Thursday, January 5, 2012

Grateful Hearts

“Give us grateful hearts, O Father, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

So goes the grace at meals when I visit my in-laws and though “O Father” may be controversial, the overall sentiment is certainly worthy. The subject of gratitude came up recently in a recent group gathering and it’s a good one to consider.

Seems to me that gratitude operates at many levels. It begins as a social convention designed to make relations courteous, harmonious and pleasant. Children need to be trained—“What do you say?”— and if the training goes well, “thank you” peppers our conversations, thank you cards are tucked away in the desk drawers and we reserve space in the forewords to our books or introductions in the public performances to acknowledge and thank all those who helped. Gracias, Merci, Danke, Takk, Spacibo, Domo Arigato, Kamsahamnida, Obrigado, Xie Xie, Terima Kasi— thank you is one of the first things we learn and remember in a foreign language.

The fact that there is a word for thank you in every language speaks of some universal human need. In one of the most bizarre Utopian fantasies I’ve encountered—Walden Two, by B.F. Skinner— it was prohibited to say thank you on the grounds that we should just be nice to each other and there’s no need to add an extra thanks. An intriguing thought for about two seconds, but any utopia that ignores the actual nature of our species is doomed to failure. The fact that most people probably never even heard of Walden Two is proof enough. Gratitude needs to be spoken aloud for both the giver and the receiver.

A second level of gratitude is a selective variety. “I’m so grateful my children were born before computers and video games took off big time” is an example from my own life.
Other personal examples include:

• “I’m thankful I got to travel around the world before McDonald’s did.”

• “I’m glad that I got to hitchhike around the country before it got too dangerous.”

• “I’m grateful I didn’t die or get permanently injured when I crashed my bicycle into the car and smashed the windshield with my face.”

You get the idea.

Sometimes selective gratitude can carry a seed of smugness. “Glad I was born into the privilege of being a middle class white male in New Jersey” for example. Well, maybe not the New Jersey part. But in my book, this kind of gratitude falls short of the larger definition.

The third level is the profound understanding that we are here by the grace and mercy of others. The first sacrament is our food—we live by other’s death, be it plant or animal. The ancient traditions are filled with examples of how to respectfully take life and thank your meal appropriately. With the advent of slaughterhouses and supermarkets filled with pre-packaged food, we are far from grace as the essential fact of our very existence. But where people still pause at the dinner table and fold their hands or bow their heads, such existential gratitude lives on.

From there, it’s the countless seen and unseen helpers who guide us through this life, starting with our parents. Gratitude to parents? There’s a novel concept in contemporary American culture, but one at least as old as The Ten Commandments. Then there are the countless teachers charged with the mission of nurturing our tender souls, or at least teaching us how to dot i’s, cross t’s or curve our fingers at the piano. But truly, if we stopped to think about all the people who have shaped us and guided us and helped us—including the writers, musicians and artists who inspire us, the factory workers, farmers, truck drivers who bring us our needed goods, there really is no end to gratitude. Maybe that’s why B.F. Skinner decided not to bother thanking any one?

Gratitude, like its cousins of compassion and empathy, is a developmental process, taught by rote to children, who indeed need to develop the habit of saying thank you and meaning it occasionally. But deep gratitude is probably not possible until the frontal lobes are developed in early adulthood. And even then, it needs to be encouraged and nurtured to grow. It’s a quality of attention that needs time to pause and reflect, something difficult to do caught in the pulling and hauling of the daily round. It is a daily practice that requires intention and the largeness of heart to go beyond one’s little worries.

Lately, I’m feeling like the final level of gratitude is far beyond mere social convention, thanks for the good things that come our way or pausing to admire a sunset. It is a hard-won grace to be thankful for ALL of it— the support and the betrayals, the friends and enemies, the good fortune and the disappointments, without distinction. Not a faked “Gratitude Café” appreciation, but a deep meditation on the maddening fact that the bad luck and hard knocks of this life are as much (and sometimes more) grist for the mill as the pats on the back and hugs. Yeats had a moment like this when his body blazed with that feeling of blessing for 20 minutes and wrote about it again in his dialogue between Self and Soul. And being the frail and undependable creatures we are, we may feel that same kind of blessing one day and the next day (minute?), be cursing the person who simply will not move far enough forward to turn left so that we can make the light.

Thank you for reading this.

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