Allison Backous Troy: Blessed, in the season of bright sorrow

Ceramic jar with the word "Blessings"

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‘Blessed’ has become part of a slick and pervasive trend of forced, optimistic gratitude, says a young Christian writer. The season of Lent helps us return the word to its most authentic expression and meaning.

This Lent, a charged word rings in my ear. It’s a word that is fundamental to the Christian lexicon, one passed around easily and often with the best of intentions. While its synonyms abound -- “grateful,” “fortunate,” “thankful” -- the word “blessed,” with its ubiquitous hashtag, has morphed into a phenomenon that makes both Christians and non-Christians uneasy.

In these first days and weeks of Lent, I find myself resisting the word, hesitant to use it. Why? What about being “blessed” is so emotionally charged? Why does it stand out to me in this Lenten season?

You’ve seen it, too, I’m sure -- the push for public gratitude that has become slick and pervasive. Kevin Stevens notices it at the HomeGoods store, where he feels “bombarded” by “the wall decals, the geometric cubes, the tablecloths, the hand towels -- all imploring you to be grateful, feel thankful or display your gratitude.”

Barbara Ehrenreich describes the trend as “hoopla,” a self-help movement focused on making you feel good about all the things you have (or imagine yourself having). From daily gratitude journals to NPR podcasts on the “science of gratitude,” the phenomenon of being “blessed” is a form of self-help that focuses on improving attitude rather than circumstance, Ehrenreich writes. In other words, mind over matter.

“All you have to do,” Ehrenreich writes, “is to generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow.”

Christian writers as well are critical of gratitude’s comforting glow. Jessica Mesman Griffith writes that the gratitude movement should be met with suspicion. In her essay “Saying No to Cheap Gratitude,” Griffith describes the insidious feel of counting one’s blessings as a motivational tool.

“Everything is a project now,” she claims. “Gratitude, happiness, grace, faith -- all achievable in a few simple steps, documented with journal entries, status updates, and photographs.”

In an extraordinary piece in The New York Times, Kate Bowler, facing a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, takes that project a step further. The #blessed phenomenon, she says, is a distinctly American version of the prosperity gospel, one that blurs the difference between gift and reward.

But if the “blessed/gratitude” mindset is a gimmick, then it is one that countless people have fallen for. How many of us have posted about a family get-together, a wedding or some other celebratory event tagged with the word “blessed”? And how many can say we did it entirely out of thankfulness, with no desire to show everyone -- ourselves included -- how great our lives are?

Fortunately, the word “blessed,” with or without the hashtag, has a history of usage that goes beyond the present day’s conflation of gratitude with a personal prosperity gospel. And in Lent, I believe that we can find a way to return the word “blessed” to its most authentic expression and meaning.

In Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” John Ames remembers his grandfather telling him that “being blessed meant being bloodied.” And “that is true etymologically, in English -- but not in Greek or Hebrew,” Ames says. So any understanding based on that derivation “has no scriptural authority behind it.” Ames’ grandfather had lost an eye in the Civil War, and ever since had insisted that he would “find great blessing” in any suffering. His determination to see blessing in pain had cast a dark shadow on the family, but for Ames, it also was integral to his grandfather’s attempts to understand God’s presence and plan in his life: “He did it in order to make an account of himself, I suppose, as most of us do.”

This, I think, is the spiritual struggle behind the trend of forced, optimistic gratitude: it is an attempt to “make an account” of our own difficult lives and experiences. It’s what I did as a child to make sense of the addiction and emotional abuse that ruled my family’s life. When I told church friends about my mom’s abusive boyfriend or the empty beer bottles that overflowed from our kitchen garbage, I was told to “count my blessings.” Stay positive. See them as God’s way of strengthening me.

But trying to see my hardships as blessings and proclaiming myself “blessed” in spite of them did nothing but make me feel guilty, confused and angry about God and his presence in my life. In many ways, I still feel that anger. No matter how hard I try, I do not know how to reconcile my personal wounds with the warm, ethereal glow that gratitude is supposed to bring.

What does comfort me, however, is the fact that the etymology for “blessed” encompasses a host of other words that expand its definition:

“Hallowed.”

“Made holy.”

“Consecrated.”

“Set apart.”

Rather than signifying endowment with goods or pleasures, being “blessed” identifies us as belonging to God. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn.”

If I struggled as a child to understand how God was with me in the difficulties of my life, it was because I tried to understand the abuses I encountered as good things -- things meant to make me a better person or to somehow unfold God’s unseen plan for my life. But what I am coming to know is that it is entirely possible to see the wounds of my life as they are -- painful instances of suffering -- and to know myself as someone known by God, even loved by God, and set apart as God’s own.

It is a hard mystery, this trust that we are loved by God even as we carry a list of sorrows. Perhaps you feel this, too, as do the people who emphatically count their blessings in the midst of unemployment and illness and unending fear.

What Lent does is give us a season where we feel the weight of the cross in our own lives. It acknowledges our suffering through showing us the Christ, who truly knew what it meant to be bloodied and whose suffering on the cross somehow names and redeems the suffering that each of us faces.

This is also a mystery. For Lent is often referred to as a season of “bright sorrow,” or charmolypê, which is Greek for “joyful suffering.” It is a time for us to know that our grieving is not ignored but held. Acknowledged. And, at the end of all things, blessed and healed.

Henri Nouwen wrote that “to give a blessing is to affirm, to say ‘yes’ to a person’s Belovedness.” In Lent, may each of us know how dearly beloved we are, even as we feel the weight of our suffering. May we flee the promises of gimmicky gratitude and walk as best we can toward the truth of God’s love for us, which marks us and holds us, no matter where we find ourselves. May we know what blessing is, and may we feel it, believing.