester and New England, praised the book for “[taking] the gems of truth from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and theology to show how to experience the good life.” A number of academics are also recommending the book, from institutions that include University of Notre Dame, St. Tikhon’s Seminary, and the St. Constantine school. Why do you think your book has made such a splash so quickly?
Well, this year has been a year of terrible trouble, and people are desperate for answers. The troubles that confront our society, like the challenges facing us as individuals, raise profound questions about what it means to live the good life. People are hungry to know if it is even possible to flourish when everything seems to be falling apart. I have tried to speak to these concerns, both at the societal and the individual level. My answer is that, yes, we can flourish even when everything is going wrong, but sometimes that involves needing to rethink what human flourishing actually means. Often we have a certain image of flourishing that we get from the media and from Hollywood, and that image needs to be critiqued in light of Orthodox theology.
In Gratitude in Life’s Trenches I have tried to show that is through a life filled with meaning, and meaning that is ultimately Christocentric, that we find the anchor to survive the troubles confronting us. This is, of course, what the Orthodox Church has always taught, but in my book I have tried to connect this teaching with contemporary advances in science and psychology.
I think another reason people have been so hungry for my message is because there is a great deal of confusion in America right now about how we, as Orthodox Christians, relate to the wider culture, and how we should or should not respond to recent discoveries in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, mindfulness, etc.. I have met Orthodox Christians who say that everything we need to know has already been said by the Church Fathers in a complete way, and so we should not try to learn from recent scientific advances, nor should we try to explore the links between the Church Fathers and modern science. I have friends who have taken this extreme position, and in 2017 when I was working on some of the material on attentiveness that eventually became Chapter 4, a friend emailed me to say “the devil is clearly in this.” He argued that to even discuss discoveries arising outside the Church is to imply a deficiency in the Apostolic Deposit, and it is to “give an ear to devils.” But for those of us who are a little more informed about the Church Fathers, we know that they engaged in critical appropriation with the learning of their day, and they did not uncritically reject the cultural products of paganism. In the spirit of men like the Cappadocian Fathers, many of us have a real hunger to find out how the learning of our own time can be appropriated and where it should be rejected. For example, we hear things in the news about discoveries researchers are making in fields such as neuroplasticity, cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and so forth, and we want to know how these discoveries do or do not align with Church teaching. There is a real hunger for this type of critical appropriation, , and I think my book speaks to that need.
What inspired you to write Gratitude in Life’s Trenches?
In 2016, the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion (OCAMPR), put on a conference on the topic of pain and suffering. The secretary of OCAMPR had seen an article I had written for the Colson Center on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s gratitude, and as a result of that article she asked me to give a talk at the conference on the theme of “Gratitude During Times of Suffering.” This book grew out of that talk.
I had been studying gratitude for a few years before that, as part of some consulting work I was doing in the behavioral health industry. I had become fascinated by the intersection between ancient Orthodox spirituality and contemporary discoveries in science and psychology. Writing this book was an opportunity to look closer at some of those connections. As I said before, I have tried to adopt the method of critical appropriation in the spirit of the Cappadocians.
But this book is about more than just gratitude. In fact, there are only three chapters that deal directly with gratitude; the book is really about how we deal with suffering, and what it means to flourish as a human being even when things are going wrong. This is something I became interested in after experiencing a number of hard knocks.
In 2015, when I was thirty-nine, I was completing a PhD in historical theology through King’s College London, while enjoying a growing income from one of my businesses, with dozens of sales reps under me. Two universities invited me to pursue postgraduate research at their institutions after being awarded my doctorate later that year. But then my doctoral dissertation was rejected, and from there everything began falling apart. The income from my business dropped by over two thirds, while the universities withdrew their fellowship offers since I had not attained the PhD. Then I began experiencing some issues of mental and emotional exhaustion that had devastating consequences both for my marriage and for what remained of my professional life. I felt like Job with everything taken away from me.
Through these challenges, I was forced to reassess what it means to flourish, and what the purpose of life actually is. One of the things I wanted to know was how it is possible to have gratitude even when everything is going wrong. So I began digging more deeply into spiritual writings and history, as well as neuroscience and psychology. In this quest, I came across a number of men and women who inspired me to adopt a more spiritual perspective on my life in particular, and what it means to live the Good Life, in general.
