Category Archives: Gratitude

A Shout-Out to Catholic Charities

Although I’m familiar with only one Catholic Charities, East Bay in Oakland, CA (CCEB), I’m guessing that their work is typical of many organizations, so this praise goes to all 139 offices nationally. In a dark time, when immigrants are terrorized, the poor are pushed even further into the margins, and the vulnerable are demonized, they offer hope in crisis, and shine like bright lights.

The price of housing in CA is so astronomical that even people with healthy salaries have a hard time buying or renting a home. Teachers can’t afford to live in the districts where they work, and those on minimum wage can’t begin to compete. Last year, CCEB received over 8,000 requests for housing assistance, and could help with less than 1% of those.

But they don’t get discouraged. They press on, and with generous supporters, branch into other areas too, like welcoming immigrant families and helping them with jobs, housing, schools and cultural adaptation. One of their films shows a Burmese family who’d spent years in refugee camps arriving at the airport, where parishioners, translators and a pastor waved flags in welcome. Those of us without refugee experience can only imagine what that sight must’ve meant—and it was just the beginning of ongoing care to ease difficult transitions.

I’ve written before about Claire’s House, one of the first shelters for young girls rescued from trafficking. CCEB has carefully pioneered in this complex arena, hopefully paving the way for other homes of refuge. A tangle of licensing and other state requirements has slowed the process, but the staff’s perseverance will make sure it won’t close, and can continue to offer healing to those who need it most.

Here’s where you come in. Studies from The Greater Good Science Center have found that giving to others makes us happier than spending time and money on ourselves. So if you know someone at your local Catholic Charities or similar organization, send their staff this column—with a bouquet, chocolate and a big donation. If you don’t know anyone, do the same—surreptitiously posting your praise in a break room or on a website. Even saintly humans need reinforcement and thanks. The research mentioned above proves that giving it increases oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) in the bloodstream of the giver. Maybe we can’t all be on the front line. But we can support those who are. Let’s launch a campaign: Three Hundred Cheers for Catholic Charities!

Oscar/Olympic Heresy?

I know: saying this, I’ll be pummeled with little gold statues, medals and ice skates. But at what point will humanity outgrow competition? When will we say, “Here’s what the Canadians did beautifully. These were the Russian strengths. And the U.S. excelled at this.”

It’s not quite the same as giving every kid who plays soccer a trophy—though I wouldn’t mind that either. By the time athletes, actors and actresses have reached the point of competing in the Olympics or being nominated for an Academy Award, they’re at the top of their fields. They’re all spectacular. Trying to compare Amy Adams and Judi Dench is like adding apples and oranges. Let’s simply say, “Cate Blanchett, you were riveting. Philomena, you were the very portrait of a formidable forgiveness.”

The original Olympic athletes received a laurel wreath. No record that they were painted gold, silver or bronze. Can’t the world’s finest come together for the sheer joy of the sport and the celebration of their skills? Why must some go home angry and disappointed? As for the movies: throw the parties. Parade the gowns and jewelry. Lift a glass of champagne to the fine art of film-making. But forget the envelope, the phony suspense, the awards that often seem arbitrary. Why must the human race be further divided?

A Tribute to Sister Mary Helen Rogers, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series.  Read part one here.

Fast-forward to “Granny’s” 98th birthday. For the event, several of us traveled to the motherhouse in Indiana where she’d retired with many of her friends. Even in old age, they were still remarkably gracious ladies. Within minutes of our arrival, a cart appeared with sandwich fixings, cold drinks and beer. (They’d never been overly pious, these veterans of tough missions.) One sister spoke fondly of her work with H’mong refugees, who in gratitude had given her a H’mong name which translated to “Sister Umbrella.” The umbrella not only symbolized their new life in the U.S., but also her kind protection, shelter in a strange place.

May aunt was almost totally deaf, but she didn’t let that isolate her. At the slightest provocation she’d launch into hysterical stories, like her puzzlement when a poor family in San Antonio had gratefully brought the sisters a live chicken. Or the time the bishop, thrilled with his new television, invited the sisters to share the wealth. Unfortunately, their little town didn’t yet have a channel, so they tried to sit appreciatively through snow on the screen and static in the air.  Later, when he’d watch his cowboy shows upstairs, her job was distracting visitors for an hour, trying to convince them he was praying, and disguising the thrumming of horse hooves overhead.

