This month, Facebook users across the country will post one thing a day that they are grateful for. I will not be one of them. Without getting into whether this practice is generally bad or good, I feel compelled to say that despite the popular hymn, I do not think that counting your blessings equates with having gratitude in your heart. For me, my gratitude is both personal and compels action. When I am grateful for my family, I have patience and use kind words. When I am grateful for my friends, I spend time with them and offer service when they need it. When I appreciate something someone has done for me, I write a thank you note instead of broadcasting in social media how great my friends are. And when I recognize all that my Heavenly Father and Savior have done for me, I express that appreciation through private prayer.
These feelings of gratitude prompt me to do something. Having been blessed with a full pantry, I may take a meal to someone in need. Having been blessed with confidence (or in some situations the memory of once being confident), I may reach out to others who need a friend. Gratitude without acting on it really seems like smugness and pride. In the Book of Mormon, in a time of Nephite prosperity, the people “in their prosperous circumstances … did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” In contrast, the less prosperous people were caught up in “wearing costly apparel; being lifted up in the pride of their own eyes …” (Alma 1:30-32) Gratitude is about humility, and humility is necessarily private.
But the real reason I struggle to associate gratitude with “counting my blessings” is because profound experiences have taught me that gratitude is what saves us when we experience deep loss and very real trials. Gratitude fills us when there is literal emptiness. Gratitude can exist even when there are no blessings to count because the strongest gratitude is rooted in a personal appreciation for the Savior’s ultimate sacrifice.
I have had a few of these empty, yet incredibly full experiences in my life. They were sad, painful times, and in them no amount of counting my blessings could comfort me. However, they are the times that have shaped me eternally and give me the strength to keep going when more hard times come. One experience came during my second year of law school. It was the week that my grandfather died, and other things in my personal life also crumbled. As I walked to school from the metro station, I counted my blessings through my tears. I was grateful for my mother, a place to live, my other still-living family members, and things of that nature. As I passed the homeless shelter and dealt with the reality that death happens, I was struck so powerfully with the thought that even if all the blessings I had counted were gone overnight the way my grandfather was, I would still need to follow the commandment to be grateful. Even if I had no blessings left to count–no home, no family, no health, nothing–my Heavenly Father would still expect gratitude. And why? For what? Because He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to the Earth to atone for the sins and struggles, the loneliness and the very real emptiness that I would experience in my life and that I was experiencing in my life that day as I walked to school.
I do not believe that God expects us to feel that whatever blessings we do have compensate for the very real emptiness that also exists in our lives, except for one blessing–that of the Atonement. Having money saved does not make it easy to loose your job. A new pregnancy does not make the loss of another child any less painful. Good friendships do not compensate for the loneliness of being single. But the Atonement heals all of those things, making them manageable, bearable, and most importantly, for our benefit.
Gratitude is inextricably linked with faith. Maybe it’s nice to sit down and count your blessings and keep track of them in a ledger, but I don’t think that is gratitude. Gratitude cannot truly be felt until there are fewer blessings to count and bigger voids to fill. In the midst of emptiness we do need to recognize what we have, and no matter how empty we are, we will always have the Savior. Having the Savior is the key to hoping for better things to come.
For more ideas on the link between gratitude and faith, consider: Like a Broken Vessel by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and The Windows of Heaven by Elder David A. Bednar