Who are some of these men and women?
Well, one of them is Fr. George Calciu. He was a Romanian Christian who was imprisoned by the communists when they took over the country. He spent twenty-one years in prison, sometimes under very brutal conditions.
Through the ups and downs that Fr. George endured, including a number of failures, he came to see all of life as a precious gift. He came to be extremely thankful for very little things, including the types of things that most of us just take for granted. You know, when everything has been taken away from you, and you’re in solitary confinement, then even the smallest blessings—like something as small as a visitation from an insect, or a smile from a prison guard—can become the basis for profound gratitude. That is what Fr. George believed and practiced. And when he was released, he received all the wonderful things that make up ordinary life with the same spirit of thankfulness.
I tell the story of Fr. George in chapter 7, and I conclude by pointing out that our mindset on life is not so much determined by what is happening around us; rather, it’s determined by how we interpret what is happening to us. Fr. George inspires us with the truth that anything that happens can have a positive interpretation, provided we remain plugged into Jesus. Fr. George was able to interpret everything that happened to him—even his suffering—in a spiritually positive way, and if he could do that in the midst of so much suffering, how much more should we be able to do that surrounded by so many blessings?
Another man who influenced me a lot is St. John Chrysostom. I have a chapter in the book called “Don’t Waste Your Pain,” where I discuss St. John’s teaching that God only allows us to experience suffering that has the potential to draw us closer to Christ. In the letters that St. John wrote to St. Olympia following his exile, he gave a very comprehensive plan for how to grow closer to Jesus through suffering. He explained that one of the ways we can grow closer to Jesus is by rejoicing in everything, even emotional pain. That is why we can have gratitude regardless of what is happening around us.
Just earlier this week a friend shared with me a story from the life of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, that illustrates this principle. Pärt was staying at a monastery, and one day he was sitting outside trying to work on a composition he was having some difficulty with. A little girl came up to him and asked what he was doing. He told her he was writing a piece of music, but that it was not working out very well. She responded by asking, “Have you already thanked God for this failure?” That is a challenging message to hear in our success-driven culture. The truth is that God is with us as much in our failures as in our successes, in our weakness and vulnerability as much as in our strength.
Even in saying that we can have gratitude for our suffering, however, there is a potential for this to be taken in various wrong directions. One mistake would be to veer into a Pollyanna-type optimism that fails to engage in the reality of pain. That is why I say in the book that gratitude is not about gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they are not. Rather, true gratitude involves acknowledging our sufferings, accepting them, and then interpreting pain in a spiritual way.
St. Theophan the Recluse taught people to practice this type of reframing. There is an entire chapter in one of his books about turning the burdens of life to spiritual profit. St. Theophan referred to the work of a bishop who took 176 situations and reframed them with a spiritual interpretation. The idea is to get so good at this type of reframing that when something annoying happens, you automatically frame it in spiritual terms: How can I find something good in this? What can I find in this situation that can convert my grumbling into gratitude? The reason this is not sentimental optimism is because the type of reframing that St. Theophan urged does not involve trying to escape from our suffering through various forms of denial, or by putting a rose-colored glass over our pain. Rather, this approach engages with the reality of pain, but then interprets it in a spiritual way, like Fr. George did when he was in prison.
To interpret pain in a spiritual way means understanding that God has allowed suffering into our lives for a reason, and that pain is an opportunity for growth if received in a spirit of acceptance. Because our Heavenly Father loves us, He uses everything that happens to us, including our suffering and other people’s mistreatment of us, to make us more like His son Jesus Christ. That is the foundation of gratitude – our heavenly Father’s love.
So, when all is said and done, why should I be grateful? Because I have a Father in heaven who loves me and will not let me encounter anything that cannot be used to propel me closer to Him. When we rest secure in our Father’s love, then anything that happens can be reframed in a positive light.
