“NOTHING IS GIVEN that is not Taken, and nothing taken That was not first a gift” (Wendell Berry).
I’m writing this column in the early morning of Thanksgiving Day, and so, quite naturally, I’m reflecting on gratitude: what it is and isn’t, what occasions it.
As I consider gratitude, I find it’s not the same thing as positive thinking.
It’s not about looking on the bright side, avoiding life’s bass notes and minor keys, not about denying the pain, sorrow and horror of reality.
Gratitude is, however, a posture in which one becomes awake to what is rather than to what is not.
In gratitude, one is saying a mighty “yes” to reality as it is — not as it might be, could be, should be or is yet to be, but as it is.
I can imagine a type of meditation for cultivating gratitude in which for a couple of minutes each day we would walk through our world and with respect to any given thing we come upon say, “This doesn’t have to be.”
Whatever the flaws of a given thing, however we might wish to improve or adjust a given thing, the awareness that something has being rather than non-being is a startling recognition that awakens our gratitude.
Gratitude at the threat of loss
With respect to “what might not be,” take, for example, the experience of a loved one not coming home at the appointed hour.
The time passes … and passes … stretching out beyond your normal allowances for being late.
You begin to worry.
You start planning the memorial service.
And you start wondering what your life will be without your loved one.
Finally, you hear the car in the driveway.
You rush out and find your loved one is alive and safe — just a delay of some sort.
You give your loved one a big hug.
You realize what the person means to you, and you’re grateful. You’re so very, very grateful.
Gratitude in actual loss
Of course, it’s not just the threat of loss that awakens our gratitude, but actual loss.
As a minister of 40 years, I’ve officiated at many memorial services — hundreds, actually — and I discovered long ago that it’s at the time of death that we realize more fully than we ever have before just what we’ve had … and what we no longer will have.
Often, then, we experience deep gratitude for what we’ve had, as well as some regret at not experiencing and expressing that gratitude more completely while the person was alive.
I’ve come to think that we can’t truly measure what we have until we no longer have it, that it’s only in the actual experience of loss that we know the most profound gratitude.
Gratitude in comparison with others
Other occasions that awaken our gratitude are those in which we are taught what we have through comparison with others.
We might be feeling sorry for ourselves, complaining about some lack we perceive.
Then we meet someone who has a much greater reason to complain, yet is not complaining at all — the opposite, actually: The person abounds with a generous heart and a grateful spirit.
The comparison stops us in our tracks, shames us, wakes us up and returns us to a more appropriate posture toward life.
Gratitude when released from pain or limitation
Yet other situations and circumstances in which our gratitude is awakened have to do with times in which we are released from illness, pain or limitation.
Sometime ago I visited a person who had to be flat on her back for a period of several weeks.
She was so grateful, then, when she could later go the bathroom by herself.
And later still made it into her kitchen — how beautiful her kitchen looked.
Gratitude as we grow older
Persons as they get older often tend to have a greater sense of gratitude.
In our younger years when we are beginning to engage the world, we tend not to be fully aware of how tenuous things are, how easily things break, how without announcement things fly away.
As we grow older, however, we see more disappear, and we see ourselves disappearing.
We discover that much is fragile: a slip, a fall, an accident, being in the wrong place.
We realize “what doesn’t have to be,” and out of this experience there often develops a greater sense of gratitude.
The ground of gratitude
So it seems to me the ground of gratitude is the experience that what we have, imperfect though it may be, doesn’t have to be.
It’s the deep knowledge that nothing we are or have can be demanded or expected.
Nothing is ours by right of birth.
Nothing is ours by right of effort.
Nothing belongs to us — nothing ever did, nothing ever will.
The key to gratitude is the understanding that anything we’ve ever had or ever will have is a gift and nothing but a gift.
And when we see — on those days when we do see — that everything is, indeed, a gift, then gratitude is our natural and spontaneous response.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is [email protected]