A Few Further Thoughts on Gratitude and Meaning

Last week we suggested that we can experience gratitude for life, for our own life as well as for the lives of those who are meaningfully present in our lives, and even for life itself. Such gratitude is possible even amid the inevitable pains of life. I recall the words of theologian and storyteller, John Shea: “Any sorrow can be borne provided as story can be told about it.” I have since heard a similar quotation by Danish author Karen Blixen (whose pseudonym is Isak Dinesen). “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

A favourite example of this view is found in the Shakesperian play, Romeo and Juliet. If we encountered this story of two deaths of teenagers in a newspaper, it would be horrific. But in the play, that is to say, the Shakesperian story, it is something beautiful and therefore meaningful. The opposite is found in the play, Waiting for Godot, which in effect is a non-story, and used to convey a sense of meaninglessness.

We have often said that we do tend to picture our life as a story, that it follows certain script. That script may be operative in our lives without our being consciously aware of it. Sometimes a severe illness, the loss of someone dear, or any tragic event, may call into question or even undermine that script, and we look for a new story to make sense of the events of our lives. Or else, we may even fall into despair. Gregory Baum, the late theologian and refugee from Nazi persecution, wrote that his flight from Germany led him to search for a vision of life that could outlast tragedy.

I believe that it is crucial to come to a script, to a vision that does help us to see ourselves and life truthfully and in depth, and to live accordingly. We need images and stories that enable and challenge us to celebrate our joys, survive our sorrows, share our lives, and build our world. We need a vision that, while acknowledging our wounds, nonetheless affirms our own sacred worth and the sacredness of all else.

The Greek myth of Pandora has had many interpretations. She is frequently portrayed as a female figure who is the occasion of all human ills. Perhaps a clue to an earlier and deeper meaning is found in her very name, which means all the gifts or the gift of everything. Her name would suggest an inclusion of all that brings joy to life as well as its inevitable sorrows. Yet embracing all of these is the gift of hope. A script or story that contains all the elements of life, however complex and ambiguous, may yet be a life filled with hope.

The story of Pandora, then, suggests that it is possible to trust in the meaningfulness of life despite the sorrow that is built into it. It is possible to live our lives with an underlying sense of hope, even though many individual hopes may be dashed. An undertone of gratitude for the gift of life, its value and meaning, is compatible with the pain it may contain.

Spiritual writer Thomas Merton puts it this way (paraphrased in inclusive language): “No matter how ruined a person and their world may be, and no matter how terrible a person’s despair may become, as long as they continue to be a human being, their very humanity continues to tell them life has a meaning. … Our life, as individual persons and as members of a perplexed and struggling race, provokes us with evidence that it must have meaning. Part of this meaning still escapes us. Yet our purpose in life is to discover this meaning, and live according to it.”

Perhaps we might say that the challenge is to discover a script that provides meaning to the full complexity and depth of life; a script that enables us to trust in that meaning, and as a result to live with an undercurrent of gratitude that flows into generosity and compassion.

Such gratitude must come freely from within, and so requires the solitude that allows us to get in touch with our inner self and also the friendship that also allows us to realize further and share that gratitude. A simple yet probably familiar example is found in a situation where a parent tells a child to say thank you to another adult. Where it is commanded but not felt by the child, the word may be said grudgingly. It is not felt by the recipient, who may find the situation quite awkward. Genuine gratitude comes only freely and from within. I recall that at another time and place, I had the privilege of introducing two friends to each other. They later married and I was invited to an attended the wedding. The groom expressed a simple and heartfelt thanks for the introduction and I was deeply moved by its genuineness.

Physician and author, Gabor Mate, offers an interesting and, I find, perceptive approach to this issue. He says that we have two fundamental needs the need for authenticity and the need for belonging. What frequently happens in childhood is that the two needs conflict and that the child feels that he or she is forced to forsake authenticity in order to find acceptance. In that case, we end up with the belief that, if we are authentic, we will be rejected. Yet the impulse to authenticity and to healthy attachment still remain and are ready to assert themselves. Once again the challenge, through silence and solitude, and through caring friendship, and exposure to story, music, and the other arts, is to discover and live from our real, inner self. To do so is to find gratefulness and meaning.

May you come to experience who you are as valuable and sacred. May you become freer to share that self with others. And may your life be permeated with a gratitude which flows to and from a sense of meaning, a recognition of who you are, where you belong, and what you can live for.

As a postscript, here is a reworking of the story of Pandora by myself and my six year old godson, Aidan.

Pandora’s Box, as retold by Aidan and Norm.
Once upon a time, there was a lovely young woman named Pandora. Her name means all the gifts, and she was endowed with all the gifts that any person could want. She had a beautiful box that she kept unlocked by her side for a long time.

One day she thought that it was time to open the box. So she called all the people she knew and even many that she did not yet know. She gathered them all around her and brought out the beautiful box.

She then carefully and gently inserted the gold key and turned it. The lock clicked open. She slowly lifted the lid, And out came all kinds of creatures, some beautiful, and a few others not so. Out flew joy and peace, wisdom and courage, truth and justice, compassion and strength. But then came fear and hurt, sadness and anger. And finally hope and love.

The people were confused. They recognized all the feelings but did not know how they fit together. Then hope spoke. “Sometimes you will feel afraid, and sometimes you will be sad or angry. But I will always be with you if you turn to me. And I will help you in difficult times.”

Then love spoke. “You will sometimes feel lonely and lost, but turn to me and I will walk with you. I will lead you to people who will care for you. And I will help you to care for people too. Then I will be like the box that contains everything in something beautiful.

And you will know that the box is life. It contains everything, It contains all the feelings. But it is a beautiful box, and it will always be open.


Norman King, Sunday, July 03, 2022