Of course, someone could take this and go to the opposite side of sentimental optimism, perhaps thinking something like, “If everything that happens to me is for a purpose, and can be leveraged for my spiritual growth, then why should I try to avoid suffering?” Moreover, someone might wonder why we should even pursue activities that help to mitigate the impact of suffering—activities like gratitude, mindfulness, self-care, etc.—if suffering can be framed in purposeful terms.
Here again, St. John Chrysostom comes to our rescue. When writing to St. Olympia, he told her to try to lighten her sufferings through self-care and various reframing activities, for although sufferings can be leveraged for spiritual benefit, they also create temptation. When we suffer, the devil tries to use the suffering to draw us down into hell, just as the angels try to use the suffering to draw us upward to heaven. Thus, in keeping with the principle of avoiding temptation, St. John urged Olympia to try to lessen her pain as much as lay within her power, while accepting the remaining suffering (the pain she could do nothing about) as an opportunity for growth. Moreover, suffering also creates burdens for our loved ones who care about us, and St. John was very concerned about this as well. Consequently, he advocated various herbal and medicinal remedies, as well as practices like warm baths and cognitive reframing techniques. In fact, in the book I have an entire section on St. John Chrysostom’s teaching about self-care.
Is it possible that people might also take your message—that God sends suffering for our spiritual growth—and go into the direction of determinism?
Yes, that is something I see happening a lot, particularly among my Calvinist friends. There is a big difference between saying that God allows suffering for our spiritual benefit, vs. saying that God is the author of evil so good may arise. Moreover, good does not always arise out of suffering, at least not on the micro level, because sometimes people respond to trials by becoming further entrenched in sin.
In working on the manuscript and discussing these ideas with friends, one of my Protestant dialogue partners was concerned about determinism after he read my section on St. Dorotheos of Gaza. In the 6th century, St. Dorotheos taught that God is orchestrating all things for our benefit. Now that sounds like a kind of “best possible world” scenario, and it does raise concerns about determinism. One of the passages in question is where St. Dorotheos said the following:
“In God’s providence everything is absolutely right and whatever happens is for the assistance of the soul. For whatever God does with us, he does out of his love and consideration for us because it is adapted to our needs. And we ought, as the Apostle says, in all things to give thanks for his goodness to us, and never to get het up or become weak-willed about what happens to us, but to accept calmly with lowliness of mind and hope in God whatever comes upon us, firmly convinced, as I said, that whatever God does to us, he does always out of goodness because he loves us, and what he does is always right. Nothing else could be right for us but the way in which he mercifully deals with us.”
These words are very encouraging, because they assure us that the life circumstances you and I are currently experiencing have been tailor-made by God to produce maximum spiritual growth, provided you participate synergistically with God’s work. All the circumstances of your life, including those circumstances that are dissonant and discordant, form a kind of divine symphony and can be received with gratitude.
But at the same time, I can understand the concern raised by the friend: if each of us are living in a world tailor-made for our benefit, then is evil really that bad? Worse, is God the author of evil, a sort of cosmic evil genius, who sends atrocities into the world in the hope of it producing some good side-effects?
Certainly, when we read St. Dorotheos saying that God “arranges everything that concerns me…after my welfare”, it is easy to “hear” this as implying a top-down determinism or metaphysical monergism: for example, my friend steals from me, and God is the one that caused that in order that I can benefit spiritually. But I think that one of the reasons we “hear” determinism in this teaching is because we live in a world where the concept of providence has been largely colonized by post-reformation debates between Calvinists and Arminians. We must be careful not to read into this sixth-century teaching the categories of comparatively recent theological philosophy. For St. Dorotheos, God’s sovereignty is demonstrated by the fact that He can orchestrate all things for our benefit, even those evil things which did not originate with Him. Things happen in the world that it would be better did not happen (no question about that), but God is powerful enough to orchestrate even those unfortunately events into a program for my spiritual benefit. I have discussed some of this in more detail in my articles on Calvinism.
In the spiritual classic Unseen Warfare, we read that God’s sovereignty includes even those actions which God has not directly willed, and I think this is a good perspective to adopt. Let me get the quote for you.
