We feel stressed, anxious, out of sorts, and, when we look at the way our nation’s leaders talk to us and one another, it’s no wonder why.
In my last post, I observed the particular nastiness of this year’s presidential primaries. Things have not gotten any better now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have secured the nomination from their respective parties. Last week the two launched a barrage of Twitter attacks at one another, Clinton calling Trump a “fraud” and a scam artist and Trump calling Clinton “crooked” and “Lyin’ Hillary”.
Even if these exchanges between Clinton and Trump are notable for their directness and heatedness, smear campaigns are nothing new to presidential elections. Election year after election year, the American public is as likely to hear attacks on an opponent in campaign commercials as they are to hear actual information about a candidate’s platform. Part of the problem is that attack ads have been proven highly effective. Studies show that, although people generally dislike attack ads, even voters who affiliate with the party of the candidate under attack form negative images this individual after viewing such ads. This finding is related to the well-documented psychological phenomenon that people tend to be more influenced by their aversion to loss than by desire for gain. Therefore, it should come as little surprise that we are hearing so much vitriol spewing from the mouths of this year’s presidential candidates. It has proven a time-tested campaign strategy to stir up voter’s worst fears and project those fears upon one’s opponent. If this makes you feel manipulated, well, it should.
Such manipulation is equally present in other areas of our lives, for there are those in our society who would manipulate our emotions not only for political self-advancement but also for financial gain. Scholars like Vincent Miller have explored in frightening detail the insidious means by which corporations systematically multiply and perpetuate our desires, promising satisfaction in the form of yet another novel product. Radio commercials, roadside billboards, and webpage banners appealing to desires we never knew we had constitute the air we breathe more than text we read or messages we hear. And it is not only the obvious desires that they exploit. They redirect our need for nourishment into an insatiable appetite for ever-more exquisite and exotic flavors and our desire for genuine human love into the desire for name-brand clothing that people will admire. In short, they fragment the heart’s deepest desire for the God who is Love into cravings for a million trifling and ultimately disappointing indulgences.
Consumerism and political antagonism are two major factors that breed discontent in the lives of Americans like you and me. However, discontent and worry are not uniquely American problems. Human beings always have and always will have things to worry about, whether it be a lion lurking in the shadows beyond the village or a supercilious supervisor looking over one’s shoulder at work. Because our species’ survival at one time depended upon constant vigilance for potential threats, we are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative aspects of our lives than we are the positive ones. But there is more to human life than mere survival. God has created us, not just to extend our biological functioning as long as possible, but to love and rejoice in God’s gift of life. In order to achieve this fuller, more human form of flourishing, we need a corrective to our worry-primed mental mechanisms. This corrective is gratitude.
Gratitude is a hot topic these days. Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg recently used a major grant from the Templeton Foundation to create 15 short films aimed at fostering gratitude, which he featured in a TEDx talk last year. Researchers are finding evidence of links between cultivation of gratitude and improved relationships, better sleep quality, feelings of wellbeing, and positive impact on a wide range of social problems like bullying and health care costs.
Of course, this recent research only reaffirms a truth that has long resided at the heart of Christianity. At the “source and summit” of the Christian life is the Eucharist (a Greek word for “thanksgiving”). Throughout his life Jesus constantly gave thanks and praise to God at meals, healings, and moments of difficulty, modeling the way gratitude keeps us focused on what matters most. As he neared the end of his life, he instructed his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist in memory of him. Of all the things Jesus could have commanded, he established this ritual of thanksgiving as the center of the life of discipleship. Clearly it must be important.
Here’s why: There is always something to worry about, and, if we move through life passively reacting to all the stresses that inevitably arise, we will become defined by our worry. Rather than the beautiful, joyous people we are meant to be, we will become hardened shells of ourselves. Yet it need not be this way, for God has shown us another way. We can choose to attend to the good things in our lives, which are many. We can choose to give thanks for what we have rather than worry about what we lack. All it takes is an effort to pay attention and to remember. By shifting our attention and immersing our minds in the good things in our lives rather than the bad, we can shift our perception of the world as a whole and direct the formation of our very character.
In the coming weeks I will offer a series of reflections that attempt to do just this. Each Monday I will reflect on one blessing that almost all of us share but too seldom appreciate. Blessings like a home, work, and family are easy to take for granted once we obtain them, especially when each day brings new worries to occupy our minds. However, when we make the effort to look at these blessings with fresh eyes, we can daily renew our gratitude for them. Jesus’ teaching and modern research suggest that, by thoughtfully attending to these gifts one of at a time, I will be able to gradually shift my attitude toward the world from one of worry to one of gratitude. I hope that in reading along with me you might discover the power of this transformative practice for yourself and perhaps even incorporate it into your daily routine.