What Good Is Gratitude When the World Is Tearing Apart?

gratitude, emergencies, crisis, desperation, depression, world events, murder, earthquake, flood

When destruction threatens our ability to hope, gratitude is a balm.

For millennia, the world has been torn apart and patched together again. A month ago, it felt like something tugged hard at the world and the stitches began to pop. One after another. After another …

The Week the Stitches Popped

On a Sunday night, I read about Kermit Gosnell, a licensed physician in Philadelphia who is on trial for delivering live babies and then cutting their spinal cords with scissors.

On Monday afternoon, the Boston Marathon was bombed. Three people died. Legs were amputated.

On Wednesday morning, I was brought to a standstill on the highway. A massive accident shut down all six lanes of the interstate in front of me. For hours.

That evening, a fertilizer plant in west Texas exploded. On an ordinary night, it just blew up. Fourteen people were killed. Two hundred were injured.

Around the same time, the rains in Chicago began in earnest. When the sun rose on Thursday morning, Chicagoland was submerged in a historic flood. Our basement and garage were no exception.

Late Thursday night, gunfire broke out on MIT’s campus. One bombing suspect was dead. Another was injured and on the run.

Friday. Chicago remained a town-under-water while from Watertown, Massachusetts, the television broadcast surreal scenes of door-to-door searches. The second suspect was caught around dinnertime and we went to bed with a sigh of relief.

But Saturday morning we awoke to news of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. Two hundred more people dead.

Just one week of a world tearing at its patched and mended seams. One stitch after another.

And those are just the stitches of which I’m aware. We all had stitches popping that week that will never make the CNN scroll.

What are we to do in the midst of such devastation and heartache? The psychologists and the theologians are both telling us we should be grateful.


What good is gratitude when the world is tearing apart?


Gratitude as a Balm?

For centuries, almost every faith tradition has emphasized the practice of gratitude. And around the turn of this century, in an ongoing effort to bolster human resilience, “positive psychologists” took notice of the ancient traditions and sought to harness the practice of gratitude for the benefit of psychological and emotional health.

In the last decade, psychological research has consistently shown individuals who experience higher levels of gratitude also report higher levels of “subjective well-being”—they are happier, less depressed, less stressed, and more satisfied with their life and relationships.

This is good news, and the news is getting out. Countless books have been written, scores of “gratitude apps” can be downloaded to phones and tablets, and everyone seems to be talking about how much better they feel since they started their gratitude journal.

But I think there is bad news lurking beneath all the enthusiasm, because I’m hearing questions like, “I want to feel good, so how do I practice gratitude?”

The bad news is we’re turning gratitude into a tool to get what we want—to feel good. It’s tempting to use gratitude like a metal detector to hone in on comfort and satisfaction—it’s tempting to make it about us.

And when we do so, we strip gratitude of its ultimate power.


Gratitude Like Knee High Boots in Slop

On a flooded Thursday, my wife and I were faced with saturated carpet and warped furniture. Our basement was flooded with water, but even worse, my heart was flooded with despair.

Too many stitches were popping and it felt like a free fall without a net.

Then, around mid-morning, a friend texted me and simply asked, “What time am I coming over to help?” By mid-afternoon, he was hoisting rolls of carpet padding over his shoulders as it rained down dirty rainwater upon him.

On a flooded Thursday, my friend gave me something far more powerful than manpower. He gave me gratitude.

And the power of gratitude is this: it is the way we look outward instead of inward. It is the act by which we remember the world and forget ourselves. It puts our ego to sleep and awakens our sense of connection to everything and everyone else.

On a flooded Thursday, I didn’t feel warm and fuzzy—my toes were ice cubes and my fingers were shriveled prunes.

But on a flooded Thursday, I realized gratitude is like a pair of knee-high rain boots for the heart—when we put it on, we can wade right into the flood waters of sorrow and devastation this life and this world rain down upon us.


Gratitude Doesn’t Just Enjoy, It Joins

The storms-of-life are coming, aren’t they?

Or for some of us, they’ve already arrived and the waters are rising.

I don’t have any magic solutions for drying up the mess. But I do think, when we give ourselves over to a life of gratitude, we will be prepared to wade into the pain and suffering of our lives.

Yet I don’t think a life of authentic gratitude ends in self-preservation. Because when gratitude takes ahold of us, we begin to forget about ourselves altogether, and we start to remember a world that is tearing apart and in need of re-stitching.

You see, to a grateful heart:

The laughter of children is pure joy, and also a reminder of powerless women being taken advantage of by a corrupt doctor in Philadelphia.

A pair of running shoes and an open road is ecstasy, and also a reminder of bombs on a Monday afternoon and legs that will never run again.

Safe travels are a relief, and also a reminder that not everyone made it safely on a Wednesday morning.

A green lawn tipped with dew is suburban satisfaction, and also a reminder of a Wednesday night in a fiery fertilizer plant.

A clear dawn and the rays of a warm summer sun are a caress, and a reminder of a quaking earth in China held by the same Big Light.

I think gratitude might be the place where pain and peace meet. Because when our gratitude propels us into a torn-suffering world, we will be immersed in something other than ourselves.

And that, I think, is the definition of peace.


Audio: To listen to an audio version of this post, click on this post title: What Good is Gratitude When the World is Tearing Apart [If you would like to save it to your device for later listening, right click the link and choose the option to save.]

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.


This was previously published on UnTangled.

Read more on Gratitude on The Good Life.

Image credit: Yashna M/Flickr

About Kelly Flanagan

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Wheaton, IL. He writes and blogs regularly about life, love, and community at his blog, UnTangled. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on FacebookTwitter, and Google+.


  1. Nothing Man says:

    Great post, Doc. Was not aware of “gratitude journals, or how to “practice gratitude.” In my line of work (firefighting), the times I thought I’d breathed my last breath sure made me grateful for all the minutes, hours and days that I’ve been given afterwards. Everything becomes brighter, sweeter, more beautiful (even a sh–hole tenement in the South Bronx) when you’re able to walk away alive when you didn’t think you would make it. I’d like to call it “greater spiritual acuity.”

    These experiences compound. You get up in the morning, reach to the heavens (even if it’s raining out) and say, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.” After a while, as the experiences add up, all the worldly things that seem so important are petty, silly, insignificant. You end up with a lot greater perspective on what is REALLY important in life. As one of the guys in my house likes to say, “every day above ground is a good day.” How could it not be?

    In my Christian tradition, the clergymen teach us that when you suffer a setback, you double count your blessings. That’s real gratitude, borne of its mother – humility. Thanks again for providing the proper perspective on gratitude.

    • First of all, thank you for your service and sacrifice! And second, you make an important point. In mindfulness and gratitude traditions there is a saying, “Remember, if you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.” It’s an acknowledgment of the preciousness of life itself, despite its circumstances. That becomes more vividly clear after near catastrophes like you describe, but the practice of gratitude is intended to help this reality take root in us at all times. Blessings to you on your journey toward that kind of awareness!

  2. OirishM says:

    I’m currently working through some issues and gratitude has definitely come up in the groups I’m attending.

    But I’m also aware that I have a problem with constantly comparing myself to others. I can’t seem to figure out how to do the former without falling into the pitfall of the latter.

    Erm…..yeah, “help”, I guess. 😉

    • Olrish, I trust the people who know you most intimately will be able to give you the most sound advice. What you say resonates with me, though. Whenever I try to base my gratitude on comparison, it’s transient, because before you know it, you end up on the wrong side of the comparison. It seems like gratitude must be rooted in something deeper than circumstance and comparison, but in a rich sense of appreciation of life in general, all the good and the bad, and the awareness that we’ve done nothing to earn any of it and the only thing we can do to ruin it is to not attend to it deeply.

      • OirishM says:

        Appreciate the reply, Kelly. I’m not against making these changes to my mental habits, I simply don’t know what to substitute them with. Not engaging in them feels like it leaves a vacuum in my mind. It’s just a bit of a weird feeling.

        Optimistic, though – early days for me in terms of dealing with these problems, and I trust I’ll be making progress on that front soon 🙂

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