“Although we cannot suppose that some things, such as our sins and those of other people, are a direct result of a willed action of God’s, yet even they do not happen without God’s leave, as means of admonishing and humbling us. As regard sufferings and afflictions, which are our own fault or due to the malice of others—God Himself sends them, desiring us to suffer and be tormented by them, in order to gain the blessing of virtue, which we are bound to earn if we endure as we should the trial He has sent us. The same applies to other judgments of His, hidden from us, but doubtless right and blessed.”
Can you briefly walk us through each chapter of the book?
Chapter 1 explores the role that attitude and meaning play in the Good Life. Some of my dialogue partners in this chapter are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Viktor Frankl. Delving into these men’s lives and writings gave me the opportunity to explore the paradox that the pursuit of happiness actually thwarts happiness—a point both these men understood and wrote about. Both of their lives are an amazing testimony to the power of thankfulness even in the midst of horrendous conditions. This chapter also explores some research by the contemporary psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, that gives empirical grounding to these men’s teaching.
Chapter 2 is aimed at helping each one of us be more grateful for the man or woman God created us to be. I talk about the difference between self-love, self-esteem, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. All of these ideas are different and need to be carefully nuanced in order to avoid heterodox anthropology and extremism. One extreme I address is the notion that being humble means that you have to think terrible thoughts about yourself, and grovel in shame and self-loathing. That is neither true humility nor true repentance. In fact, the devil tries to get us to experience shame and condemnation, so that we identify with our sin and reject ourselves. But when the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, we experience guilt and conviction, rejecting our sin but accepting ourselves. Part of theosis is learning to accept—and even to “love”, in a qualified sense—the image of God that we are, while recognizing that our value is not based on external measures such as what we achieve or what other people think of us.
Chapter 3 explores the power gratitude has to transform our lives from grumbling to joy. Living in the power of gratitude enables us to see life in a new way and to receive as blessings the ordinary things we might otherwise take for granted. I think this is so important, because gratitude to God is a much effective incentive to the life of virtue than moralism or a dour sense of duty.
Chapter 4 looks at the role attentiveness plays in the Good Life, with exercises for mindfully engaging with the present moment. Often we are unable fully to engage with the present because our lives are sabotaged by survival instincts or by toxic spirals of disordered thoughts and feelings. This chapter explains how to use attentiveness to reverse these toxic spirals, so you can achieve your full potential as the man or woman God created you to be. To use contemporary lingo, this chapter is about “mindfulness,” but I show from Orthodox spiritual writers that mindfulness is really just a recapitulation of Patristic teaching on guarding the watchtower of the mind.
Chapter 5 offers a positive perspective on human emotion. By befriending our emotions, we can come to know ourselves better, and be more empathetic to those around us. I’m tracking with some fascinating scientific discoveries which show that our ability to get in touch with our feelings is organically related to our ability to empathize with the feelings of others. Moreover, by being in touch with our feelings, we can increase the gap between stimulus and response, and thus participate with divine grace in the healing of the soul. One of my dialogue partners in this chapter is Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnia (1914-2003) who encouraged people to achieve moment-by-moment awareness of their feelings and thoughts.
Chapter 6 looks at a number of common thinking errors, while exploring the role our thoughts play in determining the quality of our lives and relationships. One of the thinking errors I explore is called “Negative Filtering.” This error occurs when we weed out the positive things about a situation and just focus on the negative. Often when we react to situations or get upset, it is not the events themselves that cause our reaction, but the interpretation we are imposing on the events, including interpretations that filter out the positive. But bringing a positive interpretation to our lives is ultimately about truth: what does God say about my situation? What Biblical promises apply to me and my life right now?
Chapter 7 is about cognitive reframing in general, and gratitude in particular. I show that any situation, no matter how difficult, can be interpreted in either a spiritually positive or a spiritually negative way. By learning to frame our lives positively, we can begin to see challenges as opportunities and to view obstacles as blessings. My guide in this chapter is the Romanian priest, Fr. George Calciu, who I’ve already mentioned. By framing his difficulties in spiritual terms, Fr. George was able to transcend those difficulties, and rise to a level of spiritual joy often unattainable to those of us living in comfort.
