In Everything Give Thanks

This week in clinic I saw one of my favorite patients. She has a rare genetic form of motor neuron disease and has been on a ventilator for about twenty years. But her arms and legs were still strong, so she didn’t let the fact that she couldn’t breathe on her own stop her from doing what she wanted to do. With a portable ventilator in her backpack she kept up a busy schedule of volunteering at a hospice, helping political campaigns, and walking her dogs. A few years ago her arms and legs started to get weak, but she started using a rolling walker and more or less kept up with all of her usual activities.

When I walked into the clinic room this week I was greeted by her beautiful smiling face, grinning from ear to ear. She couldn’t lift her right arm very well because her shoulder is weak, but she gave me the most vigorous handshake she could muster. “I have good news,” she reported. “I haven’t been falling down any more because my dog died and I haven’t had to walk him.”

I looked at her in disbelief. “Did you really just say that it was good news that your dog died?” She just glanced down and shrugged her shoulders a bit, but kept smiling.

“She’s a ‘glass half full’ kind of person,” I said to the medical student who was following me that day, who nodded his agreement.

“No, it is full!” she insisted.

Where does this woman find her unconquerable buoyancy? It is in her faith. She bore testimony of God’s goodness to her and was overflowing with gratitude. But what does this woman have to be grateful for? I’m sure that she could count off a list of her blessings, but that is not really the point. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf explained:

Perhaps focusing on what we are grateful for is the wrong approach. It is difficult to develop a spirit of gratitude if our thankfulness is only proportional to the number of blessings we can count. True, it is important to frequently “count our blessings”—and anyone who has tried this knows there are many—but I don’t believe the Lord expects us to be less thankful in times of trial than in times of abundance and ease. In fact, most of the scriptural references do not speak of gratitude for things but rather suggest an overall spirit or attitude of gratitude. (from the April 2014 General Conference)

Here are a few of the scriptures he was referring to:

  • “Live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you. (Alma 34:38)”
  • “And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more. (Doctrine and Covenants 78:19)”
  • “Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks (Doctrine and Covenants 98:1)”
  • “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20)”
  • “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)”
  • “Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God (Psalms 147:7)”
  • “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1:21)”

Perhaps this last scripture applies most directly to my patient. This was Job’s statement after hearing four messengers report the simultaneous loss of nearly all of his great wealth and the deaths of all of his children. He remembers that all things are the gift of God and he tenaciously retains his gratitude and his submission to God’s will. As Victor Frankel observed: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (from Man’s Search for Meaning)”

My patient will continue her chronic struggle with a disease which will slowly erode away her independence. But motor neuron disease is no match for the power of thankfulness.

As we left the room at the end of our visit she wished us a happy Thanksgiving. Surely her wish has come true for me as I have spent the holiday pondering on her example of gratitude. May we all thank the Lord for his goodness, and truly live in thanksgiving daily.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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