Gratitude in Times of Suffering

The practice of gratitude is central to Islam. Students of Islamic spirituality are sometimes asked to ponder on a teaching story about the Mulla, who was able to show gratitude even though his donkey--his helper, companion, and source of livelihood--had disappeared. The entire village searched far and wide, but to no avail. The donkey was simply gone. In the evening, the villagers found the Mulla on his knees in the town square, raising his hands towards Heaven and exclaiming, "Thank you Allah! Thank you Allah!" "Mulla," they asked, don't you realize that your donkey is lost forever?" "I know, I know," replied the Mulla. "But I have so much to be grateful for. Imagine what could have happened to me if I had been on the donkey!"

One of the insights to be gleaned from this story is that when we praise God even in times of affliction, we are expressing thanks for unknown blessings already on their way. But does it really make sense to praise God in the face of relentless and extensive suffering caused by natural disasters or by human cruelty, greed and indifference? If Divinity is All Aware, Infinitely Powerful and Boundlessly Compassionate, why does this Great Mystery allow pain and distress to happen? There is no human logic that will satisfy the mind about this conundrum. It might make more sense to take refuge in the utterance of the 13th-century sage Rumi: "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment!"

An even greater mystery, however, is the inclination of the human heart to express gratitude even in the midst of pain and suffering. Some deeper insight was at work in a simple Bedouin who was asked if he was grateful to God. "You mean the God who has sent me poverty, illnesses, afflictions, and has made me naked and has sent me wandering from country to country?" he asked. But as he spoke, he entered into a state of ecstasy!

As a spiritual counselor I have sat with people who felt so brutalized by life and betrayed by God that they begged me not to mention God in the healing sessions. I meticulously honored their request, but amazingly, as they began to heal, they themselves brought God into their lives and developed an unshakeable relationship with the Divine. Some become so passionate about their love of God that they remind me of a tongue-in-cheek Sufi song from South Asia: "O God, save me from all these God lovers!"

Sufi teachers ask us, the more fortunate ones, to express gratitude to God by being of service to those who are suffering. This brings to mind a passage in the Quran and a related myth that enlarges on our purpose here on earth. Before humanity descended on earth, says the Quran, God gathered all the unborn souls together and asked, "Am I not your Sustainer?" In unison we joyously replied, "Yes! We do testify!" (7:172). In the attendant myth, God then took our souls to a cosmic tree on whose limbs hung packages of different sizes. These were packages of sorrow, each linked to cycles of time and human history, and we were asked to select a package of sorrow as we came down to earth. We were free to choose. Some of the nobler souls volunteered to take the larger parcels so that others would be troubled only with smaller burdens. Thus, explain our teachers, we perform beautiful acts of gratitude when we serve those who are suffering greatly.

The poet Tagore expresses the supreme reward that awaits those who express gratitude by helping others: "I slept and dreamt life was joy; I awoke and found life was service; I served and lo! service was joy."