The theme of Chapter 8 is vulnerability, and that might seem like a strange topic to cover in a book about gratitude. However, when we use gratitude to reframe our sufferings, we are not denying that suffering is taking place, nor are we painting an escapist gloss over our difficulties. Rather, we are choosing to perceive the larger context in which the suffering occurs: a context that provides occasions for gratitude regardless of what is happening around us. Because of this, gratitude enables us to confront our own pain and vulnerability, to be realistic rather than escapist. Gratitude gives us the power to look pain straight in the eye and to be at peace instead of despairing. Vulnerability is very important in this process, because it’s very hard to selectively numb emotion: if you harden yourself so you don’t have to face your own vulnerability, then you will likely also be numbing away your capacity to feel gratitude, joy, and love.
Chapter 9 takes a deep dive into St. John Chrysostom’s theology of suffering. St. John gives us nine things that anyone who is suffering can practice, so as not to waste their pain. It is possible to suffer in vain, but St. John shows us how we can lean into our sufferings and leverage them for spiritual benefit. This is also a theme in the teaching of St. Dorotheos of Gaza, who anticipated recent research in mindfulness. This research is finding that leaning into our pain instead of struggling against it helps to activate brain regions needed for responding more constructively to life’s challenges.
Chapter 10 looks at secrets from the Church Fathers on how to find your true self. Unlike modern misconceptions, the struggle to true selfhood is a struggle against what comes naturally to us. In thousands of baby steps over a lifetime, we either journey towards God or away from Him; in the process, we either become our true selves or merely a shadow of the person we were meant to be. In writing this chapter I took inspiration from a number of different individuals, including St. John Chrysostom again, and also Nick Vukicic, an Australian who was born without any limbs. These individuals challenge the hedonistic ideas about identity that have become so pervasive in our society.
Chapter 11 shares secrets from Christian philosophers and theologians for viewing all of life through a sacramental lens. The sacramental theology of the Orthodox Church shows that growing in maturity involves becoming attuned to the spiritual realities that underlie the commonplace, from our family relationships to our daily routine, from our innermost thoughts to our deepest desires, from our lying down to our waking up. God is part of all these experiences, and not just those experiences we consider “spiritual.” A key dialogue partner in this chapter is the great liturgical theologian, Alexander Schmemann, but I’m also drawing from a number of Protestant thinkers, including G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. What these Christian thinkers all show is that the call to view our life sacramentally is a call to rediscover the joy of the present moment, and to savor the joy of whatever is happening right now, whether breathing, eating, worshiping, or being in the presence of a loved one. The imperative of gratitude is a call to savor the richness of these common things, receiving whatever comes to us with thankfulness and joy.
I think your message is so important in these days. It seems that we complain a lot, and that most of us are always grumbling about something.
Complaining is a real problem in today’s world, and it is on the rise almost like an epidemic. Grumbling manifests itself on the individual level, as it leads to unhappiness, troubled relationships, over-spending, and addiction. But grumbling also manifests itself on the civil level, as lack of gratitude for our country and its institutions leads people to pursue revolutionary and chaotic solutions to our nation’s problems.
Yet complaining isn’t always bad. Complaining can sometimes be therapeutic as a way of processing emotions, especially if we are trying to work through feelings of grief, betrayal, shame, and heartache. We see this throughout the Scriptures, especially in some of the more melancholy Psalms. Also, in marriage relationships it can be helpful to issue action-directed complaints, so members of a couple can respond to the other’s needs and desires. I’ve discussed this at my author website in an article called “The Power of Complaining.” Nevertheless, most of the day-to-day complaining we do serves no therapeutic function and actually makes us feel worse and damages the brain.
Because of neuroplasticity, when we grumble and focus on everything that is wrong, it actually changes who we are. In my book I quote the psychologist Rick Hanson talking about this, and I’d like to just share that quote here, if I may.
“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?
In particular, because of what’s called experience-dependent neuroplasticity, whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain—and your self.”
