It's ok to not feel grateful while going through something really hard. That can come later, after our trials transform us.
This article was given as a talk in a Latter-day Saint Sacrament meeting on April 30, 2023.
When I began thinking about gratitude over the last few weeks, one of the first things that came to my mind was that it’s easy to treat this subject a little too lightly. It’s easy to extol the virtues of gratitude — which are many — or give a reminder that we should all be more grateful — which is probably true — while ignoring the fact that we live in a world which, for many people, can seem at times to give very little reason to be grateful.
Gratitude, when faced with real life, often does not come easy. It doesn’t come easy for those who are faced with severe illness, with financial turmoil, or the death of a loved one, or with sexual assault or abuse or mental illness or betrayal. It doesn’t come easy for those who remain single when marriage is desired or childless when children are desired. It doesn’t come easy when you feel like in a family, or at Church, or at work, you just don’t fit in.
So I want to treat this subject with the gravity that it deserves. And I want to say that I think it’s ok if you’re listening to this right now and you’re not feeling particularly grateful, or, even if you’re not feeling grateful at all. I think it’s ok, at times, to cry out, as Jesus did, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It seems safe to me to say that, at least, in that moment, the primary emotion being expressed by Jesus, in that sincere prayer, wasn’t gratitude. That doesn’t seem to have been the moment for it. In another prayer, at another time, just before raising Lazarus from the dead, he simply said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.”
It seems that even the great Healer, in his sinlessness, moved between moments of feeling grateful and abundant, and other moments of feeling abandoned and alone.
Like with Jesus, it seems that gratitude, for many of us, may be somewhat episodic, and that may simply be a condition of this life and its ups and downs. At times, it may seem clear to us that God has indeed heard us. At others, we may feel completely forsaken. Both, I think, are necessary, and both, I believe, serve our Heavenly Parents in their great project of making us like them.
When I was on my mission in Montevideo, Uruguay, I suffered from severe obsessive compulsive disorder. I didn’t have a name for what I was feeling, as it manifested itself very differently than the way OCD is typically shown in the media. My battles were not primarily with a need to keep my room tidy or with compulsive hand-washing, but rather primarily with intrusive thoughts and a need to keep rules and commandments absolutely perfectly or suffer dire spiritual consequences — a form of OCD known as scrupulosity. This was accompanied by a deep sense of guilt and shame when I inevitably came face-to-face with my own imperfection. It can be hard to really convey how this feels, but for me, my shame was so intense that I began to believe that the world would be better off without me. I began to see my purpose as a missionary as offering the blessings of the Gospel to others, while those same blessings would be forever beyond my reach.
From the outside, it seemed to many that I was an ideal missionary. On the inside, I was in absolute turmoil. Coupled, in the early months, with intense homesickness and a trainer who didn’t speak any English, there has never been a time before or since when I felt so abandoned or alone.
Only years after I completed my mission did I learn that what I experienced had a name — that it had been studied, and was simultaneously being experienced by millions of other people around the world. In fact, statistics would indicate that there are almost certainly multiple missionaries in every mission in the Church that suffer from clinically diagnosable OCD.
Eventually, I was able to undergo diagnosis and treatment, which significantly alleviated my symptoms and pain. That relief was palpable. It meant the world to me and truly changed my life. Much later, I began to feel comfortable telling people about my experience — something that I had previously hidden and repressed. What I found was that in sharing my experience, something beautiful happened. Not only did the shame I felt about it seem to dissipate, but I was able to connect with many others who had had similar experiences, and in some cases, who didn’t know, like I hadn’t, what they suffered from. In a few remarkable cases, I’ve interacted with people who have been able to undergo treatment and radically change their own quality of life, something that has brought me real joy.
And so I wonder if gratitude can be seen as a waypoint on a broader journey of transformation that goes beyond just ourselves. Just as Jesus cried out in the depth of his forsakenness on the cross, followed by his death and a glorious resurrection which would eventually inspire billions of people around the world to model their lives after him, maybe over time, our own feelings of abandonment can be transformed not just into relief but into gratitude — and when they are, they can be alchemized further to benefit our families, communities, and the world.
Last year, we were lucky enough to visit a place that was very special to me and my family, a chapel called Gadfield Elm in the Cotswolds, England. It sits serenely among stunningly green, rolling hills, about 100 miles west of London. The Gadfield Elm chapel was constructed in 1836 by a group of breakaway Methodists called the United Brethren. My fourth-great grandfather, Thomas Oakey, was a preacher there, and when we visited, we were actually able to see his name on a preaching schedule that had been preserved.
