“I was surprisingly at ease,” former President Jimmy Carter said at his press conference, recalling his emotions when his doctors told him they had found melanoma on his brain after doing surgery on his liver.
“Call it clear thinking or mind over matter. Or simply: grace,” writes Sarah Kaufman in the August 21st issue of the Washington Post. “Grace – meaning elegance, calm equanimity,” she goes on, “is the only strategy that makes any sense, really… a text book coping strategy, what any therapist would advise,… but how difficult, unless you’re in the habit of feeling grateful.”
This grace, she concludes, is Carter’s habit. She’s got the wrong grace.
Kaufman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in “criticism,” as it applies to contemporary dance. Now that’s grace of the elegant kind. But it’s not the grace going on with Mr. Carter. That grace, while it is elegant and engenders calm, is of a different ilk because it comes from a whole different source.
What Mr. Carter has spent a lifetime pursuing isn’t a “habit” of gratitude, it’s the practice of gratitude.
So what’s the difference?
Habits compel us. They are automatic and patterned responses which are out of our conscious control. Practices, on the other hand, are intentional. They are things we choose to do again and again, but they require an effort of own will – a turning toward and choosing.
Over time, both habits and practices can become very much a part of us. Their effects “show” in us, even if we don’t see them ourselves. Habits are rarely, if ever, healthy things: fingernail-biting, smoking, and addictions of all kinds lead to dis-health and tend to enslave us. What we think of as “good” habits like exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep are not really habits at all. They are practices, chosen each time, consciously and without compulsion.
The “habit” of gratitude Ms. Kaufman calls grace in Mr. Carter’s behavior is not a habit at all, and it’s certainly not a “coping strategy” initiated strategically to “deal” with the circumstance. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of practicing the posture of gratitude before a loving God.
Day after day, we can choose again and again to enter the presence of the One who deals gracefully with us, in spite of our faults and failings, yet shines the light of redemption on our lives and offers the gift of forgiveness. That’s the grace Mr. Carter has known, and, in the hardship of a very difficult diagnosis, it surprises even him! After a lifetime practicing the presence of God he falls naturally into the calming arms of the One who has for nearly 90 years said to him, “All will be well.” He has come to trust that voice.
Habits will fail us. Oh, they can be comfortably familiar, offering distraction or temporary satisfaction, but they don’t satisfy or quench. Habits can steal our freedom; practices can grant it. Ironically, habits, which we seem to control, take it from us, and practices, where we release control, offer it to us.
Gratitude isn’t habit-forming but it is gratifying. Gradually, as we make it a practice, it shapes our outlook in the best and worst of times, a familiar destination along a well trod path.
Clear thinking and mind over matter get us only so far. When life’s circumstances tax us beyond our own resources, grace is more than a strategy. But it takes practice.