What Hanson is saying here is that what we focus our attention on literally changes the brain. And scientists can now measure this on a neurophysiological level. I read a fascinating book on neuroplasticity by the Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge, titled The Brain that Changes Itself. Doidge took a break from his counselling practice to research the flexibility of brain structures. His research involved interviewing dozens of scientists who have been working on human and animal brains. All this research pointed to the fact that what we focus on, and what we think about, actually re-sculpts the material in our brain at a physical level. Over time, our brain-changing choices alter who we are, even at the level of our innermost self.
In practice, what this means is that if you spend your time grumbling, or giving into distractions, or judging and criticizing others, you are actually changing the architecture of your brain. On the other hand, if you spend your days being at peace with those around you, and pursuing activities such as interior prayer and gratitude, then you are laying down positive neuro-pathways in your brain.
So why do you think we grumble so much these days?
In his book The Progress Paradox, the economist Gregg Easterbrook offered an interesting explanation about why we grumble so much. Easterbrook observed that as our lives have collectively become more prosperous, our expectations have risen, resulting in more things to be unhappy about. Our comforts provide an endless array of new things to disappoint and frustrate us. When progress occurs on a culture-wide level, then not only do our expectations go up, but the baseline for normality rises to such an extent that it becomes easy to overlook how blessed we are for commonplace realities.
One area where this paradox has played out is in our approach things like household appliances and conveniences. Most people assume that things like the vacuum cleaner, the automobile, the electric iron, the laundry machine, etc. made life easier. But that is not true, because research shows that these “time-saving” devices simply resulted in rising expectations and therefore more work. For example, once the electric iron became common, it was no longer socially acceptable to have too many wrinkles in your blouse or dress. It even began to be expected that children’s school clothes should be neatly ironed, an idea that previously would have seemed ludicrous. Thus, the time saved by the electric iron was largely cancelled out by the increased workload, due to our changing expectations. A similar process occurred with the washing machine. When washing machines became widespread for American households in the early 20th century, it came to be expected that you should never wear dirty clothes, and that you should never wear the same underwear two days in a row. So although people could wash clothes a lot quicker, they had so much more washing to do. Another example of this is kitchen conveniences. Before advances like the electric oven, or the availability of pre-ground flour, people were content with a much simpler diet. These are just a few examples showing that as life gets easier, our expectations rise, giving us more things to grumble about.
That’s really fascinating. Do you have links to some of your research about this?
Sure. Here you go:
- The Ironies of Household Technology
- Why Household Appliances Haven’t Made Life Easier for Women
- Gratefulness and the Rising Baseline
- Your Life is Not As Bad as You Think
Getting back to your book, who are you hoping to reach with it?
I am hoping the book will reach all Christians, as I tried to write it with all three sections of Christendom in mind: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Probably my main audience is Eastern Orthodox Christians, because my publisher is Orthodox and has links with hundreds of Orthodox church bookstores. Yet in a special way, I am hoping the book will reach Evangelicals who may have been burnt by the teaching of their churches. There are many believers whose lives are filled with messiness, and often deep pain, and many of these suffering souls have wandered away from organized religion because their churches taught them that struggle is a sign of spiritual dysfunction.
I know that in the Protestant churches I used to attend, I was often told that a difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, because a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is characterized by rest, not suffering or difficult struggle. In its extreme form, this teaching finds expression in the prosperity gospel, but it is also pervasive in more subtle expressions. For example, I have a friend I’ve known since I was a little boy, and he is a widely respected evangelical author, and this friend has written to me multiple times to say that if a Christian is struggling, then something is wrong with him or her. For him and others who subscribe to this false teaching, phrases like “try,” “willpower,” “human effort,” and “ascetic struggle,” are all associated with the flesh and not the spirit. Their point is not simply that we cannot struggle our way to the free gift of salvation, but that it is impossible to progress in godliness through struggle. This teaching, which has deep roots in the 19th century missionary movement, creates a two-tier Christian community made up of those who are struggling and those who are overcoming.
In 2017, I did some research for Touchstone Magazine on struggle, and I found that this antipathy to struggle is a uniquely Anglo-American delusion, and is more a symptom of cultural anthropology than theological integrity. I followed up my research for Touchstone by delving deeper into Asian anthropology, and I found that the American notion of a strict contradistinction between virtue and struggle is an historical and geographical anomaly.