When Wilford Woodruff arrived in the Cotswolds as a missionary in 1840, he successfully converted all of the the United Brethren but one to the Church, approximately 600 people, which included Thomas Oakey and his wife Ann.
Though they were very poor and unable to emigrate immediately, they finally made the journey across the Atlantic in 1856, eventually becoming part of the Willie Handcart Company. However, before they departed for the final journey across the plains, Thomas and Ann’s 12-year-old son Joseph disappeared in Nebraska. One account tells it like this:
“When the family reached the last outfitting camp at Florence, Nebraska Territory, the company met to discuss the advisability of continuing that season. The overwhelming majority voted to go on. But even before reaching Florence, Joseph Oakey had no desire to continue. One day during the noon meal, Joseph turned to one of the younger children, handed his plate to him and left the camp. His parents were frantic when he did not return in the evening. They searched through the handcart train, along the trail, and visited the houses and farms in the area, but were unable to find Joseph and had no choice but to continue on. Thomas felt confident that his son would find work and come to the Salt Lake Valley the next Spring. Ann was given a blessing in which she was promised she would one day see her son again.”
The Oakeys continued on without Joseph and, like the rest of the Willie handcart company, suffered terribly as winter came on. Their 11-year-old daughter, Rhoda, died one night before the company finally reached the Salt Lake Valley on November 9, 1856.
To add to the tragedy, there was no sign of Joseph the next spring, or in the following years. Another one of their daughters would become estranged due to a disagreement about her polygamous marriage, and die in childbirth within a few years of their arrival. I know I’m fully inadequate to imagine what Thomas and Ann felt, having lost two children on the journey, and another soon after, but I have to imagine that those types of prayers: “Why hast thou forsaken me,” or “O God.. where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” were more common at many times in their lives than “I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” It must have often seemed that their prayers were far from being heard.
But eventually, a miracle would take place. In the early 1870’s, Apostle Charles C. Rich was heading east on business. Thomas and Ann took the opportunity to ask him if he’d advertise in newspapers in Nebraska in an attempt to locate their son, Joseph. He did so, and Joseph somehow saw the advertisements and was discovered living in Kansas. He was now married with children, and in 1876, brought his own family to meet his parents and siblings that he had not seen for 20 years.
He told his family that he had left, and hidden, because he was tired, discouraged, and hungry. Another family had raised him as their son. He’d fought on the Union side in the Civil War, and on one occasion, had been sent into battle with 983 men and been among only 33 who survived.
I can only imagine what this reunion was like, the gratitude that was felt, and how it must have seemed to Thomas and Ann that they were experiencing the resurrection of their son in real-time.
Needless to say, the Oakeys have ended up being a source of great inspiration to me and to our family. (In fact, last year on Trek, Ezra walked for Thomas’s son Heber Oakey, who was 14 when they crossed the plains). Their faithfulness and sacrifice have led us, in several direct ways, to live what is really an incredibly blessed and privileged life. What I interpret as very dark moments in their lives — ones that surely reached into absolute despair — have been alchemized in the subsequent generations into an immense amount of gratitude for them, and, perhaps even more importantly, into a life which many of my generation can spend, if we choose, working to serve and bless others.
And so to sort of end where I began. I’d hope that none of us are beating ourselves up for feeling something less than grateful. Life does not always lend itself to gratitude — and it seems that’s not only natural, but necessary, and, as we look at the scriptures, even Christlike.
We might be well-served to think of gratitude less as a “right now” type of commandment and more as part of the ebb and flow of life, something that tells us we’re on the right track, but we don’t always have to be on that part of it. My hope is that in our families, communities, and at Church, we can strive toward gratitude while giving space for those feelings of abandonment, betrayal, sadness, and despair. Those moments, in real ways, can allow us to connect with others in previously impossible ways and eventually — sometimes even over the course of years, decades, or generations — make way for gratitude, and later still, into a greater capacity for compassion and love.
In that sense, gratitude, I think, for all those attempting to follow Christ, becomes not the destination but an important stopping point on the journey from what appears to be nothing more than the suffering of the cross into the glory of the resurrection and the blessings that follow.
Thanks so much for reading,
I’m an entrepreneur currently exploring the worlds of faith, technology, and philosophy. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2008 and Harvard Business School in 2015.
I co-host the Faith Matters podcast and write a newsletter here on timchaves.com.
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