A recent podcast on CBC’s Tapestry affirmed that one of the aids to living well in the crisis time of Covid, is to recall each morning things for which we are grateful. The person interviewed was Aisha Ahmad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. This gratitude is to concern things in the present, not past experiences currently unavailable. Gratitude may also concern very simple things. Other podcasts have also stressed that gratitude is essential to a fulfilling life.
What strikes me here is that such an approach is not a matter of sentimentality or artificial cheeriness. It is rather a gradually dawning realization that, however painful at times, and however engulfed by sadness, depression, or difficulties, that can seem to cast us into an inescapable prison, it is somehow better to be alive. I recall an interview years ago with an elderly woman who was asked if she minded growing old. Her response, along the same lines, was, “I prefer it to the alternative.”
In a reflection some weeks ago I also touched on the theme of gratitude, and said that the underlying gratitude, that informs all other forms, is a gratefulness for the gift of life. Implied in gratitude is the recognition of a gift. When saying thanks is not a mere formality, but comes freely from within ourselves, it is a recognition that we have received something that was not an obligation, but something freely given. The opposite is seen when a child is demanded to say a thanks he or she does not feel. In that case the child experiences resentment rather than gratefulness, and the person thanked does not feel any value in that forced gesture.
The gratitude that counts, both for the one offering thanks and the one receiving it, is the gratitude freely given from within. It implies not only a gift that might not have been given, but a gift that is valuable. When someone just listens to our pain without answers or advice, or stands by us during a time of stress, or expresses a simple kindness, or befriends us in any way, all of these are gifts which evoke a heartfelt gratitude.
These experiences can reinforce in us the sense that it is good to be alive. They are gifts that affirm the value of the gift of life itself, and can help to foster an underlying sense of gratitude for the gift of life, for being alive. Author Josef Pieper speaks in this vein in books, such as About Love and In Tune with the World. He says that when we celebrate someone’s birthday, we are essentially saying that it is good that this person has been born; it is good that he or she is, exists, and by extension, it is good that everything is. He further adds that when you love someone, you are stating not merely that it is good that they are such and such–clever, useful, or skillful; more profoundly, you are affirming that it is good that he or she is, it is wonderful that they exist. In effect, it is the experience of gratitude that this person is in our life, that we are grateful for their presence in the world and in our world, that it is good to be with this person. The very word “presence” comes form the Latin words prae and ens, literally “being with.”
Among other stories of wondrous birth, The Grimm Brothers’ rendition of Sleeping Beauty offer a similar perspective. While the queen is bathing, a frog scurries out of the water and announces that her wish for a child will be granted. The child is presented not as a creation of the parents, but as a gift that is wanted and cherished. Beyond any sentimentality, the image of the wanted gift contains the two basic convictions: (1) from the outset the child is a distinct, unique, sacred person, entrusted to rather than produced by the parents; (2) as a gift, the child is to be received with gratitude.
This child is every child, including ourselves. Yet, due to limitations and life situations, the extreme of which is forms of abuse, this conviction is never fully achieved and only gradually realized and with struggle. That is why authors such as Richard Rohr insist that our sacred worth and our recognition of that worth must include our shadow side as well, the weaknesses, and flaws found in each of us.
One example, to mention at this point briefly, is forgiveness. With its cognate word, “pardon,” its root has the connotation of giving thoroughly. It suggests that this is perhaps the greatest gift one can give to self or another. It implies that there is a core self distinct from and untouched by anything a person says or does. The opposite presumption is illustrated by an argument in which we bring in something form the past. Here the attack attempts to identify someone with something they have done and from which they can never escape. Forgiveness separates a person from such a deed, and affirms that we are more than and are ultimately untouched by the worst thing that we have ever done or that has been done to us.
In effect, the reality of forgiveness, perhaps most difficultly offered to our own self, asserts that there is a sacred core self, an inmost home, that always remains, even if unacknowledged. It proclaims that the gift that we are, the life we have received, is thoroughly given, that it is a lasting gift that can never be lost or destroyed. As a result, it is also a call to gratitude for this gift, even in the midst of sorrows. And it is a call to recognize and honour that gift in self and others, human and non human, in appropriate ways.
In this perspective, it is a possibility and a challenge to live a life infused with gratitude, flowing into generosity. This life direction may be followed with a full awareness of the many forms of suffering, yet contained within the beauty of life.
May you all come more and more to experience yourself, your life, and all life as a wondrous gift. A gift to accept with gratitude, cultivate with care, share with one another, and contribute to a just society on our planetary home.
Norman King, May 3, 2021