I’ve always been a pretty happy person. I like my life, like my eggs, sunny side up. But I was stopped in my tracks by a line I read in the fantastic book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Henri J.M. Nouwen.
“Resentment and gratitude cannot co-exist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”
Now I have to admit that I am occasionally resentful. When I don’t get noticed for a job well done, when my sibling seems to get more of my parent’s attention, when someone else gets a promotion…
So, how do we live a life of gratitude when failure and disappointment are bound to come our way?
The book by Nouwen is about the famous Biblical story of the Prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32. But, the book is also based on the above painting by Rembrandt that Nouwen spent years contemplating. In the story a younger son asks his father for his share of the family money, takes it and goes off, losing it all to wild living. He comes home broke and broken. The father’s love for this son is beautifully overwhelming; he welcomes him home and throws a lavish party.
But, the older son (standing to the right in the painting) is bitter and envious — feeling that his good and faithful ways have gone unnoticed by his father who has welcomed his no-good brother home with such fanfare. And that is where the gratitude quote comes in. When he complains, the father tells him “You are with me always, all I have is yours.” The father encouraged him to come to the party.
I have much experience being the resentful sibling. It is easy to feel overlooked and resentful when you’re “the easy one, the good one, the perfect one,” and your siblings are literally punching holes in walls or having mental breakdowns. But, this kind of attitude poisons the well and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to untangle myself from it. I need to see that the father’s prodigal love is just as great for my errant siblings and just as genuine and available for me. One does not negate the other.
So, how do we move from resentment to gratitude? We have to look through and beyond our resentment to see that the father’s love is available to us every day. Nouwen says, “Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice…There is always a choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection, ‘You are with me always, all I have is yours.’”
Today I will choose gratitude. I mean, really, there is so much to be thankful for. I’m sitting at a retreat center, looking out the window at leafy green trees moving in a gentle breeze. I have a loving spouse, meaningful work, a full and beautiful life. Today, and for the next two weeks, I will focus on choosing gratitude and letting go of resentment. Want to try it with me? Let me know how it goes.
To learn more about spiritual practices, check out my book: The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening