We are quickly approaching the longest night of the year, and the darkness, quiet, and stillness of the season can seem to be a stark backdrop against which the frenzy of holiday activity takes place.
The interplay of light and darkness in religious life is striking, and never more so than during the winter season. Advent, a season of preparation, is marked by the lighting of candles, and Hanukkah is the festival of lights, celebrating the miracle of one day’s supply of oil lasting through eight nights. We long for light to shine brightly in these long, dark nights, and people of faith can point to the essential role darkness plays in making visible the light that is a sign of faith in the world. The gospel of John begins with the powerful image of God incarnate: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This image of a light shining in darkness speaks to the role of gratitude in relationship to generosity. Last week Lake Institute’s David King and I presented at the Generosity NEXT conference of the Ecumenical Stewardship Center in Coral Gables, Florida. Even as we talked together about the work of cultivating generosity in faith communities, we all felt grateful for the 80-degree weather, and for the gracious hospitality of the Coral Gables Congregational Church (UCC) who hosted the gathering. And yet, each afternoon, I was startled by the early darkness, because I associate that lovely warm weather with long summer days, so my gratitude was marked by the special privilege of an unexpected gift. I was able to see just what it was that I was appreciating, because I know the contrast of December in Indiana as well.
When we are grateful for the beauty and miracle of a tiny flame, we are honoring the goodness in the world, and creating a space for human beings to see one another. If we are grateful for light, for warmth, for the inevitable rising of the sun after even the longest night, then we are able to share that possibility with others. Gratitude might seem like an unexpected prerequisite for generosity, as it relates to our own sense of receiving, rather than a direct desire to give. However, gratitude is affirmed again and again by our traditions. Like a moth drawn to the flame, we are pulled toward gratitude as a source and sign of generosity’s power in the human experience.
It is not only the wisdom of faith traditions or cultural practice that lifts up gratitude’s vital role in cultivating a more generous way of living our lives. Researchers at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center have evaluated the role of gratitude in psychology, wellness, and social relationships, and they conclude that deliberate practices of appreciation and gratitude can result in experiences of markedly increased wellbeing. For example, one study shows that people who kept a “gratitude journal” for just 10 weeks reported being 25% happier after that activity than when they began, and they reported significantly fewer health complaints as well. The study’s author, psychologist Robert Emmons, noted that:
“To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of a recipient — to feel indebted, aware of one’s dependence on others, and obligated to reciprocate.”1 This humility is not the posture that
After all, there’s no shortage of baking, decorating, preparation, and shopping to be done. Our impatience to get on with the party can mean that we overlook the opportunity to account for the gifts we have already received. It is easier to be distracted with more things to do, to make, to buy, than it is to focus in on the gratitude we have for small things. As our religious traditions call us to consider the light in darkness, through long cold nights, it’s easy to have our attention pulled away from quiet contemplation, by the hectic pace of preparation and the draw of celebration as these early winter holidays approach. Turning toward gratitude in this season can allow us, if just for a brief time, to focus on the meaning we find in a small light, shining in the dark that threatens to overwhelm.
1. Emmons, Robert. “Pay it Forward.” Big Ideas. The Greater Good Science Center at the
University of California Berkley, 1 June 2007. Online.