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Good God Episode 56: Learning to be grateful with Diana Butler Bass

Are you ever guilty of feeling a sense of entitlement in your relationships and friendships? Did you know that the opposite of entitlement is gratitude, and that practicing gratefulness can pull us out of that scarcity/entitlement mindset? 

Diana Butler Bass is on Good God talking about her book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. She describes the spiritual practice of gratefulness and her own journey of discovering gratitude. 

Listen to the podcast and read the transcript below, or click here for the full video.

George: What's the antidote to living in a world of chronic complaint and crankiness and a feeling that things just aren't the way they ought to be? Diana Butler Bass has written a book on gratitude, called Grateful. That's the direction she points us. She'll be with us on Good God. Stay tuned.

George: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith and public life. I'm George Mason, your host, and I'm pleased to welcome to the program today Diana Butler Bass. Dr. Bass, thank you for being with us today.

Diana: It's great to be with you, George.

George: Thank you. Dr. Bass is the author of this new book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. She is a historian of American religion, really an expert on Christianity in America, and is somewhat on the tail end of a book tour, I would say, for this book, and she was here in Dallas, in fact, last night for a big public event sponsored by Faith Commons, our parent organization of Good God. Diana, this book is a little outside the realm of your usual lane, you might say. The way you go about writing books and thinking about your subject matter. How did this book come to pass for you?

Diana: I wanted to write about gratitude because it started about three years ago with some personal questions about how I was in my late 50s, I didn't feel as grateful as what I probably thought I should be, and a couple friends of mine had passed away, much older mentors, and they were very grateful people, and I sort of looked at this shortfall in my own life, and I began to have a desire personally to want to explore this particular spiritual practice, which I thought I was lacking.

George: It's interesting that you say, "I felt like I ought to be more grateful." When you hear 'ought's' and 'should's' and imperatives and those sorts of things, we don't think about gratitude in that way. We think about it as emotions that are either there or not there, and we simply accept that they are or aren't, and one is grateful and one isn't, it's just a matter of circumstances of life. But that's not really what you say in this book. You talk in this book about how gratitude can be a learned emotion, a practice that transforms us and changes us. So was that a new insight to you when you began to work on this book?

Diana: It really was. There were so many surprises in this project along the way, and the first thing that I ran into was the fact that I didn't understand what gratitude is. When you talk about how the language of 'should' and 'ought' and 'requirement' isn't the way we usually think about gratitude, it is actually a way we often think about gratitude, in a negative sense.

George: Ah, right. Okay.

Diana: And I think a lot of us don't want to admit that we have a language or guilt about gratitude. So I had that, I had that, "Why can't I be more this way? I should be." Or, "My mom would be so disappointed." So there was all of that in my understanding of gratitude, and then there was the other stuff as well, the gratitude as an unexpected emotion, it sort of just shows up when a person gives you a gift, and in those ways, I'd experienced gratitude, and I knew that that was good, but it was not something you can necessarily plan for. It was random and contingent on what other people did for me. So in both of those cases, either obligation or just an emotion that shows up when something happens in your life, I had really never thought about it as something that one could explore deeply and work on and become a more grateful person.

George: So I really wish this was a part of your book I didn't have to grapple with because I think ... First of all, you're talking about how you realized that you wanted to be a more grateful person. I mostly want other people to be more grateful to me, and actually the more I've had to wrestle with what you've said this week in the places we've been and reading the book, the more I realize how caught up I still am in this pyramid, so to speak, this hierarchy of duty and obligation, where I feel like if I give something to someone and I serve, whether it's a congregation or my family or whatever the case may be, I'd like to see a little sign of gratitude from time to time. I'd like to see them recognize it and just acknowledge what I've done and all of that sort of thing. And that really changes the calculus, doesn't it? When you're operating like that, you're not really giving a gift, you're giving a debt. And that's also something that really challenged me and I think was an insight that came to you in writing this book.

Diana: Yeah. I had a similar professional experience, and it was probably early on in the project that I realized as a writer, I didn't feel like people had appreciated my work enough. And for writers, that shows up in things like book sales, or did you get a review in the New York Times? So it's different depending upon what profession you're in, but I think a lot of people who are successful in the world and who do these kinds of jobs where we feel like we're pouring out our hearts and we're really working towards doing good in the world, and that's what I feel like as a writer.

George: Yes.

Diana: My work as a writer is to inspire people to live better lives. So it's not that different than a pastor.

