One of the most difficult, yet gratifying things I did as a university psychologist was to lead a grief group for students each semester. Groups were made up of 6 to 8 students who had experienced the death of a family member or close friend within the previous year.

Every one of those brave students who chose to attend went through the “I can’t believe this has happened” stage. Denial was a useful, even necessary part of the grief process. Denial allowed them to mentally close off many of the overwhelming implications of their loss until they were better able to grasp what had happened. Their mind and emotions needed time to catch up with the reality of their loss.

At some point, however, it was necessary for them to open to those implications, to face their pain squarely and begin making decisions of how to live with the new reality. Failure to do this would allow their grief to define and limit their lives.

In a less intense way, selective gratitude has the same effect of closing us off to what life has to teach us in those moments that don’t fit with our expectations. When we are grateful only for fulfillment of our expectations and wishes, we miss the parts of our experiences that have have a different set of lessons that can deepen our understanding, our appreciation, and even our joy of life.

Jesus began talking about this and showing us what this looked like early in his ministry. His first words of what we call his Sermon on the Mount turn our notions of joy and gratitude on their heads. We prefer to feel powerful and in charge, but Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit and the meek.” We like winners. Jesus said, “Joyful are those who are persecuted.” We want to avoid sadness and tragedy, but Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Those are not typically experiences and traits we are grateful for.

He repeatedly taught that we will not find what we are looking for in the place we want it to be. It will always be hidden in the least likely place or unexpected event. It will be found in the circumstances that we would prefer to avoid. In other words, unless we can approach those difficult moments with gratitude, we’ll miss the stuff we need the most.

I love the story of Carl Jung, one of the pioneers of psychotherapy. He had a client come to a session reporting that things were going very well for him. Jung replied (and I paraphrase), “Oh no, that’s awful. But I think with enough therapy and effort we can get you through this good time and on to things that will help you grow.” Another client came in great distress with a litany of problems. Jung said jubilantly, “Great. Let’s open a bottle of champagne and celebrate. There is so much you are going to learn from this!”

With selective gratitude, we only see what we are looking for, we only hear what we are listening for. We miss everything else.

We also miss important relationships. That’s next.