Americans expect to be comfortable, and the right to happiness is even enshrined in our nation’s founding document. But, of course, the problem is that then when our life starts falling apart, or when we begin facing struggle, or when we find that living the spiritual life is difficult, then it’s easy to assume that something must be wrong with us. Yet the truth is that everything that matters most in life—whether the spiritual life, a marriage relationship, or even great artistic and musical creativity—is difficult and involves struggle.
Sadly, it is now commonplace to raise our children with these assumptions in mind, and so they grow up believing that a life of struggle and difficulty necessarily signals abnormality and dysfunction. Parents project the expectation of happiness onto their children, who then feel a great pressure to be happy and stimulated all the time. When the children are not happy or encounter difficulty, they easily lapse into depression, feeling that something must be wrong with them. Instead of being taught to have gratitude in the midst of their suffering, this generation is being taught to run from their suffering, and to eschew struggle at all costs. Is it any wonder that so many young people are using addictive substances to mask over their difficulties?
So I am really trying to give people the hope of an alternative approach. I start with the assumption that for most of us, life is going to be difficult. That might sound rather pessimistic, but it isn’t, because once we accept that life is difficult, then we can frame that difficulty in a spiritual way. One of the thinkers I quote in the book is Scott Peck, who pointed out that accepting that life is normally difficult gives us power to transcend the difficulty, because then we are no longer railing against it.
Now if we just stopped there, we might have a type of modern-day stoicism. And that is the approach that many people take: life is hard, so we need to have a stiff upper life and carry on with resignation. But that is not the direction I go. Using St, John Chrysostom as my guide, I show that an acceptance of life’s difficulty forms the basis for true gratitude and peace. This is because gratitude involves real acknowledgment of pain, while interpreting pain in a spiritual way. I think Alfred Plummer was onto something when he contrasted the Biblical teaching of joy in the midst of suffering vs. the stoical notion of resignation and fortitude. He said that “This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude. The effort to be resigned, and to suffer without complaining, is not a very inspiring effort. Its tendency is towards depression. It does not lift us out of ourselves or above our tribulations. On the contrary, it leads rather to self-contemplation and a brooding over miseries. . . . It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ [to have joy in our suffering] is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”
I know you deal with the question of struggle a little in your book, but can you give us some links to where you’ve shared more of your research on this?
Well, I already mentioned my work for Touchstone Magazine on this, and you can read that on their website. I have an article on my personal website called ‘Great Lent and Cultural Anthropology’ where I compare American and Asian ideas about struggle, while exploring what we can learn from this about the theology of asceticism. In an article I wrote for the Colson Center, titled ‘Is Will-Power Good or Bad?’ I compare what Scripture teaches about struggle with evangelical teachers who want to assert that all struggle is from the devil. I built on this in my article ‘The Power of Baby Steps in a Superman Culture,’ where I suggested that a robust theology of struggle can transform our understanding of discipleship. Another great resource on this topic, which isn’t from me but from the counselor Keith McCurdy, is his Podcast about struggle with the Circe Institute. I think this short podcast is something that every parent should listen to, because he shows how an antipathy to struggle sets children up for failure and emotional dysfunction.
If I could move beyond your specific question, I’d like to just point out that the theology of struggle relates to my recent work on gratitude insofar as gratitude is itself a struggle. People misunderstand gratitude by thinking that it is purely an emotion, and then they misunderstand emotion by thinking that they are outside our control. And, of course, if you believe that real emotions are out of your control—perhaps something that just happens to you like getting a cold—then you will likely also believe that dispositions that arise after a period of struggle are somehow artificial and fake.