George: Well, and as a pastor, let me just jump on the bandwagon with you. I do, with our young ministers, our pastoral residents, I say to them what I've never fully been able to embrace and learn myself, but what I know intellectually is true, and that is, you think that over a course of a lifetime of being there when people are sick, and holding their hand when people die, and doing funerals, and being at the big moments of people's lives, you suspect in the back of your mind that you're banking these things, that you're creating emotional bonus points in your relationships with people and the congregations, and then you find that you come up against a church disagreement, and they leave the church, and you think, "What about our relationship?" Or, "What about all these things we shared?"

George: And you realize, "Oh my goodness, maybe I should have just thought of those as a gift and not as a debt that I was accumulating that they needed to pay back." Because it's too painful to operate that way. But I think that if we could change that paradigm, if we could begin to think differently about it, more biblically, more spiritually in a healthy way, it might change the way all of our relationships operate.

Diana: Yeah. And what you're talking about there is the idea of entitlement. And we don't like to think about ourselves as people who feel like we're entitled to something-

George: Yes.

Diana: But folks who do good work in the social arena, entitlement is what I would call kind of slippery, and we don't really want to admit it.

George: Right.

Diana: But it is still there, and I can tell you that I've felt that way too. When I have a new book or something come out, and people say, "Oh, well, I'm just not really into that topic." And it's like, "Oh, wait a second. You've read all my other books. Why all of a sudden ... I didn't meet your expectations? This is the book I wanted to write, and you need to like it."

George: You need to like it because of our relationship.

Diana: Right.

George: Because I depend upon you to be my loyal follower. Yeah, right. There's that entitlement.

Diana: And I had always thought I had this great relationship with my readers because I'm very personable, very authentic, I'm very approachable as a writer, so then all of a sudden, and it's the same way you described someone maybe leaving a church. It's like, "Oh, well I've read enough of your books, so I'm going to go read somebody else's." And then all of a sudden you're standing there and you're going, "Well, wait a second. I deserve this."

George: Right.

Diana: And that is not what gratitude is all about. Entitlement is actually the opposite of gratitude.

George: You know, I've known you long enough, not as well as many people, but we've been in places together and been through circumstances of life where I've known and heard your disappointments and read them, and the struggles that you've had at times, and I want to say to you that my experience with you this week tells me that you're right about this. That this has affected your life positively. That your way of looking at life, your understanding of yourself and your vocation has been changed by the practice of gratitude, and it's actually a beautiful thing.

Diana: Oh, well I'm glad to hear that because I don't want to be too coy with people who are listening in, but a few years ago, we were in a circumstance professionally together, which you were in a position of responsibility and decisions that your colleagues made had a big impact on my husband's life-

George: Exactly. Who was my editor, by the way.

Diana: Yeah.

George: For the book I wrote.

Diana: And that his job went away.

George: Yes.

Diana: As a result of this decision.

George: As the organization did.

Diana: Yeah, it wasn't that he was fired, the whole organization was folded in, so his job went away. And we had quite some conversations around that time, and that was one of the personal things that was in the background of this. Being in my late 50s, my husband being in his late 50s, and running into really some walls of what felt like failure, enclosure at a really hard time of life when things aren't necessarily opening up, but people are approaching retirement. And for us, it was like, what is the way through this?

George: Exactly.

Diana: And there were long, painful conversations, but then we both really moved in this direction where we needed to take stock and figure out what gifts we had and what gifts we had been given in the midst of very difficult circumstances. And that was, I think, really part of the pathway into this project, and I really have learned in the last couple years how dangerous the demand for gratitude or the demand of entitlement, "Give me these gifts, or else I'm going to be angry at you." That that is not a way that you can live with any kind of happiness, peace, or joy. That is a pathway of emotional and spiritual destruction. So in my family, we literally had to walk away from that path and say, "What kind of people do we want to be now?"

George: That's beautiful.

Diana: And we all learned. I learned, my husband learned, we introduced our two children into gratitude practices, and I can't say that we're perfect or that everything is wonderful. It's not like a prosperity gospel where all of a sudden, if you practice gratitude, all your problems go away, but what it did is it gave us a new framework of discussion about our family's challenges, what the good things were that our family experienced, and how to be related to one another during difficult times. So it made things different, and that has been something I tried to communicate in this book.

George: Well, I think you did communicate it, and when we come back from the break in just a moment, I want to talk about practices of gratitude that you outline here and you refer to, and how it's not just about flipping a switch, it's more like turning a dimmer switch, you might say. That is to say it takes time and work to get there, but sometimes in our protestant tradition of Christianity, I think we like to think that everything is a conversion point that happens quickly, especially in Evangelical Protestantism, right? We're going to make a decision and everything's going to change because we're going to be born again, transformed in an instant by the power of the Spirit. But we, I think, are all learning that the Spirit tends to work in slow, steady ways to change us, and that involves some of our participation too. So when we come back, let's talk about practices in gratitude.

