Last week I posted a blog about gratitude. The combination of your insightful feedback and my own further reflection led me to develop my thoughts further. So, much of what you'll read here may
be redundant. My hope, however, is to revisit gratitude and flesh out more fully what I meant last week. Blogs, as opposed to other genres of writing, are more raw, less edited, written on the
run. But they also live and listen in a vibrant way that I love. I hope what follows conveys such immediacy. Go ahead, pull up a chair. What this one lacks in brevity might be made up for in
clarification and depth of meaning.
Happiness or Gratitude?
Please forgive the unadorned title. I’m tired. Tired, especially, of misleading titles. This is a reflection on the experience of gratitude, not the art of being happy or optimistic. I have no beef against feeling good, nor do I find a cultivated sense of positive resolve without merit. Really, I don’t. Happiness and optimism have their place in life. But I grow weary over how they have colonized the landscape of popular culture--often in the name of gratitude. I see gratitude bandied about as a means toward achieving a hipper, happier life (or happiness’s first cousins, a “healthier” or “wealthier” life). Feeling down? Want to be happy? Then count your blessings! Gratitude functions in our culture as a kind of handmaiden to almighty happiness. Gratitude as just another massage technique to soothe the sad, stressed, and overworked ego. Gratitude as the “key” to a winning attitude. So my title is ambitious in its directness. Gratitude. I hope to speak of gratitude.
A Sherpa Named Grace
Before I can speak of gratitude, I must advocate for gratitude, since the experience itself is too genuinely humble and focused on other more vital matters to be flashy or self-promoting. Which also points to the hubris of my ambition, which may have gotten the best of me. Is it possible that, despite my desire to be as direct as possible, gratitude’s inherent humility warrants indirection? That is, to get to this thoroughly embedded sense of thankfulness and praise, we must necessarily name and move through other aspects of reality that clamor for and hold our attention? I’m afraid so. For example, we must first square off with a serious case of mistaken identity. Gratitude is not happiness. Gratitude is not allergic to, nor has it ever been divorced from, feeling good. But happiness is not the aim. Gratitude arrives as purpose, direction, and meaning. Gratitude is not a feeling, but a path; gratitude is not provided by a masseuse, but a sherpa. Gratitude is a path we find best when led by a sherpa named Grace.
Grace knows the exact proportion of the mountain before us, sizes up the gathering clouds above us. She respects without fear the scale and depth of the challenge that awaits. Grace reorients us to our small but decisive role in the imminent ascent or descent. She knows the best paths to trust, the necessary switchbacks when the way is too steep or the best places to pitch a tent when an unexpected storm moves in. She’s been this way before, many times. The way, she says, will be given as we proceed. Will there be happiness? Sure. But also a whole rugged, ragged range of other emotions, like anger, disappointment, frustration, disillusionment, and fatigue. Grace leads us to take in the whole range. There will be blood and blisters and gloriously dangerous vistas, but Grace can be counted on to carry us through. And when she draws near, or when we realize her nearness, we know that gratitude is a gift, a state that befriends and never deserts us. Grace arrives and guides us with a formidable simplicity that is never formulaic. Gratitude comes as a gift that unnerves our ego’s desperate attempts at control and self-sufficiency. It reawakens the vitalizing sense of our necessary place, at risk, vulnerable and valuable within the larger interdependency of all things created and given.
What Exactly Is Happiness?
But what about happiness? If Grace is our sherpa who leads us into gratitude, then happiness is one of many essentials in her rucksack. Like anger and a host of other feelings, Grace might use happiness as, say, a dependable barometer, a way to measure the passing weather—but never as a compass. Unfortunately, some of our best spiritual leaders tend to confuse happiness and gratitude, or even to privilege happiness over gratitude. Take, for example, a TED Talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast I viewed recently: “Want to Be Happy? Be Grateful.” Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk whose classic book on gratitude, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, I have trusted and referenced for over thirty years. He begins his talk by stressing happiness as the “one thing” we all want. He then proceeds to show how gratitude is the “key to happiness.” But as we listen, we soon realize that he actually honors gratitude as the deeper well. He encourages us to welcome each moment, however happy or sad, difficult or unpleasant, as an opportunity to experience “something valuable freely given.” We’re called to be grateful for the opportunity to savor each given moment. This is the “gift within the gift.”
