“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”
He was a shy little boy, not very popular with the other children in Grade One. As Valentine’s Day approached, his mother was delighted when he asked her one evening to sit down and write the names of all the children in his class so that he could make a Valentine for each. Slowly he remembered each name aloud, and his mother recorded them on a piece of paper. He worried endlessly for fear he would forget someone. Armed with a book of Valentines to cut out, with scissors and crayons and paste, he plodded his conscientious way down the list. When each one was finished, his mother printed the name on a piece of paper and watched him laboriously copy it. As the pile of finished Valentines grew, so did his satisfaction. About this time, his mother began to worry whether the other children would make Valentines for him. He hurried home so fast each afternoon to get on with his task, that it seemed likely the other children playing, along the street would forget his existence altogether. How absolutely horrible if he went off to the party armed with 37 tokens of love—and no one had remembered him! She wondered if there were some way she could sneak a few Valentines among those he was making so that he would he sure of receiving at least a few. But he watched his hoard so jealously, and counted them over so lovingly, that there was no chance to slip in an extra. She assumed a mother’s most normal role, that of patient waiting. The day of the Valentine box finally arrived, and she watched him trudge off down the snowy street, a box of heart-shaped cookies in one hand, a shopping-bag clutched in the other with 37 neat tokens of his labor. She watched him with a burning heart. “Please, God,” she prayed, “let him get at least a few!” All afternoon her hands were busy here and there, but her heart was at the school. At half past three she took her knitting and sat with studied coincidence in a chair that gave a full view of the street. Finally, he appeared, alone. Her heart sank. Up the street he came, turning every once in a while, to back up a few steps into the wind. She strained her eyes to see his face. At that distance it was just a rosy blur. It was not until he turned in at the walk that she saw it— the one lone Valentine clutched in his little red mitt. Only one. After all his work. And from the teacher probably. The knitting blurred before her eyes. If only you could stand between your child and life! She laid down her work and walked to meet him at the door. “What rosy cheeks!” she said. “Here, let me untie your scarf. Were the cookies good?” He turned toward her a face shining with happiness and complete fulfillment. “Do you know what?” he said. “I didn’t forget a one. Not a single one!”
I came across this story called “The Valentine” by Ruth McDonald, and was so impressed by how well it illustrates what it looks like to live with gratitude, to live with a sense of surprise and amazement, to live mindfully egoless, totally focused on giving rather than receiving.
Those of us with children try to teach them to be grateful, don’t we? When Kathy and I were raising our three, we often reminded them to say thank you when they were given a compliment or a gift. But even when Mandy, Misty and Dustin learned to say thank you” to the point that it was an ingrained habit, we still had no idea whether or not they really felt grateful and recognized it in their heart. What we were really teaching them was how to be polite. To have good manners. If they didn’t particularly like the gift they were given, one might even say we were teaching them to be dishonest about their feelings. I suspect our ability to recognize and name feelings of genuine gratitude develops as we age and mature. I suspect we’re not able to feel deep and abiding gratitude—and name it—until we stop taking our living for granted, which most children do unless they’ve experienced some kind of loss or struggle
Still, I was still heartened by the Valentine story and even touched by it. Yes, it’s a bit sappy, it reminds me of a more innocent, a less jaded time that probably never really existed. But, on some level, I hope it speaks of something beneath the lavish and overindulgent standards Western society insistently foists on us today. I hope the story speaks of a genuine, selfless sense of gratefulness that lies beneath all that in the core of human nature – in the depths of every human heart.
As humans, and especially as Americans, we take pride in being self-sufficient and self-reliant. Our nation was founded with a deep-seated belief in the freedom of the individual. That sense of freedom informs every aspect of our lives, including the political realm (as democracy), the economic realm (as free market capitalism), the social realm (as human rights), and the religious realm (as separation of church and state and freedom of religion.) We take our autonomy in these areas for granted.
However much we pride ourselves on the freedom and liberality of our way of life in this country, the universe has no respect for it. The existential truth of our fragile human existence is that we are utterly dependent on the universe to provide for virtually every need. We depended on our parents to conceive and nurture us, we depend on plants and animals to give up life to feed us, we depend on the trees to take in the carbon dioxide we give off and replenish the oxygen we need to sustain us, we depend on the sun to warm us. While the myth of human freedom and self-reliance was beneficial to us in creating a more egalitarian society, the truth or the matter is we are virtually helpless without the support of intricate biological and social systems of relationship. Our lives are exquisitely fragile. Seen from this perspective, the whole notion of self-reliance is a lie. My apologies to Mr. Emerson and his essay.