Diana: Great.

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George: We're back with Diana Butler Bass, author of Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. And Diana, before the break, we were talking about practices of gratitude and how they change us. You started keeping a gratitude journal. Talk about what that means and how you might recommend it to people and why that's important.

Diana: Yeah, I actually started keeping a gratitude journal a long time ago. It was before I ever imagined I was going to be writing a book about gratitude. And that was a case where, in my very first ever job out of graduate school, I was working at a college in California, and it was a terrible experience. I really didn't fit in the overall ethos of the college, so they didn't give me tenure, and that's a really nice way of saying I got fired from my first job. So I remember this day that the college president called me into his office, and he said to me, "Well, we've worked through all of this and you're a great teacher and we wish you well, but you just don't fit here, so we're going to have to let you go." And I remember going, "Oh my gosh. What am I going to do?" And as I was in that internal place, he said, "I know you're very disappointed, but one day you're going to thank me for this."

George: And how patronizing does that sound, right?

Diana: Oh, it was the worst.

George: Yeah. It's the epitome of privilege and patriarchy and all sorts of things, but yeah.

Diana: And here I am just a little bit more than 25 years later, and I still remember that moment.

George: Right.

Diana: And I feel really bad now. The president who said that has since passed away, and what's interesting is I understand what he was trying to do now, but it still didn't take away the sting at the time. So I talked to a friend of mine who was also a family therapist or some such thing, and he was a person as well who was in a recovery movement, and I was just telling him, "This is awful. How could he say this to me?"

Diana: So my friend said, "Well, you know, he's probably right. One day you will look back on this and it will be a time of real change and you probably will say thank you." And I said, "Well, I don't get that at all." So then my friend said, "You know what you should probably try to do? If you can, keep a journal of these days, and in that journal," he didn't call it a gratitude journal, but he suggested that I write down one thing every day that I felt grateful for. And I think he was encouraging me to begin to chart a cumulative picture of gratitude, of what good things were even in this very difficult time. So I began doing that, and I kept that journal for a little bit more than three years, and that journal became an absolute lifeline for me. And I look back on those pages now, it's one of the few written things that I have that I've saved, and any time there's been fear of a fire in my house or something, I grab those journals. That's how much they mean to me.

George: You also have a little stone that you use to help you, both when you travel and even when you're at home, and we had a little children's moment at church on Sunday where you showed that to the children. Talk about that stone a little bit.

Diana: Yeah. Before I say this about the stone directly, one of the things I have learned about gratitude is that these kinds of practices, journal keeping, counting your blessings before you go to bed, different kinds of prayers of gratitude, there's lots of different kinds of habits you can develop around the practice of gratitude, and different ones have worked for me at different times. The journal worked really well 25 years ago. Other things have worked in the intermediate time. My husband and I, one Lent, read all poetry over every dinner, we would pick a poem about gratitude. So for the whole Lent season, that was our journey together.

George: Wow. Nice.

Diana: Yeah, it was. It was quite beautiful. So I've done things like that. You asked about the stone. This started after the book was published.

George: Okay.

Diana: And I was trying to think, "What would be portable?" And something that would remind me always to have a gratitude practice no matter where I was? So I bought a little stone, it's a little river stone. It's very soft and smooth, fits in the palm of my hand, and on the stone is inscribed the word 'gratitude'. And what that stone has become for me, it's a physical token to remember to say thanks. So every single night, I put it on my bedside table and gratitude is the last word I see before I go to bed, and it's the first word I see when I wake up.

George: Beautiful.

Diana: Yeah.

George: Beautiful. So when you begin to conceive of the world like this, you shift from understanding the world as a place of scarcity to one of abundance, don't you? You begin to realize, to use Marilynne Robinson's lovely phrase, 'the givenness of things', right, that there's so much that is a gift for us before we can even receive it. So as you like to say, receiving is the first act for us because something has been given to us. But this is not only personal is it? You move in this book from the first section of the book, the first half, which really talks about me, to the second half, which is we. That is there's a social dimension to this, and we should even say a political dimension, a public dimension of this. How did that insight change you as you wrote this? Because most books on gratitude are going to stop with the me. They may involve the practices of gratitude and all that, but it's all about me, me, me. This is a different take on this. How did you get there?

Diana: The shift in my understanding, I think it had been going on for me for a little bit of time. The book that I wrote before this one was called Grounded, and the question in that book was where do we find God in our lives now? And in Grounded, I wrote about discovering and encountering God, the sacred, in nature and through neighbor. So really, in a very real sense, Grounded was a book about abundance, and it was a book about gifts, but I wasn't thinking about it in that language. I was writing an almost memoir type book about an important theological question, "Where is God?" So that was already in my experience, but then when the gratitude train came into play, you know, if you see the word gratitude every night and every morning, and I'm moving away from entitlement. Entitlement is based on the idea of scarcity.

George: Yes.

Diana: That there's only few resources, few opportunities, few things that are going to come your way, and you have to get what you can while you can. And because you're well-educated or because you have a particular kind of life experience, whatever it is, you deserve those things. So entitlement and scarcity are of a piece. And then you start moving towards gratitude, away from entitlement, and it opens up the possibility that scarcity is not the main story of the universe.

George: Well, it's certainly not the story of the Bible, is it?

Diana: No, it isn't.

George: I mean, our biblical religion is, in effect, a kind of protest to that whole view of life, isn't it?

Diana: Yeah. And that's when the real transformative intellectual spiritual theological moment happened for me.

George: Yeah. Right.

Diana: It's not exactly an evangelical aha moment because I have certainly been pushing that direction theologically for a long time, but as soon as I realized that, all of a sudden, my whole imagination, my whole theological imagination went back to the book of Genesis, which is a narrative of abundance. And I frequently said, when people say, "What book would you take with you if you were stuck on a desert island?" And everybody says the Bible, and that's too trite, but I always tell people, "I would take the first three chapters of the book of Genesis."

George: Wow. Okay. Good.

Diana: And I think that everything you need to know about God, life, and purpose is all in those first three chapters, so that's where I went, and those were about abundance, and it was like, "Oh, my."

George: And even if you move into Exodus, you have the mana in the wilderness, right? So here you have the children of Israel who are struggling, saying, "At least we had a mess of pottage back in Egypt. What are we going to eat out here?" And every day, they receive, mysteriously and graciously, the manna for the day and quail and the like, which is, I think, much more than just give us this day our daily bread, it's also a signal to how we're supposed to look at the world God made.

Diana: Right. And the question that emerges from that trip through the wilderness for the children of Israel is, "Can God really take care of us?" And there's one moment in the Hebrew scriptures, where they literally look at God and shout out, "Can you set a table in the wilderness?"

George: Yes. Right.

Diana: And that moment to me encapsulates, I think, one of the main narrative threads of the Hebrew scriptures, and that is this doubt about God's abundance, God's provision. So there's a spite in the soul of Israel between the deep commitment, belief, conviction that the universe is full of God's abundance and their own fear of scarcity and entitlement. So that plays itself out throughout the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, and that question, "Can you set a table in the wilderness?" The answer comes over and over again in those scriptures. Yes. God says yes over and over again, so when, as a Christian, you say way into the New Testament, that's still a question.

Diana: That's still a question on Israel's mind, so Jesus, as prophet and rabbi in Israel, first and foremost, as a teacher among Israel, he's constantly dealing with that question. And so many of the parables, the prayer, The Lord's Prayer, and they all are pointing in the same way. God is setting a table. And in the case of the New Testament, what's so stunningly beautiful about that is the table expands so widely. Is that Jesus says, not only is this a table for Israel in the wilderness, but this is a table ... and that's in the Hebrew scriptures, eventually that whole table moves towards the world, but Jesus really pushes it there very fast.

George: Right. And the whole of the book of Luke and then Acts, the follow up, is breaking one barrier after another, crossing one boundary after another, inviting more and more people to the table-

Diana: Correct.

George: And it's a destabilizing place for religion that is organized around stability because now it keeps pushing you to say, "Wait a minute. You're neighbor too. Wait a minute, you're neighbor too." And I think this is where we're headed, and we have another episode, we're going to talk about the politics of gratitude a little more in our next conversation, but I think this is where we're headed, is to say, if we believe that God can take care of us and can set a table in the wilderness for us, the question of politics then really becomes, are we going to take care of each other? Based upon that reality that God's intent is to take care of us, are we going to get in the way of that with our neighbor, where we're going to take more for ourselves and deprive others? Or are we going to keep growing that table?

Diana: Yeah, and that's a huge question because so many of our institutions, both religious and secular, are based around the ideas of scarcity. And scarcity is a mechanism of control, and abundance, as you said, it's destabilizing, it's destabilizing because it's really ... you can't control it.

George: Right.

Diana: And that's actually the joy of it. It is there for everyone. And all of a sudden, institutions go, "How can that possibly be?"

George: Right. Because we need to be able to measure our market share as a way of determining whether we're successful or not instead of thinking about participating in the mission of God in the world and celebrating the fact that we all get to share in it together. Diana, this is so interesting and provocative. We have lots more to talk about in another episode. Thank you for joining me on Good God.

Diana: You're welcome.

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