I’m going to put a whole lot of honesty on the table: I find the age we live in very disturbing.
Perhaps you share my concern or, worse yet, have been the object of concern from the likes of me.
The truth is, my peace has been disturbed.
As an African-American man, fighting for dignity has been a daily chore made that much more difficult because the current moment in history is marked by polarization, ad hominem attacks, soaring racism and sexism, and marginalization the likes of which seem to belong to another age.
My hope has been disturbed.
The media, both traditional and social, as purveyors of news in the information age have not given us hope but rather a daily concoction of fear, anxiety, even dystopia as “the new normal.”
My sense of justice has been disturbed.
This cumulative disturbance raises troubling questions.
How can anyone who lives in constant fear of being deported have gratitude?
How do the hungry, whose numbers I fear may swell if greed remains the order of the day, know that God is good?
Why should a person who fears having their healthcare dismantled give thanks to God when all they want to do is live?
How does a woman who experiences sexism get past that to find some reason for gratefulness?
How in our society does an LGBTQ person—especially one of color—live without fear, let alone in a spirit of gratitude for the challenges of their life?
My sense of right and wrong has been disturbed.
Not long ago a woman came to my office looking for financial aid for her daughter. A European-American woman, age 73, she told me that she works full time to provide for an 18 year-old grandson and a 33 year-old daughter who has a rare disease.
“Father,” she said to me. “I work a 60-hour-a-week job so that I and my children can have a roof over our heads and a little food on our table.” She paused, and then continued.
“The medication my daughter takes is too expensive for me to purchase anywhere on the legal market.”
“What do you do to get your daughter’s medicine?” I asked.
“I drive into worse parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and buy her medicine on the streets,” she confessed.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked.
“You bet your ass it is!”
This story undergirds the reason why I am disturbed: The money I gave her, while reason enough for some to give gratitude, won’t save that woman and her family in the long run.
How many of us have to be left behind before something changes?
Rather than casting another millstone of anger and despair and flinging it to drown in the sea of dystopia, I instead turn to God for help, hope, and perception. Those three things place me in the right frame of mind for the daily practice of gratitude.
Turning to God for help matters because on my own, the needs and the concerns of the world are just too much to absorb. The psalmist’s praise escapes my lips knowing that I am not the messiah. “My sacrifice O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.”
Turning to God for hope matters because God’s hope is a reality that proceeds forward in spite of the current outlook. Junto Diaz in an article not long after the election whose one-year anniversary we marked this week makes my point clear:
“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. “What makes this hope radical,” Lear writes, “is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as “imaginative excellence.” Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.”
Finally, turning to God for perception matters because none of us can perceive the full impact of our actions. Jesus tells us in the parables of how small, ordinary things have transformative power. If God can make great use of seeds, water, wheat, and wine, why not with me? Why not the world?
These three practices are generative of gratitude and foundational in difficult times.
Darkness does not have the last word.