It seems almost trite, this idea that we should “practice gratitude”. Get yourself a journal and every day list ten things you are grateful for. After a few days, the lists start to look a lot alike. It becomes just another thing to do.
And yet, there is something very real about the practice if done right, something life affirming, magical almost. And it has nothing or everything to do with God. Truly, it works pretty much the same no matter your choice in the matter of faith.
Gratitude is stopping in the midst of unhappiness, tragedy, or just a lousy day, and reminding ourselves “things could be worse.” Now, of course sometimes, things couldn’t be much worse, but we are talking about norms, not catastrophes.
Gratitude is surprising in that it reminds us of things we do forget. Only a year ago, where were we? Aren’t we vastly happier to be here than there? Aren’t we thrilled to have navigated those waters and come through mostly unscathed? Did we learn valuable lessons that we can call upon again and again to ease the way?
I’m not one who believes that God is busy making it rain on my newly washed car because he has a “bigger plan”. I don’t see God that way, but I do see God as helping me to grow and I can’t grow much if I don’t appreciate what from whence I have come. Life is learning, and I can’t progress to the next step in my human experience without taking note of what I have learned from the experiences presented to me. So, I will be mired in the same problems until I stop, process, and find gratitude for the situations that have given me new tools with which to work.
Some believe in karma, or some version of it at least. They believe that you attract people and events that mirror your own feelings and emotions. Mean people attract other mean people into their lives who act meanly, reinforcing their mean response. Stop seeing everyone as mean and out to get you, and those people and things will stop peppering your world. So the theory goes.
Others believe in a more “scientific” idea that our auras or the “vibrations” we emit are in tune with similar auras or vibrations. Change your thinking, change these, and change your life experiences.
As I said, religious beliefs are not required. Most of us intuitively believe that if you are kind, kindness is returned. You smile at people, they smile back. That’s the simple version. If you want good service at the grocery story, a smile and a friendly, non aggressive attitude works better than the opposite.
Gratitude is a bit more. It’s a quieting of oneself and an assessment of one’s place in the world relative to possibilities, and often relative to other people. I am surely better off living in America than I am (all things being equal) in Calcutta. I am surely better off with my joint stiffness at 63 than I am being a paraplegic at any age.
That sounds awfully selfish of course, and I don’t recommend dwelling upon such superficialities as that, since paraplegics would tell you I’m sure that they have gratitude too, and it’s just as valid as mine.
To be of real value, gratitude must be explored in depth. When we do this, we start to uncover value as opposed to simplistic responses such as “I’m grateful it didn’t rain at the picnic yesterday.” Yes aren’t we all, yet farmers might desperately need rain, and their need to raise a crop is to them vastly more important than my little picnic could be.
We need to dig deep to find what is really valuable. A person in prison can have the deepest gratitude for her mind that no walls can contain. One can have great gratitude for the ability to think, puzzling, combining thoughts, turning pieces to search for the right fit, abandoning ideas in turn for new ones. Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s lose this simple ability that we take for granted.
We dig deep to realize that we have the ability in terms of money and time, to help others in our community. We can make a difference in somebody’s life. We can be grateful that through grace we have learned the value of helping others, and how much it adds to our own joy and fulfillment.
We can dig deeply to see the magnificence of the universe and our evolution to a place and time to realize the true depth and breadth of its existence. How marvelous it is that all this has evolved, and over such a range of time. How wonderful it has been created, so perfectly timed over the eons.
This is the type of gratitude I speak of. That we can taste the sweetness of a berry, and grasp the magnificence of Mozart. That we can read Hamlet a hundred times and still remain spell bound by language written as sweet honey dripping into a golden pool.
To be wildly human, to notice the sensation of touch upon a puppy, to see the eagle soar, the mist roll down the mountain. These are moments of grace, and moments of deep gratitude that go unmissed all too often.
And in the missing, we are less than we can be. Less than we want to be. For being more, feeling more, striving harder, brings us joy, unbounded. We reach out and touch the face of the transcendent moment, caught in a moment of reverence so holy that tears spring unbidden to our eyes.
We become suddenly aware of possibilities unthought of. We love the world and all things are made new.
So get the journal and start. And don’t get hung up on making lists. Just start with one, and then dive deeply into the center of your being, and let that gratitude expand until you see each and every thing as a gift to you.
And all the things that they say about gratitude? Well they will all be true, but that will be hardly the point. It is what you will feel that matters.