Grumpiness and Gratitude

Are you Humbly Grateful or Grumbly Hateful?
What’s your attitude?
Do you grumble and moan, or let it be known,
You’re grateful for all God’s done for you?
Which one are you?!

“Humbly Grateful” by Janet McMahan-Wilson and Kathie Hill. These are lyrics I learned in Sunday School in the early 80s that I can still recall with eerie accuracy. Mercifully, you will never find out if I can still sing them.

One of the most basic things you learn at medical school is the difference between a symptom and a diagnosis. A patient might come to you convinced that they need antibiotics for their sore throat. But “sore throat” is not a diagnosis–it is their presenting symptom. You need to establish why their throat is sore and, then, what treatment plan best fits that why. And that is what the rest of medical school, and well beyond, is mostly about–learning the art of correctly diagnosing and treating the why. Our simple throat example would proceed something like this:

Firstly, discuss the features of that presenting symptom–e.g. location, duration, and nature of the throat pain. Secondly, ask about the presence (or, just as important, the absence) of other symptoms–e.g. headache, chills, runny nose, cough, rash, difficulty swallowing. Thirdly, examine the patient to gather further information (called signs not symptoms)–e.g. red throat, enlarged tonsils, swollen glands in the neck. Fourthly, order any necessary tests (although often the more common diagnoses can be made with reasonable confidence before the results are back)–e.g. blood tests, throat swab, and, if you’re on an American medical drama, a CT scan! Finally, after putting symptoms, signs, and test results together, a diagnosis is made and the appropriate treatment is prescribed. In adults, less than 20% of sore throats are bacterial and need antibiotics; more than 80% are viral and don’t. On the other hand, a tiny fraction can develop abscesses that require urgent draining.

Even though I haven’t gone through this process in a clinical setting in 17 years, it all came rushing back to me recently when I found myself trying to work out the why behind a non-medical symptom I was experiencing: grumpiness. So, bear with me as I retrace an autobiographical journey through Presenting Symptom, to Diagnosis, to Treatment Plan.

The Presenting Symptom: Grumpiness (a.k.a. A Thick, Dark Stew)

I got really grumpy during the five-week Alert Level 4 lockdown back in April of this year. And I’m not talking a Disney-style-Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs grumpy. I’m talking full-on, feral grumpy. I’m talking lie-awake-at-night-and-ruminate-on-how-unfair-life-is grumpy. I’m talking quit-your-job-and-sell-your-kids-on-TradeMe grumpy. The sort of grumpiness that the very word “grumpiness” doesn’t seem to do justice to and is seldom as clean and binary as my old Sunday School song. It’s the sort of grumpiness that reduces down to a thick, dark stew with other descriptors floating through it–anger, impatience, agitation, discouragement, resentment. Not much in the way of Spirit-born fruit floating in there. Love? Nope. Joy? Nope. Peace? Nope. Patience? Nope. You get the idea.

You will probably have had seasons of experiencing your own dark stew. I’ve had plenty. And after I came back to faith in my late 20s, here’s the thing that took me a little longer to learn than it did at medical school: grumpiness is a symptom, not a diagnosis. What took even longer than that–over a decade, in fact–was developing the maturity to assess accurately that symptom and make a diagnosis, i.e. correctly identify the why.

The Diagnosis: Unknown (a.k.a. Grumpiness: Not Otherwise Specified)

During that grumpy season of lockdown, I noticed a couple of other things. First, I was by no means the only one brewing a stew. Maybe it was slightly distorted by my own grey-tinted outlook, or maybe it was a variation on the “takes-one-to-know-one” cliché, but I was suddenly seeing grumpiness everywhere. And the second thing I noticed was that a number of people were (in my honest opinion) misdiagnosing the why. They were blaming their job, or a specific colleague, or their church, or their flat(mate). Observing from the outside, I wasn’t so sure they were getting it right–but then, I wasn’t doing much better at correctly identifying the cause of my grumpiness, either.

The word “diagnosis” came into the English language, via late-17th-century medical Latin, from Greek: dia (apart) + gignōskein (know, recognise) = diagignōskein (literally, “to know apart from another”; discern; distinguish). Given the complexity of the human body, it’s little wonder that six years at medical school is the bare minimum. And given the complexity of our grumpiness stews, it’s little wonder that discerning correctly also takes some practice. This isn’t the forum for an exhaustive exploration of the possible causes, but here are a couple of things I have picked up over the years, and had to re-learn in lockdown:

1. Good Diagnosis Can Take Time. When grumpiness bubbles up, or descends like fog, a quick (and correct) diagnosis is almost impossible. We have to learn to wait in the stew. This is one of the few areas in my life in which I’ve actually noticed some modest growth (no small thing for an impulsive ENFP). I have written dozens of resignation letters and scathing emails over the years but, thankfully, only in my imagination. And five minutes won’t cut it. I’ve waited weeks, even months, for clarity during some seasons of grumpiness. We would do well to heed the instruction of James, in the opening chapter of his epistle: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (Jas. 1:19-20).

