Mental health professionals have made it clear over decades of research that “an attitude of gratitude” is top of the list for good mental health. This is puzzling in a world that seems to encourage us to wallow in our victimhood and glorifies the offended. No one alive has not suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We have all encountered hardships of one kind or another, either through physical abuse, verbal abuse, illness, injustice, harsh treatment and sometimes outright cruelty.
When I was a child and first began to learn about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, known commonly as Nazis, I was horrified, but all that evil seemed so far away and so long ago. Then, as a high school student, and later a college student, I learned more details through History classes, and finally having two decades to my own history, I realized again with horror that these atrocities had occurred within two decades of my own birth. It took my breath away to learn what had been happening in Europe just a few years before I was born, in modern times, and with air travel available, not really that far away. It made me take a rather dark view of humanity that people could treat other people so cruelly, and also that many people who knew what was going on could just turn a blind eye. Even when I learned about people who had protested, who had spoken up against the Socialist government, who had preached against Nazism, who had countered the Fascists, I only internalized more sadness and despair that they, too, had been tortured, murdered, their voices silenced and the lights of their lives snuffed out prematurely and coldly. How could we humans smile in each other’s face knowing the darkness and cruelty within the human heart?
And then I read Corrie Ten Boom’s, The Hiding Place. Through Ms. Ten Boom’s voice I experienced a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp. She too, after being captured and imprisoned, was at the point of despair and becoming cynical and bitter, when her sister Betsie pointed out that if she could find reasons to be grateful, she could survive and truly live, perhaps experience joy, even in the camp. Although Corrie was outraged at the suggestion, as she listened to her sister’s prayer that night she heard Betsie give thanks for the fleas. This was too much! Corrie angrily interrupted, “How can you be thankful for fleas, this pestilence, this infestation?! We are cold. We are hungry. We have lost our home and our family and are plagued with these biting beasts that draw our blood and take away even peaceful slumber!” Betsie gently pointed out that because the fleas were so bad in the bunks of their shed, the soldiers would rarely come in, and so the girls and women were pretty much left alone. Betsie again bowed her head and continued her prayers, but Corrie, in awe of her older sister’s humility and wisdom, determined that following this lesson she would likewise look with gratitude, for light, for joy, for hope, and therefore bring internal peace to the external violence and hatred all around her.
I have heard it said that what you look for you will find. That doesn’t mean we blithely turn away when we see wrongdoing, cruelty and injustice, pretending we don’t see it because we weren’t looking for it. All these things must be spoken against and we should take action on behalf of those who are incapable of acting and speaking for themselves. Our membership in the human race demands it. In the brief time we are here, however, let’s agree, like sisters Corrie and Betsie, to look for reasons to be grateful, no matter our situation. Let’s shed tears when we must, and share joy when we can. Let’s extend peace when possible, and always, always, bring light to darkness.