Our human tendency IS to regard our lives as our own construct. And I don’t mean to disparage that pride we tend to take in our accomplishments necessarily. But when we understand our life as the sum total of what we have achieved, then naturally we will approach Thanksgiving by comparison. Seen from the perspective of what we have made of ourselves, we tend to compare what we have done and what we have accumulated against the situation of others. This may lead to gratitude and may lead to envy. I call this food chain gratitude. Being thankful that we’re a little higher on the chain than the other members of our family or associates.
But if we understand the first principle of human existence as our utter dependence on the universe, this can lead to a different kind of gratitude. Our life is not a problem to be solved, it is a gift to be opened. The color of the sky,, the song of a bird, a word of kindness, a strain of music, the sun on our face, the companionship of friends. The taste of sea air, the shape of clouds in summer, the reds of maple leaves in fall. There are so many gifts in a single life. If we are preoccupied with what is missing and what is wrong, we miss so many of these tiny gifts, piled one upon the other, that accumulate without our acknowledging them. If we listen more carefully for the infinite blessings of a single day, this will not obliterate our sorrows. But it will help us remember how wonderful and rich our lives are, even in the midst of our suffering. A single thought of gratefulness can transform a moment of sorrow into a moment of peace.
In her poem, entitled “Otherwise,” the poet Jane Kenyon reflects on this sentiment: “I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love. At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise.” Kenyon wrote this poem in 1993, upon hearing her husband, Donald Hall’s cancer diagnosis. Ironically, it was Kenyon, not Hall, who died a year later from a fierce and swift onslaught of leukemia.
I’m returned to the perspective the universe tries to instill in me about gratitude by Kenyon’s poem. In other words, gratitude, absolutely. Not gratitude by comparison. Gratitude beyond expectation, beyond entitlement, beyond any bitter questions like, “Why me,” that often come out of our bitterness and disappointment. The poet is inviting to embrace gratitude as ideology and life practice, rather than as a response to individual life events…good, bad, or otherwise.
I suspect we’re not able to feel truly grateful and name it until we’ve gained some sense of what’s at stake in our lives and in the world; until we’ve had the experience of making difficult, life-altering decisions; until we’ve experienced suffering and loss; until we’ve come to understand our limits, our fragility, our dependence. We feel genuine gratitude when we finally recognize our lives and the lives of others as precious, as sacred, as holy, and as unlikely, mysterious, miraculous gifts.
And when we finally arrive there, when we finally arrive at that feeling of being blessed in some way, perhaps by someone else’s kindness or the by recognizing the opportunities we’ve had—whatever it is—that deeply felt “thank you,” more often than not, also instills in us a desire to give back in some way. Heart-felt gratitude leads to some kind of engagement, participation, commitment, action.
Friends, may this be the kind of giving that happens here, a giving without expectation, a giving born of a deep gratitude for the gift of Life, a giving that comes from seeing goodness and grace in every small thing. May we be able to give thanks not just when things are good, when there is abundance, but always, “in all circumstances,” even in scarcity.
After observing human nature for much of my 60 years, I’m convinced that the way we see life is, by and large, up to us. What happens may play a small role, at least in the short run, but its 90 plus percent a choice. We can focus on what we don’t have, or what we had and lost, or we can embrace it all, every moment, as a divinely bestowed gift.
Giving thanks has nothing has nothing to do with who or what produced this gift. It is, rather, a way of perceiving our life. Even in the midst of hurt, or sadness, or disappointment, when we see ourselves in a universe that gives us life and touches us with love, we praise. Prayers of thanksgiving do not necessarily have to be directed at a benevolent deity. It can also be a way of orienting our persona to a universe we see as benevolent and bestowing. Yes, there are hurts and wounds and disappointments and frustrations. But it’s also a source of care and love and inspiration. In cultivating this kind of orientation, this kind of awareness, we are saying a cosmic “thank you.”
To say thank you is NOT to somehow approve of all that comes our way. It is, rather, being proactive and empowered in a way that is available to every human being who still has breath. To take charge of the one thing we always have control over – our attitude – and transform ourselves and those who come into our sphere of influence. To look at the world through eyes like that first grader with his bag of valentines and think of all the people in our lives with mindfulness. “Do you know what? I didn’t forget a one. Not a single one!” To have such a thought as the meditation of our life. What a graceful way to get through this terminal condition of being human.
May it be so for all of us today, in the coming holiday season, and in our life. Happy Thanksgiving! Amen.