2. Is the Problem External or Internal. So, what righteousness might God desire and be trying to produce in my life? Well, it’s difficult to even begin answering that question if I’m convinced that the why of my grumpiness stew is entirely external. It’s usually not. I’ve learned–again, the hard way–to ask: “Is it possible that, in the midst of this stew, God might be highlighting something in me that needs to change/die/be repented of?” It’s not comfortable, but neither is draining an abscess (we’ll get to treatment in a moment). As usual, James sets the bar high; earlier in the same chapter he writes: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4). Paul and Peter issue similar challenges in their letters. It turns out mirrors are a good place to start.

3. “An Enemy Did This” (Matt. 13:28). At one point, when the lockdown grumpiness stew seemed thickest and darkest (and a scathing email was threatening to break out of my imagination), I woke with the sense that I should read the parable of the wheat and the weeds. It is one of the few parables that comes with a specific explanation, but I was challenged by a couple of things that related to my situation. The first was that, in seasons like this, it can be even more difficult than usual to distinguish and disentangle the wheat and weeds of life. Even though the parable is about something else, it reminded me to be patient (see 1. above). Wheat and weeds declare themselves in time, but rush in and pull out a misdiagnosed weed (like a job, or a church, or a flatmate) and you might just discover it was wheat after all.

The second challenge was that, in assessing my stew, it’s not just me + others + circumstances + God. There is another variable. It was an enemy that came and sowed weeds among the wheat. An enemy that, as Jesus tells us in John’s gospel, speaks lies as his native language and comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Peter’s warning is similarly blunt: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). A few days after reading that parable, I discovered that three close friends and I had been hit with debilitating discouragement within hours of each other. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’ve experienced the enemy sowing diabolically timed weeds often enough to hold off writing that email.

4. Eliminate Life-Threatening Conditions. Returning to our medical example for a moment, I might have over-emphasised the need for a specific diagnosis. It turns out there are hundreds of viruses that cause a sore throat, but we don’t bother finding out which one. Why? Because we’ve ruled out the really negative options–the tumours, abscesses, bacterial infections, etc. And so it doesn’t really matter which of the minor viruses it is, the treatment plan is the same: Paracetamol plus rest and soothing drinks of the patient’s choice. In such cases, “Viral Sore Throat: Not Otherwise Specified” is a perfectly acceptable diagnosis.

So it is with grumpiness. That timely parable had helped me to recognise (and receive prayer and encouragement for) the distorting weeds of the enemy. I had ruled out any other external causes as significant factors (i.e. my job wasn’t killing me, nor were my kids). And ongoing prayer and reflection (when I could manage it) and discussion with Julia and others made it pretty clear that God wasn’t nudging me towards any major external changes. It didn’t really matter what other non-life-threatening viruses were floating in the stew, I was able to ride out the rest of the season treating them with “paracetamol” (plus rest and soothing drinks of my choice). In my case, “Grumpiness: Not Otherwise Specified” was a perfectly acceptable diagnosis.

The Treatment: Gratitude (a.k.a The Paracetamol for Grumpiness)

I’m going to suggest that gratitude is the paracetamol for grumpiness, but familiarity with both may have bred contempt. Paracetamol is the most commonly used medication around the world for pain relief, and it is remarkably effective. The same tablets you buy at the supermarket are still routinely prescribed after surgical procedures. Yet, friends and family in pain will often turn their noses up when I suggest it as a first choice. They want something more glamorous that befits the occasion of their discomfort.

Likewise, the unassuming little tablet of gratitude is remarkably effective, but similarly underappreciated. It can often single-handedly deal with most of the non-life-threatening viruses that I mentioned were floating in my stew. Anger? Yup. Impatience? Yup. Agitation? Yup. Discouragement? Yup. Resentment? Yup. You get the idea.

Gratitude has long been a valued spiritual practice. Location doesn’t necessarily indicate importance, but it’s interesting that pastor-theologian Lynne Baab begins her book Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation with a chapter titled “Thankfulness”. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun covers more than 50 practices and exercises in her Spiritual Disciples Handbook: Practices That Transform Us. Gratitude is second. Like many commentators, both authors use gratitude and thankfulness synonymously and highlight its importance. Calhoun says: “Thankfulness is a thread that can bind together all the patchwork squares of our lives. Difficult times, happy days, seasons of sickness, hours of bliss–all can be sewn together into something lovely with the thread of thankfulness.”