Everything Steindl-Rast says about gratitude I affirm. I object only to how he does this by pandering to our culture’s incessant craving for happiness. He may simply be savvy at marketing. Knowing that his audience values the pursuit of happiness as the summum bonum, he champions their quest. Then, at the right moment, he pulls off a very clever bait-and-switch: he lures us in with Kool Aid happiness, but then points us to the costly wine of well-aged gratitude. I’d rather he come clean from the get-go and acknowledge the gratitude he, in fact, ends up making the case for in a roundabout way. He encourages us to realize that each moment is “something valuable freely given,” although it may have all sorts of mixed and fleeting feelings in tow, both pleasant and unpleasant. Hence, with gratitude come any number of hard lessons that are far more vital and empowering than merely feeling good, like how to take a difficult stand, to suffer, or to grieve whole-heartedly. My main beef with his talk, again, is the dangerous angle he takes. I firmly believe the means is the end, that the means of experiencing gratitude, of being companioned and guided by Grace, produces the end of gratitude. Grace is the sherpa, not happiness. A Graced heart is a grateful heart. A grateful heart leads to a grateful life.
To be fair, it may be that Steindl-Rast has a deeper sense of happiness in mind, one more akin to what I might call joy. It’s hard to know, since the meaning of happiness can be a slippery fish in our culture. We mean at least two basic things by happiness: first and foremost, happiness as feeling good; second and increasingly rare, happiness as a full and vital life, however it may happen to feel at any given moment.
Most often, we hear happiness used to describe simply feeling good: enjoying a pleasant feeling, a kind of gladness, or a sense of being gratified. We all enjoy pleasant feelings, so it’s no surprise that we often catch ourselves chasing them. But feelings don’t last, no matter how much we try to hold on to them. Like the moon, they wax and wane, then move on without us. Like the weather, they follow a pattern all their own. Not surprisingly, the linguistic root of happiness captures this fleeting sense. It means “by chance” or “a happening” So happiness stems from a sense of wonder at chance occurrences. But we tend to disregard this root quality of happenstance, forgetting that pleasant feelings have a life of their own beyond our control. We try to rip happiness out of its naturally impermanent flow by forcing it into a rigged, fixed state. This attempt to sustain uninterrupted light risks the dangerous realm of addiction. By trying to cling to good feelings, we can fall into the “happiness trap,” compelled to scour the dark alleys and street corners for one more “fix” to keep us feeling perpetually good.
Another far less common usage of happiness refers to a full and meaningful life. Physician and therapist Russ Harris describes this rarer and deeper angle on happiness: “When we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality.” Backup and break that down: take actions that matter; move in valuable directions; clarify values. If by happiness we mean something like this, the living of a vital life based on actions rooted deep in our hearts, then, yes, by all means, gratitude and happiness are close neighbors. Why? Because being happy in this way is the exact opposite of the singular pursuit of good feelings only. It allows, indeed calls, for a life that enjoys the comfortable and weathers the uncomfortable. A full range of emotion is expected in living such an engaged, vital life. (It’s this larger view of happiness that Steindle-Rast ends up making the case for by calling it gratitude.)
Gratitude: Living and Loving Before God
Authentic faith acknowledges and honors feelings as an essential part of being human, but its deeper resolve is to reclaim the bona fide depth of being. Gratitude is that experience of thankfulness that arises from living life with Grace, what I see best defined in the Christian tradition as life coram Deo--before God. Gratitude's an organic opening of the heart to thankfulness and praise that can be cultivated, regardless of one's mood or life circumstance. You read that correctly: gratitude is an organic experience that can be cultivated. Much like a seed, gratitude bears a vital secret whose full harvest cannot be forced but begs for our attentive collaboration. Gratitude arises from living in a manner that takes God as a given--and as the Giver. We enter each day presupposing, as theologian George Stroup puts it, "that human life once was, is now, and forever shall be 'before God.'" In other words, we are created, redeemed, sustained, now and forever preceded, given our very life by the One before us--rooted in the Alpha and Omega of Christ’s love. Here is Grace.
