Gratitude

Last Sunday my family and I celebrated Thanksgiving. Though a few days early and on the wrong side of the world, we did our day in style. We feasted on fried chicken, jalapeño grits, cornbread, green bean casserole, and macaroni & cheese. And we finished with sweet pies: pecan and buttermilk.

I like Thanksgiving. Of all the weird and wonderful things American, it’s my favourite. It’s a day set aside to say ‘thank you!’ Though a bit awkward at first, we did the American thing. Each guest was invited to reflect back on the year and name something or someone for which they were grateful. It’s a simple practice, yet potent. With a few words, each person made visible what otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Thankfulness is a thought before it’s a feeling. It’s an attitude we choose. Essayist Margaret Visser calls gratitude our “thinking heart.” We can feel all sorts of things without much thought, she says: anxiety, resentment, fear, anger, or sadness. Feelings like these come from nowhere. Gratitude takes thought. It takes practice. It’s an attitude cultivated by paying attention — beholding and naming what’s under our noses all of the time.

The English philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said, “the greatest poem is an inventory.” When we take time to notice all that is good, beautiful and grace-filled in our lives, gratitude follows. It’s not about what is mine by right or entitlement but what is gift and grace. As Chesterton says, “there is no way in which man can earn a star or deserve a sunset.”

Since our Sunday feast I have been reflecting on what a life of gratitude looks like. In my own thinking I’ve often identified the character traits of gentleness, generosity and contentment as those I most aspire to. It occurs to me that each one flows most naturally from a mind shaped by thankfulness.

I read recently of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman confined to a transit camp in Holland awaiting transportation and death in Auschwitz. She worked tirelessly to comfort her fellow prisoners and to embody hope and light in the midst of such abhorrent darkness. In 1943, Etty wrote to a friend, enclosing a prayer she had just written in her diary:

“You have made me so rich, O God, please let me share your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, O God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, O God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and this is my prayer.”

I cannot imagine Etty’s life, but I am deeply challenged by her thinking heart — a heart shaped by gratitude and sustained by a profound sense of grace.  She was able to live generously with others, even in the most awful circumstances, because her own soul was steeped in thankfulness.

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