Both authors also agree that the inner attitude requires outward expression. As Greek Orthodox priest Father Stavros Akrotirianakis writes: “Thanksgiving is gratitude in action”. And there is an essential two-way movement here: thanksgiving will naturally flow out of a heart filled with gratitude, and disciplining yourself to give thanks regularly, whether you feel like it or not, will (as I am slowly discovering) begin to fill your heart with gratitude.

Thomas Aquinas linked the virtue of gratitude to justice. It is a rendering of that which is due. O, how much is due! As George Herbert prays: “Thou hast given so much to me. Give one thing more–a grateful heart.” Susan Muto’s book title is a worthy goal: Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly urged the people to remember what God had done for them, to avoid what Lynne Baab calls “the idolatry of amnesia”. One in five of the psalms specifically mentions “giving thanks”, and almost all of them contain praise, which, again, either emanates from gratitude or helps to cultivate it. Many times the New Testament writers instruct or model giving thanks for (and in) all things: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

Having made my case for this humble little tablet, I’ll close with a few exercises that have helped me swallow it:

Praise: As all of this was unfolding, I felt God inviting me to praise my way out of the stew. More specifically, I was reminded of the Scripture in Song choruses of the 70s and 80s, which we still have a book of. Even though I can only play four chords on the guitar and haven’t sung most of those songs in over 30 years, I’ve managed to remember and play dozens of them (which says more about the simplicity of the songs than my strumming or memory). Whether it’s with an instrument, or Spotify, or a capella, praise is essential when you’re in the stew.

Prayer: We could write a whole feature article on how to pray when you’re grumpy. I’ll have to settle for three quick suggestions.

Lynne Baab writes movingly about the ways that her personal, family, and congregational prayer times were transformed when she and her husband committed to always begin with thanksgiving. Again, it sounds too simple to be true, but I’m noticing a difference in my prayer life too. George Herbert’s prayer has become my own.

Google “litany of thanks” and you will find prayers that itemise things to give thanks for. They are usually set out in a “call and response” pattern as they are written for communities to pray together, but I find them helpful for breaking me out of the patterns I get stuck in when I’m praying on my own. Psalm 136 is an example from Scripture.

I can’t move on without emphasising the importance of receiving prayer from others. Our faith is lived in community, and we desperately need the encouragement and ministry of others. Unless I’ve been speaking, I have walked forward for prayer at the end of every church service I’ve been in since this grumpiness set in.

Thanking others: While we’re on the subject of community, I would argue that gratitude is under-developed if it is expressed only to God for what God has done and never to others for what they have done. Thankless communities are hardly communities at all. Again, the two-way movement is at work here: we may have to thank our way into an appreciation of someone. It is hard to stay grumpy at people when we are consistently thanking them!

Gratitude journal: I miss film photography! I miss the thrill of learning about aperture and shutter speed from our enthusiastic tutor at the Christchurch community night class I enrolled in more than 20 years ago. I miss the smell of an afternoon in the dark room and watching as a picture emerged under sloshing chemicals. I miss the kid-at-Christmas anticipation of waiting for my 17 rolls of film (!) to be developed after my six-week medical elective in Central America. But most of all I miss the fact that I used to pay much more attention to what I was taking pictures of. Taking photos on film used to focus me (no pun intended.) After changing to a digital camera I took the equivalent of more than 17 rolls in a single day at the Vatican.

Despite those digital misgivings, I have deployed my trusty iPhone 7 to keep, not the written journal that Baab and Colhoun suggest, but a photographic one. I am grateful to Mel Cooper’s photo-essays on Wildflowers and Water for reminding me that pausing with a camera to notice and give thanks is good for the soul. I have included a brief “Patchwork Square of Thanks” below with photos-in-the-moment over the last week or so. Whether in words or images–a gratitude journal can help in the stew.

Just in case the out-of-focus images from our home dilutes the concept, I will close with a reminder that “gratitude is rooted in the reality that ‘bidden or unbidden, God is present’” (Calhoun). Ultimately, we address our gratitude to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing…” (Eph. 1:3).

“…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:18-20).

A patchwork square of thanks for:

Gas fires on Winter mornings

Psalm 136

Discovering the kids had packed the toy car “like Dad does on holiday”

The only splash of colour outside my lockdown window that survived the weather

Old-school praise songs

Colleagues who send you clips of themselves ‘flossing’ to old-school praise songs

Breville ikon BBM600 bread maker

Pastel pinks at dawn followed by crazy, hot-pinks about 20 minutes later

Time in a book on gratitude with: slippers, heat pump, cup of tea, and sun streaming in

(Images: Sam Bloore)