A frequent refrain when she described her many kinds of service: “it was such a privilege.” Never a complaint, when there must have been plenty of irritations, frustrations and tragedies. She quoted a hymn which might sound cheesy now, but which fit her perfectly: What more could Jesus do? How many more blessings could there be? Many of her friends had died, but she reveled in the present moment. Even in her walker, she gave us a tour that exhausted the young folk, and made sure we had our afternoon snack of cookies and Cokes. Bent over with osteoporosis, she nevertheless bent even further to touch the arm of a sister whose mind was fine but whose body was almost paralyzed. As she made a “date” for a chat later, she was the portrait of compassion.

The large campus which the sisters run is noted for its hospitality. In cooperation with Lutheran Services, they offer retreats for women veterans returning from deployment. How peaceful it must be, I thought, after Iraq or Afghanistan: these gardens, beehives, ponds and grasslands. Each sister, living or dead, has a tree with her name hanging on a small plaque on the trunk. For Arbor Day, local schoolchildren identify the wide variety of trees, hike through areas set aside for conservation, and take home their own sapling. Their labyrinth is open to all and many have entered this form of moving meditation that dates back to medieval cathedrals. The morning I walked it, grass, leaves and pine needles were gleaming with tiny drops from a recent rain. Each branch, each step bejeweled: it must have been an image for the life of grace, the kind of lives these sisters had so gratefully embraced.

To look back over 98 years with obvious joy and appreciation must be a great gift. Always the Irish storyteller with perfect timing and cadence, Granny loved to embellish precious memories and entertain a new, youthful audience. She even bragged about the Babe Ruth autograph she’d gotten on a baseball, waiting outside the ballpark as a girl. But the story she told most proudly was of a small, shy boy, asking her to be his grandma. Now 37, he got misty-eyed, as did his wife, who was hearing it for the first time.

Feasting on Thanks, Part 2

Thanks in Unlikely Places

Some may feel that they don’t have a lot on the list to be grateful for.

But as Paul told the Thessalonians, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). No matter how desperate a situation may seem, there’s always room in it for thanks—or a scavenger hunt to find something good there. A few examples, probably from worse times and places than ours:

• In the letter to Philippians, “joy” and “rejoice” appear 16 times, despite the fact Paul wrote from prison, awaiting a trial which could’ve led to his death.

• Corrie ten Boom, author of THE HIDING PLACE and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp was grateful for the fleas, because their presence meant the German guards would leave prisoners alone.

• “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who remained grateful even until his execution by Nazis, despite having to tell his fiancée goodbye.

• Those who survived the terrible tragedy of 9/11/01 in New York City were more resilient and less prone to depression if they could somehow find gratitude in the ruins. While a mixture of positive and negative feelings seems natural, it’s heartening to read remarkable relief despite terrible circumstances. One who was in the World Trade Center that morning said: “Each day that I stay as a guest on this green Earth suddenly seems like outrageous good fortune.”

Practical Steps

So how does a busy family fit shared meals into a packed schedule? Most families can spin out a litany of reasons why they can’t eat together: soccer games, meetings, choir practice, travel, work, etc. etc. But forgiving the pun, table the excuses. They all seem pretty flimsy when held up against the studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Their surveys found that the more often a family has dinner together, the less likely their teen is to smoke, drink or use drugs. Each time the family dines together reduces the risk of children’s substance abuse. Nothing in the reports suggests it must be a five-course meal; macaroni and cheese is fine. What matters is telling the stories, chewing over the day, being nurtured together.

Can gratitude be incorporated into a tight calendar too? Many reasons to do so come from Robert Emmons. His book THANKS! says multiple clinical studies have proven that a regular practice of gratitude can elevate what psychologists call the “set point” of happiness. Though a devastating spinal cord injury can dramatically decrease happiness, and winning the lottery increase it, most people over the subsequent six months will adapt and return to the “set point.”

Grateful thinking helps people extract the most possible enjoyment from their circumstances. It prevents adaptation (returning to the “set point”) and improves mood because people don’t  take blessings for granted.

To receive these benefits, giving thanks beyond one day in November must become a deliberate habit. Thus, Emmons recommends a regular practice such as keeping a gratitude journal, naming the three best things that happen each day, writing a letter to or visiting someone we appreciate. A family can do this together, drawing or writing blessings on a big piece of newsprint hung jauntily on the refrigerator. Or make placemats from paper. In the center write THANKS, then surround the word with drawings or names of gifts: My dog. Music. Naps. Hot soup. (Laminate so they’ll last a while.) These practices can cascade throughout the month, becoming an avalanche of thanks by the feast itself. Seeing so many blessings, most people would want to continue every month. Bon Appetit!