Care of Self: Gratitude Flowing into Generosity

I heard an interesting broadcast from the BBC World Service this week. It featured the response of a Buddhist nun, Dang Nghiem, to a man who felt he had been used by those he was in contact with and felt drained and lacking in love as a result. She spoke to him about the importance of caring for self. This gives us enough energy as well as the desire to reach out as a kind of overflow rather than a deprivation. As an image, she says that to be able to give a cup of water generously to another, we need a pitcher of water within ourselves.

Another CBC program that same afternoon spoke of the importance of having some meaningful purpose in our life, something that reaches beyond ourselves, beyond the level of mere fun. He spoke in terms of thinking of what is the legacy we leave for others from our lives.

Both remind me of a CBC program I heard years ago, The World of the Child. One speaker from the field of education, John Holt, observed:  “I think the social virtues are overflowing, they are surplus. People have enough kindness for others when they have enough kindness for themselves–otherwise not. … My very strong feeling is that if children are allowed a growing up which enables them to become adults with a strong sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will extend these feelings to include other people.”

In an article on folk tales, called The Logic of Elfland, Writer G. K. Chesterton observes that the core of Beauty and the Beast is that something must be loved before it is loveable. At the end of the article he comments: “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful when in my stockings were the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

Many times, I have come across the emphasis on gratitude as absolutely fundamental. It certainly ties in with a sense of self-worth. So too does resentment tie in with a sense of hostility to others rooted in hostility to self, however unrecognized. As Chesterton suggests, the basic gratitude is a gratefulness for birth, that is, for being alive, for the gift of life. The experience of joy is essentially the experience that life is good, that it is the basic gift from which all else flows.

One friend, living in a dangerous situation once told me how when he went to bed at night he was grateful that he had survived the day, and when he awoke in the morning he was grateful that was still alive. Another friend, who was very difficult as a child, used to say jokingly that he was grateful his parents let him live.

In different ways, there is an underlying recognition that life itself is a wondrous gift. To have emerged from a universe, to be on this blue planet, and to have years to unfold from within, are quite remarkable, and are essentially gifts. They come to us without our forethought or decision. Yet for too many, life may be chiefly experienced as a burden or injured or snuffed out all too soon. At the same time, those who appear to have little are sometimes most filled with gratitude and the joy of living.

I remember once going up Mt. Edith Cavell in the Rocky Mountains. Because of the altitude, the air was thinner and breathing become a little more laboured and therefore noticeable. With that experience came a profound sense that it was good to breathe, that it was good to be alive, and that we are part of a vast world. The very fact of breathing means that we are part of a whole ecosystem, that we do belong to the earth and to the universe. It is fascinating that in both Eastern and Western traditions, the basic form of meditation is attention to one’s breath.

Spiritual author, Wayne Muller, recalls moments that evoked gratitude: “I experience a starry night, a forest after a rain, a loving embrace, a strain of sweet and perfect melody–and that is all it takes to remind me who I am: a spirit, alive, and whole. It helps me remember my nature, hear my name.”

In this light, the question that arises is how do we take care of ourselves? How do we feel enough at home with ourselves that we feel the freedom to reach out, to be caring to another or others, without feeling drained or deprived. It is not easy to approach a balance here. It is usually difficult and a slow process to feel at home with ourselves and have a deep sense of our own sacred worth, which is a precondition for being able to care for others as an kind of overflow.

One approach is simply to take time for ourselves, even if doing nothing but sitting quietly, and coming to recognize that much of our busyness may be less a matter of productivity than of flight or fear. Just simply noticing, appreciating, being present to ourselves can be ways of nourishing our soul.

Generosity perhaps only flows from and presupposes gratitude. It can be helpful to take time to think of what we are grateful for, beyond and deeper than any bitterness or resentment. There is a marvellous Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy is complaining about her life to her brother, Linus. He suggests that when she feels this way, she should count her blessings. That sets off a negative reaction in Lucy until she finally asks him to name one blessing. He answers: “Well, for one thing, you have a younger brother who loves you.” As she goes weeping into his arms, he makes the aside comment” “Every now and then I say the right thing.”

Other approaches might be things we have mentioned before. These include trying to get sufficient rest and some form of mild exercise. Other possibilities are a walk in a natural setting, a time for meditation or reflective reading, conversation with a friend.

May your more and more come to appreciate with gratitude the gift that you are to yourself and to others, and the particular gifts that you have and can share. May you more and more learn to live in the present moment, and experience that moment with a gratefulness that overflows naturally into generosity.

Norman King, January 30, 2022