Such "beforeness" lies behind the Apostle Paul's audacious encouragement to: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:16-18). Notice that tiny preposition in. It's big. Paul does not give thanks for everything, but in the midst of everything. The great theologian Paul Tillich once preached a sermon titled "In Everything Give Thanks." (It's well worth reading. You can find it in The Eternal Now.) Here he says, "There are no limits to situations in which to thank, but there are limits to things for which thanks can be expressed." He continues, "Can we honestly give thanks for the frustrations, accidents, and diseases that strike us? We cannot in the moment they take hold of us. Here is one of the many situations where piety can degenerate into dishonesty." Then this, "Out of the depths the psalmist cries to God; he does not thank God. This is honest, realistic--a realism born out of the awareness of the divine presence." But Tillich also allows for time to heal, for gratitude to have its due season: "And I believe that at some time in our lives all of us have had experiences that were nothing but evil when they happened, but that became good later and the object of honest thanks."
The experience of gratitude may be hard to get at because it rests so closely to our very experience of God’s ineffable mystery. In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton spends a whole chapter pointing out how intimately related our faith is to our experience of gratitude. He equates ingratitude with the "primal sin of not knowing God." We can have knowledge of God, but not be grateful for our knowledge. We might know about God, but not allow this to gladden us with God's love. For Merton, "Our knowledge of God is perfected by gratitude: we are thankful and rejoice in the experience of the trust that God is love." He concludes:
To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of God's love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from God. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference (emphasis added).
The trick seems to be to "start close in," as poet David Whyte might say, to toss the definitions and focus on how we experience the goodness of God. Gratitude is not an abstract virtue, but a living emanation of God's very presence. Invite Grace. At the very least, be open to Grace. Let Grace find you and guide you. Stay near to her loving way.
Rather than ponder propositions about gratitude, let me mention a few experiences where Grace sidled up unexpectedly, drew near, and took the point for me, where gratitude found me. Here I was met by the goodness and love of God more immediately, prepositionally instead of propositionally, as Eugene Peterson encourages us.
Gratitude Shifts Our Attention
With Grace, my attention tends to shift from the weighty Big Picture to the little things that startle and still. While walking the dog, Grace points out a mockingbird on a highline wire above me, moving through her birdsong repertoire. While listening to a friend, Grace reveals the tremble in the hand, or the catch in the throat, as he tells a story. While hiking, Grace points out a yellow cactus blossom in the distance, wavering and drawing me through the desert heat. Whether noticing these small things triggers gratitude or gratitude triggers the noticing is anyone's guess. I only know that gratitude and attentiveness dovetail. What Merton sensed about gratitude now bears its own truth in my life: I am slowly beginning to "recognize the love of God in everything."
Grace brings us back to the land of the living. Gratitude's first inkling may be in the "places of the heart," surely, but like a flash it also flares in the streets, or along the valley path, or in the checkout line at Target, blessing wherever we happen to be at the time. Trees lean in and listen. Gratitude bridges our "inscape" with our "landscape." It situates us wholly within the passing moment. Just as there are no "dittos among souls," as Baron von Hugel once put it, there are no generic sacred places either. Grace is everywhere, but given our peculiar proclivities, certain places prove to be more sacred than others. For some, Disney World might be a thin place, or Las Vegas, even Branson. For me, it's Nada Carmelite Hermitage in Crestone, CO.
I returned there this past July with my good friend Guy Sayles (pictured above). It’d been eight years since our last shared retreat at Nada, the time cut short by his father’s passing. We’d vowed then to return and complete our retreat one day. Ironically, our return was made possible by Guy’s recent diagnosis with multiple myeloma. Knowing rest and less stressful conditions would foster his new life and hope for remission, Guy resigned as pastor of First Baptist Church of Asheville, NC. He was now discerning his “whole new life,” as Reynolds Price once described the "new normal" of his life with cancer. A lighter Grace led me to my friend Guy over thirty years ago. He has been a soul friend in the best sense of the Celtic tradition of anam cara. And a somewhat darker Grace helped bring us back together to this sacred place--older, questionably wiser, and closer than brothers.
