Sunday, November 18, 2012

Bonanza Column 259 - The Attitude of Gratitude

As Thanksgiving, 2012 approaches we in America find ourselves in an interesting situation. While the result of the recent election was clear, the campaign reflected a nation that is arguably more divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War era. We are engaged in conflicts that are being fought by 1% of Americans and all but ignored by the other 99%, and the Middle East looks on the verge of escalating into a war from which there may be no turning back.
So it might seem odd to consider the question of gratitude, or it might be argued that there is no better time, no greater need than now.
We are accustomed to thinking about gratitude or giving thanks as transactional – we are grateful FOR something or some things, we are thankful FOR specifics. But gratitude is more like a state of mind. The word “gratitude’ comes from the same root as “grace,” and one definition of grace is “the unmerited (or unearned) love of God for humankind.” If we consider gratitude in relation to this derivation, then “transactional gratitude” makes it too small. It puts us in the position of being grateful for the “good” things in our lives and less grateful or not grateful at all for the “bad” things. But who has not had the experience of something that appeared to be a negative turning out to be a blessing in disguise?
I had the experience not long ago of seeing an off-Broadway play called “Falling,” about a family with a severely autistic grown child. The play was extremely well written and acted, and pulled no punches about the challenges of living with this situation, while at the same time portraying how for all the difficulties, the parents, sister, and grandmother of the boy grew in compassion, love, and understanding from the experience. Probably none of us would have an ill or disabled family member if we had a choice, but all of us can relate to the situation of having that situation occur, and finding the blessings inherent in learning to live with and continue to love the person.
There is an aphorism dating from the 17th Century that says, in German, “Denken ist Danken” – to think is to thank. The 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger expanded on this idea to say that genuine thinking, by which he meant contemplating the meaning of being human, inherently leads to gratitude. The 13th Century theologian Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ it would be enough.” The Dalai Lama suggests that even encounters with those who irritate or annoy us are opportunities for gratitude: “…there are many, many people in the world, but relatively few with whom we interact, and even fewer who cause us problems. So, when you come across such a chance for practicing patience and tolerance, you should treat it with gratitude. It is rare.”
So let’s try, on this one day of the year that is dedicated to gratitude, to put our differences aside and to adopt, for 24 hours at least, an attitude of gratitude. To be thankful not just for our well-being and comfort but also for the opportunities life gives us to practice patience and tolerance, to aid the needy, to comfort the afflicted. Every religious teacher and every religion’s teaching tell us that the meaning of life is not material things and comforts, but to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in pain, and to rejoice in others’ joys. This week, this Thanksgiving Day, let’s remember that and practice the gratitude that is there in a kind word, a thoughtful gesture, and in reaching out, even to those we don’t like or agree with.
Have a happy Thanksgiving and a wonderful holiday season.

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