A Chaplain’s Case for Gratitude

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Thankfulness and gratitude are powerful aspects of life.  Still, sometimes circumstances make it hard to look around and be thankful.  How does light get in during times like that? As a Navy chaplain, I too have days where I find myself battling such heaviness and challenges.  For me, it’s a matter of seeking perspective, finding meaning and connecting to purpose.  Sometimes that comes from my reaching out to another to allow them to shine a ray of light into my darkened view.  Sometimes it is someone reaching out to me for help, or just to say thanks.

There are times when a small ray of light is all we need to break the darkness. With that light, I am reminded that when we go through things alone we can become convinced that they will not get better, but when we have someone by our side we can find strength to move forward. With that small glimmer of light, I am reminded of my purpose.  Even a small word of thanks from one person to another can make all the difference.

Gratitude can be a source of hope when we are most vulnerable. I will never forget a time when I was preparing to say goodbye to another group of wounded warriors who had come for several weeks to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.  As a chaplain, part of my role was to create a parting ‘ritual.’  Knowing that this was a vulnerable time, after making connections and beginning some healing, I wanted the ritual to give each person an opportunity to honestly own the challenges and fears ahead, and to say thank you for the little rays of light that they received through the work of the dedicated team of providers. Once again, I was reminded of the reciprocal benefits of not just being there for someone, but being with them in their journey.

Three of the guys—each uniquely challenged who all shared the same experience as the pivotal moment in their healing—decided to take the risk to travel on the metro to the Vietnam Memorial Wall.  They “just had to do it,” they said. For one, it meant facing an absolute aversion to going in confined spaces with lots of people.  For another, it meant being in wide open spaces with no security, and likely talking to others. It probably meant that they would have to walk a bit farther than the third of the trio had walked in a very long time. But together they decided that they owed it to each other and those who had gone before them to do this, and get each other through it. They decided to be with each other on a journey that was uniquely theirs as individuals yet shared between them at the same time.

You can imagine the team as they set out and then finally reached the wall. That was celebration enough. But what life had in store for them, they could not have anticipated. They each described in their own way how when they finally arrived, they spotted a woman standing at the wall in tears and they all felt drawn to her. The outgoing one of the bunch walked over and approached the woman.  The others followed. They all heard her describe how her husband had been killed in Vietnam.  This was the first time she had made it to the wall. All she wanted to do was to do a rubbing of his name, but it was too high up and she just didn’t know what to do. She was desperate and alone.

“Don’t worry ma’am,” they said. “We got this!” With that they leveraged their collective height to get to her husband’s name so that she could do the rubbing.  With mission accomplished, they were met with grateful hugs. And they quietly walked away.

The three men shared this story with the group of providers and reflected almost with one voice: “We knew from that time on- there was a purpose for our lives. There is still something we can do.” They drew strength from each other. And they found gratitude; gratitude from others and gratitude for still being able to give a little light or a tiny ember.

Maybe today you will reach out to say thanks, or reach out to ask for help. Don’t just be there for others, be with them to light their path and watch as they light yours. Connect with gratitude. Your perspective of your purpose may be mysteriously renewed beyond your wildest imaginings. Your own moment to make a difference may be just around the corner.

Cmdr. Kim Donahue, CHC, USN,  is the Director for Force Structure for the Navy Chief of Chaplains Office. She has previously served as Group Chaplain for USS Theodore Roosevelt and Carrier Strike Group TWELVE. Check out her earlier NavyNavStress post on mindfulness and reconnecting with spirituality through labyrinth walking here.

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