At Nada my soul dilates, my aperture on the world opens up. Sure, there are plenty of grand sights to catch the eye: the vast blue sky by day, the immense night canopied with stars, the vertiginous Sangre de Cristo peaks rising to 14,000 feet, the desert valley that undulates forever. But what strikes me most is how minutely focused my attention becomes with each retreat. For example, the bowl (pictured above) was found sitting empty outside my hermitage during my last stay. I figured another retreatant had placed it there to catch rainwater in the desert for the thirsty birds or other critters that happened along. Since the rain had not done its job of late, I filled the dish with tap water and waited. Before long, God landed this spaceship, brimming with raucous Mountain Bluebirds from Planet Lord Knows Where. They threw their own dance party of blue just outside my window (pictured below). One hung a tiny disco ball the size of an acorn in a nearby scrub oak. Another dove into the pool with his clothes on. The rest had a high time busting their best moves, just happy to be here. And this was about as productive as my morning got that day.
On the last day of the retreat, Guy and I spotted this plastic water jug and bowl (pictured above) in another part of the desert, placed there along a path by hikers with a caring intent. Again we were struck by how this place seemed to work us over, enlarging our hearts and sharpening our vision for the least of these. Compassion blossomed. We found ourselves growing more gentle and receptive as gratitude took root again. Grace jumped in the truck as we drove off, continuing to point out the path of gratitude back to St. Louis.
Gratitude Blesses the Elementary
Later this summer, while I in Asheville celebrating our son's wedding, we stayed in a cabin high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It became a sacred place for us. Grace shifted our attention to the little things throughout that week that led up to the Big Event: trees green and full at summer’s height, purple and red crepe myrtles, dark cicadas' evensong, myriad visits with friends and family, where, you guessed it, we met up again with Guy and his wife, Anita. Even the much-anticipated wedding vows shared by my son and his fiancé were comprised of small, precise words carefully chosen by large hearts. I came across this sweet sign (below) while out walking one morning and was reminded again of how beauty draws us to the small, renewing our penchant for the elementary, the elements that mysteriously comprise what is sometimes called our "larger life." As gratitude takes over, the usual blur of harried perception drops into a more lucid and lucent ease. We take it in. Slow for kittens.
Gratitude Lives Behind and Through the Words
Back in 1923, poet and physician William Carlos Williams wrote a short poem called "XXII" and published it in his collection Spring and All. It became known as "The Red Wheelbarrow," one of his biggest, most widely anthologized, poems:
"The Red Wheelbarrow"
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Much ink has been spilt by students and scholars extolling the virtue of this comically simple and homely one-sentence poem. They gush over how it epitomizes early 20th century Imagistic poetry in the merging of meaning and form, love how it knifes through flabby verbiage and cuts to the gist of how things are. They point out Williams' photographic fascination with "things in themselves," or how he explores perception as absolutely necessary to life. It's as if they feel compelled to offer lengthy, loquacious apologies for the poem's spare, quiet manner.
All this is interesting enough, but the experiential prompting behind the poem is mentioned far less. Williams later explained that the poem's inspiration "sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the ﬁsh. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his backyard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing." It turns out that "Marshall" was Thaddeus Lloyd Marshall Sr., who lived just a few blocks up the street from Williams in Rutherford, New Jersey. So the poem emerges from his gratitude for a friend, empathy, an affectionate coming together of neighbors who crossed the line on the color bar.
Grace as Our Sherpa, Gratitude as Our Path
With Grace as our sherpa, we are led into the heart of life. We’re given a path, a way opens up before us and out on all sides. We’re more grateful. When we’re grateful we say thank you. We acknowledge the giver as living, a “who” not a “what.” As Martin Buber famously put it, we begin to see the world as a “Thou” rather than as an “it.” We say thanks to convey to the giver our connection, our grateful dependency. Thank you, Grace, for the gift you give me. It may come from you. It may come through you. But it all comes coram Deo, before God. Without God, without you, the giving and receiving of gifts, we might get by, but we would never come alive. Because of Grace, we gradually recognize the love of God in all things, great and small, light and dark, human and more than human.
So much depends upon . . . a red wheelbarrow, a lifelong friend, a well-loved kitten, a neighbor who invites you into his backyard for a chat one day, an impromptu Mountain Bluebird Rave outside your window, even white hens pecking and scratching about the grass--all these minute visitations of God’s love, of Grace that splays the heart open with gratitude. In fact, if we had only one image to convey what gratitude is like in the naked moment, why not say that it resembles that tilted terra cotta bowl of mirror-still water? One grateful and glad heart, poised and open in the desert, offering itself to all who thirst as a way of saying thank you before God.