The reality is that we arrive at the deepest and most permanent emotions through work. If you think of the joy of a married couple who are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, or the rapturous feelings of love for God that comes over some saints during worship, or the joy a student of Greek poetry feels after reading a masterpiece for the first time, or the happiness that a wine connoisseur might feel after tasting a special vintage—all these types of emotional experiences arise after a long series of antecedents that often include hard work, education, practices, skill-acquisition, sacrifice, and struggle. The same applies to spiritual emotions like peace, gratitude, contrition, joy, love, etc. These virtues all include an emotional component, but they are emotions that have corresponding practices that we embrace through decision, sometimes decisions that are a real struggle. For example, in the case of gratitude, it is through specific gratitude practices that we create the conditions by which emotions of gratitude can arise in our heart.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown shared that she used to assume that joyful people were naturally grateful. But after interviewing hundreds of people about joy and gratitude and spending hours analyzing these case studies, she changed her mind. She explains how the research showed her that, in every case, joy emerged out of a conscious choice to engage in gratitude activities. “Without exception,” she wrote, “every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice. . . . When it comes to gratitude, the word that jumped out at me throughout this research process is practice.”
Brown explains that to simply say “I need to have a grateful attitude” is about as helpful as telling ourselves to have a dieting attitude or an exercise attitude. What counts is actually practicing gratitude in a tangible way. That is why, in my book, I have offered a number of very practical techniques for increasing gratitude, most of which can be done in less than five minutes a day.
There is a principle here that is larger than just gratitude, and it relates to the role that habits play in cultivating dispositions and spiritual emotions. Cultivating correct dispositions is hard work and requires years of right habits—habits that may seem drudgery at the time but which have as their reward the flowering of a certain sort of person, and certain spiritual emotions. It’s easy to misunderstand the nature of this type of reward, since often the rewards we receive from hard work have no organic connection to the labor. For example, when I tell my son I will pay him $5.00 after he has mowed the lawn, or when I tell my daughter we will go to the lake after she has cleaned her room, there is no natural connection to the work and the reward. But sometimes we do experience rewards that are organically connected to the work that earned them. For example, the enjoyment of reading Virgil in the original language is organically related to the work of studying Latin and learning to appreciate good literature. Or again, the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself. One who has not worked to appreciate good literature may puzzle why another would prefer Virgil over comics, just as a man who has not worked to cultivate virtue may find it hard to understand why another man would enjoy having a relationship with a modest virtuous woman.
Ultimately, through virtuous habits, our hearts are prepared for the rewards of heaven. Orthodox theology does not teach that future reward is something like, “be good and then God will reward you with more treasure in heaven.” Rather, our tradition teaches that our aim is to become the sort of person who will be able to enjoy God’s presence. To return to the example I gave earlier: just as the enjoyment a man derives from having a relationship with a modest virtuous woman is organically related to the work of becoming virtuous himself, so the unfathomable joy of being eternally united with Christ is organically related to our present-day struggles to grow closer to Him. By growing deeper in our relationship with Christ through spiritual disciplines and habits of virtue, we gradually become the type of man or woman who can enjoy Christ’s presence, both in this life and in the next. It is not about earning salvation, but becoming the sort of person who can find Christ’s presence delightful, and not the sort of person who, like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, finds Christ to be repulsive.
So while our enjoyment of Christ in this life and the next is an emotion, it is one that arises as the organic reward of pursuing virtuous habits day in and day out. Enjoying a marriage relationship after 40 years is something experienced in the feelings (if it were not, then it would not be enjoyable, by definition) but those feelings arise as the natural result of enormous work over the long-term. Good habits lead to flourishing, and gratitude is no exception. Gratitude feels good and makes life easier, but these feelings come as the natural result of tens of thousands of choices over many years, including the decision to consciously pursue the gratitude practices handed down to us by the Holy Church.
And what are some of these gratitude activities?
Well, that is what my book is about, at least part of the book.
Thank you, Robin!
Robin Phillips is a freelance author and researcher living in the Pacific Northwest. He has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and is completing a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He contributes to a variety of publications, including Touchstone and Salvo, and in his spare time he loves playing the piano, reading, hiking, spending time with family and friends, and writing for his blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com. While researching for his earlier book, Saints and Scoundrels, Robin was impressed by heroes of the faith who retained a spirit of gratitude in the face of suffering and affliction. After experiencing some setbacks in his own life, he decided to study how these Christians were able to live the good life even when everything was going wrong. This book is the result of that spiritual journey.
Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong is available HERE.