I have been thinking about this anecdote all week. I'm not sure what the source is, or if the story was told correctly, but I understand the point. The point, I think, is to be grateful. Be grateful for what you have...to recognize that you are blessed even in the midst of trials. Gratitude is a principle I believe in, but true gratitude seems somewhat twisted by this story. I keep thinking about the story because it feels wrong to me on some level.
Gratitude is not born of comparison. Teddy Roosevelt said that "Comparison is the thief of joy." I believe that is true whether we are comparing ourselves to individuals we consider to be "above" us or those who seem to be "below" us. Comparison robs us of joy because it forces us to rank ourselves on some imaginary scale of happiness, when no such scale exists. Happiness is not linear, it's not a ladder to be climbed. It is more fluid like water. It moves around us and through us. Sometimes it fills us, and sometimes we thirst for it.
When I traveled to Africa with a humanitarian group I was unprepared for the abundant joy I found among starving women and children. These children would be considered at the bottom of the happiness ladder by many. They were experiencing the trials of death, and starvation, and sickness. Yet they sang when they greeted us and smiled freely. They were simply grateful, and their gratitude was not tied to the prosperity and health of others.
I don't believe we can rank life's adversity. Sometimes I find myself trying to evaluate someone else's pain in comparison to my own...would it be harder to lose a child to an accident in infancy, or to a drug overdose in adulthood? Is it harder to miss someone after a lifetime of memories, or to be left with only 14 short months of joy to remember?
People often tell me that losing a child is the hardest trial. I have come to the conclusion that it is all hard. Wanting children and not having them is hard. Being alone is hard. Nursing a parent through old age and death is hard. Cancer is hard. Divorce is hard. Watching your child die is hard. It is all hard, it is all pain, and finding respite in someone else's suffering is short lived and ultimately extremely unsatisfying. As I grow older and understand more fully the pain of others my heart aches more, not less.
My gratitude for these things is not increased in the lack of others. On the other hand I'm learning that my gratitude is not, or should not, be diminished because I desperately want things that others have.
Gratitude is an illogical response to a world that never had us in mind as an audience; but it is the fitting tribute to an original Creator who anticipated our joy and participates fully in it. from The God Who Weeps.