How Can You Experience Gratitude When You’re Scared To Death?

How Can You Experience Gratitude When You’re Scared To Death? November 20, 2023

Returning to Eden

Editor’s Note: This is a contribution from Heather Hamilton, author of the book Returning to Eden, which was published in 2023 by Quoir Publishing.

It’s the season of Thanksgiving in the United States. Some years, it is easy to celebrate. Other years, it takes effort to push through the weight of the world and get to a “thank you”. If this is a year for you where “thank you” feels like a natural overflow, rejoice and rejoice and rejoice. Savor the joy in your heart with all that you have.

I do feel personally grateful this year. However, I remember feeling overcome with anxiety last fall. I remember how difficult it is to feel gratitude when you’re consumed with stress and worry. Last August, my husband Jared was diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I’ve had a few seasons in my life where I’ve found myself suddenly in the grip of fear, including that one.

Actually, I think fear is too soft a word here. The word is terror. I found myself in the grip of terror.

I won’t patronize you with all the reasons why. They’re obvious. It was a serious situation that required immediate action. So Jared began chemotherapy shortly after. That was the world we were living in last fall when the words “thankful” and “grateful” started making the rounds.

So what do I mean by “the courage to be grateful”? I mean sometimes before you can get to grateful, you have to get to brave—and that takes courage.

The anxiety Jared’s situation created in me has become a familiar feeling. I’ve experienced this descent into the dark void of fear before—enough times to know that there is nothing down there for me. There is no soft landing at the bottom of the hole where I suddenly have answers and feel safe.

So what is there to do when your back is up against a wall and all you feel is terror?

You stare at it. Voluntarily. For as long as it takes to transform into bravery.

There’s a story in Numbers where the Israelites have been led out of Egypt. But instead of entering the Promised Land, they find themselves in a desert. They complain after wandering and wandering with no Promised Land and no answers. Even though what they left in Egypt was tyrannical and oppressive, they long for comfort and predictability. Enough with the adventure that led us to wandering in the middle of nowhere, right? They wonder if certainty is worth the price of bondage.

Then come the snakes.

On top of everything, there are now snakes in the desert biting people and killing them. So now it’s discomfort, uncertainty, danger, and terror.

So what would most people do in this situation? Beg God to change it, of course. The people asked Moses to ask God to take away the threat. Remove the thing that’s terrorizing us. (Ahem…back to my little story…CURE THE CANCER!!!)

But when Moses meets with God, God says something really weird. God tells Moses to “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So, Moses makes a bronze snake and puts it on a pole. When anyone was bitten and looked at the snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

Jesus later compares himself to Moses’s bronze snake:

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Why is God instructing us to look at snakes in life that terrify us? Instead of creating safety and security, why does God tell us to look squarely at what terrifies us most?

Here’s the promise:

When you voluntarily look at death, destruction, and despair for long enough, you will eventually see the light. When you gaze into the darkness long enough and face death and hell, you overcome the terrorizing fear of both. But here’s the key—you have to face these fears voluntarily. Instead of running from them, you have to choose to stop, turn around, and look at what scares you.

By having the courage to face the darkness, you attain the light. By exposing yourself, little by little, to what it is that you fear…the light in you eventually expands to fill the darkness. By doing this, you end up with something better than safety. You become brave.

This is true for everything we fear—up unto and including death. And what happens when you no longer fear “the bad thing”? You become immensely grateful for life and the fullness of the present moment. This is when you have, as Jesus says, “eternal life”—the experience of the fullness of life in every moment. A total “with-ness” of the Eternal Now. And you realize that the Eternal Now is all that actually exists. Past and future are in your head. Your head generates your thoughts, which generate fear, which dictates how you experience (or don’t experience) the present moment.

I remember a moment last fall before Jared began chemo. I was taking a shower. My kids were just outside the door playing. And I could feel the fear pumping through my body. Like thousands of little pops of static electricity flowing through my veins. I envisioned what looked like a dark hole called hell that I was just recoiling away from. But I remembered the wisdom about looking at what it is that terrifies you. And I decided to turn towards that dark hole and jump in. I couldn’t scream out loud because I did not want to upset my kids. So I let out the most intense silent scream of my life as I “jumped into hell.” I jumped into hell on purpose with all the courage I had, eyes open, silent-screaming.

And something shifted.

I no longer felt scared. I felt alive. I felt like a warrior. I felt brave. Suddenly, all that electricity in my body coalesced into forward motion thrusting me into the fullness of life in the present moment. I knew I could handle whatever came my way. I trusted that I would have what I needed within me at the time that I needed it. Even in death, I could die fully alive. Saying yes to it.

That’s what Jesus reveals as he descended into the dark hole of hell (the heart of the earth, Matthew 12:40) on purpose: he never actually died. And so it is with you: who you actually are never dies, you merely change form.

And guess what I felt after that silent-screaming-shift-in-the-shower? Grateful.

When we arrived for Jared’s first chemo infusion, I didn’t feel scared anymore. I felt free to appreciate the gifts of the present moment. The opportunity to be cared for by brilliant doctors and caring nurses. A day alone with my husband. Good food from the cafeteria. The beautiful architecture of the hospital campus at Emory University Hospital. I was grateful to be there.

I am happy that the treatment worked. Jared is healthy. But I’m also really grateful that I didn’t torture myself in the process this time. My terror was an invitation to enter into eternal life, again.

Fear is inevitable. But fear also gave me the opportunity to face it and discover inner courage, bravery, and gratitude I didn’t realize was there.

If you’re experiencing fear this holiday season—whether it be for personal reasons, angst about world events, existential questions, health concerns, or something else—I hope you can keep looking at the darkness until you find the light within you which will rise to fill it. I hope you can find the courage within that first leads to bravery and finally—gratitude.

Happy Thanksgiving (for those in the USA) and Happy Holidays (to all).

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