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Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

Thursday May 31 2018

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

We often conflate thankfulness and optimism, but they are not the same thing. Christians who want to enjoy God’s economy of abundance will find it helpful to tease out the differences.

I recently wrote a book on pastoral care which will be released in August by Fortress Press. One of the chapters focuses on stress, because caregivers in any context need to know how to deal with their own stress, and they also need to help care recipients cope with stress better. Research shows that optimism helps people survive stress better, because how we think about the things that are happening to us makes a difference. One of the people I interviewed talked about the difference between optimism and thankfulness for people under stress.

Optimism can be defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” Hope is a major theme in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul uses the name “God of hope” in Romans 15:13, and in 1 Corinthians 13:13, he lumps faith, hope and love together as things that endure.

So if optimism is composed of hope and confidence, why would we not want to embrace it all the time? The woman I interviewed for my book, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said that optimism can be overemphasized. When we focus on optimism too much, she said, we can slide into denial, which is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. She said thankfulness can bring about the same good results as optimism in many difficult situations, but without any denial.

Here’s how it works. Thankfulness is a choice to focus our eyes on good gifts. Those gifts might come from the people around us – a stimulating conversation, an act of kindness, direct help that meets a need, an encouraging word, a doctor or other professional who gives help we need, or many other specific gifts, big or small, from people in our lives.

Thankfulness also enables us to see God’s good gifts that come directly to us – an answer to a prayer, a situation that works out well despite the odds, inner strength to do something difficult, or peace that passes all understanding. Thankfulness also helps us notice the good gifts in the physical world God created – a delicious meal, the clear eyes of a child, colorful fall leaves and beautiful spring flowers, a vivid sunset, dramatic mountains, and towering clouds.

The kind of thankfulness I’ve mentioned creates a foundation for hope. We are hopeful and confident about the future because of God’s faithfulness that we observe in the present. We trust in God’s promises because, by being thankful, we have taught ourselves to see the fruit of his promises already.

When we focus on the good gifts that are present in our lives, we do not deny the reality of pain, stress and challenges. Thankfulness involves turning our eyes to see good things even in the midst of those difficulties, and we take a moment to thank the giver of the gift.

 Thankfulness nurtures relationship. David Steindl-Rast, in his beautiful book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, writes, “When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. . . . The one who says ‘thank you’ to another really says, ‘We belong together.’ Giver and thanksgiver belong together.” [1]

Steindl-Rast wonders if our society suffers so much from alienation because we are reluctant to offer thanks. I agree with him. It seems clear that our friendships and family relationships suffer when we feel uneasy acknowledging bonds with other people, when we hold back from expressing gratitude.

 Steindl-Rast points out that everything is a gift, yet we find it hard to acknowledge gifts because we don’t like to admit our dependence. Thankfulness involves acknowledging that we belong with others and with God, and that we depend on the people around us and on God. We are not alone. We are not self-sufficient. We cannot navigate life on our own. 

 In contrast, when we feel pressure to be optimistic, we often feel we have to generate positivity within ourselves. Optimism can be quite individualistic, while thankfulness nurtures community. 

Sometimes, focusing on optimism is exactly the right thing to do, but we have to be careful not to take it so far that there’s no room for our own – or others’ – sorrow, pain or tears. Thankfulness leaves more room for sadness and tears because we can be thankful for God’s work in a situation while grieving that the situation is happening. 

I invite you to ponder the role of thankfulness and optimism in your own life. Think of the models you’ve seen for both thankfulness and optimism. 

(Next  week: the guest-host shift. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Past posts about thankfulness:

Growing in thankfulness         
A thankfulness challenge         
Another thankfulness challenge         
Five quotations about thankfulness         
Thomas Merton on our transparent world         
Thankfulness and sentness                    

[1] David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-17. 



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