‘Gratitude is a divine emotion: it fills the heart, but not to bursting; it warms it, but not to fever’. The words of English poet and novelist Charlotte Bronte (1816-1855) might encourage us to consider more carefully the cathartic nature of ‘thanks giving’. Does the heart not experience a tenderness and a fresh awareness of the intrinsic value of human life when we stop to deepen our appreciation of life and the natural world? Do we not use ‘gratitude’ as a means of balance, as a ‘pause button’ to connect again with the very truths that shape our sense of meaning, of direction and of hope? A genuine ‘thank you’ can perhaps do as much for the person offering it as it can for the recipient of the thanks. And this year, during the ‘Covid 19’ pandemic, we might have become more mindful, in small but significant ways, of the power of ‘gratitude’ and its therapeutic ways.
Expression of thanks however might not come so easy to everyone. That suggestion is frequently levelled at our younger generation. The word ‘gratitude’ itself is hardly part of the vocabulary we use during our younger years, and I guess the concept can be disregarded somewhat, as dated and vague amid social and academic pressures or expectations. The consumer world can also tighten its grip and block our sense of appreciation. The conveyor belt of ‘new product’ followed by ‘next new product’ is drifting so fast before our eyes, leaving us such little time to gauge the true worth of anything.
From childhood I can only really remember two things that drew attention to the place of ‘thankfulness’ and both took the form of courteous cultural behaviour or instruction. One was the widespread idiom used in the midst of school and home life when one perhaps dismissed something too hastily, ‘Be grateful for what you’ve got!’ In this instance a contrast was being drawn between our relative material happiness, our privileges and our life chances with those of others (… comparatively the same age?) living in other (…‘developing’?) nations who did truly recognise that ‘giving thanks’ was integral to their development into more balanced souls!
I also knew only the one prayer of ‘grace’ that guided me through meal times at the houses of family, friends and church goers: ‘Lord, for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen’. I was not entirely certain at that young age what the word ‘thankful’ involved here, but again the contrast with ingratitude or a lack of appreciation around food and its preparation was clear enough for our ‘developing’ minds to grasp. I knew that gratitude was expected, but little about the impulse or ‘emotion’ that might lie behind it.
These were important elementary lessons and as much about social etiquette as anything else, but they often came across as cultural ‘additions’, an extra line to pronounce so as to guard against any self-centeredness! They seemed an afterthought, because they were associated with a wider pattern or process of social expectation or behaviour. We repeated the words only because others did so, and in a narrow and a specific context.
‘Gratitude’ can perhaps touch us most profoundly when it springs from any genuine bout of self-reflection or realization. The broad Judeo-Christian idea of ‘recognizing the good’ (from the Hebrew term ‘hakarat hatov’), here and now within the existing framework of our lives, can be diluted if we come solely to regard ‘gratitude’ as merely related to good manners or to social expectation (…important though good manners are!). To consider it as a formative life skill or as a tool of therapeutic relationship is a challenge at times, but worthwhile in terms of restoring some inner balance and re-examining our convictions.
Perhaps this is also why we sometimes only get as far as thinking of our own personal ‘circle’ – our ‘possessions’ or our ‘networks’ - in relation to ‘gratitude’. Are we only thankful because of what we have? And have so much of, relative to so many others? How do we ‘escape ourselves’ in any process of becoming more ‘thankful’ and digest a sense of ‘the wider good’ - ‘hakarat hatov’ - at all levels?
It was not until my early 40’s whilst studying for a ‘yoga’ course that I began to consider how spiritual growth could be intricately related to an openness and willingness to be truly ‘thankful’ amidst an often muddled world. Many have found yoga a source of great comfort and re-assurance over these past months of lockdown and coronavirus restrictions. Yoga with its structured focus on breathing, posture and its chants of invocation can bring a sense of perspective into our hurried lives. Rod Stryker (author of ‘The Four Desires‘) speaks of ‘giving thanks…..as if what you hope to achieve has already been received’. In the ‘joining’ of the body and the mind in the practice of yoga exercises, we are striving to show gratitude for the ‘whole’, for an underlying ‘Unity’ that makes up our existence and presents everyday opportunities for renewal and for purpose. Carmelite friar, Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881 – 1942), highlights a similar theme when he writes, ‘we are a unity whereby one part may be affected spiritually and gradually have its effect on other parts of the person’. Does ‘gratitude’ then uncover or reawaken in us that sense of ‘unity’?
As we grow older we recognise how our lives might take distinct twists and turns, for better or for worse, and we come to reflect on how we genuinely do compare with people close and far who might be struggling with so many issues beyond their control. We also begin to see the limits of this ‘mortal life’; we contemplate what might lie beyond our lives, perhaps with fresh perspective on the wonders and the gifts that surround us. Christmas seems to sharpen that focus. Our children, our friends, our natural surroundings, our own company can all fill us with a sense that something very unique, meaningful and treasured has come along, that has found its way to us and to us alone. That within our lives – despite fragility and difficulty – we might be still ‘on board’ this intimate journey, close to the source of all goodness and to truth.
Gratitude is too important to be left solely to one particular sphere of cultural, religious or psychological thought. Putting it at the heart of what we do is a decision to re-align one’s life, to move to new terrain alongside reality and to know that is where we wish to be grounded. In one sense it can help us to speak up and to confirm a particular breakthrough or truth that we might have stumbled upon. ‘Thanks’ offered for a small step forward or for a positive development in our lives. ‘Thanks’ for the strength and courage to pass through personal challenge or undertake much needed personal change. ‘Thanks’ offered to those essential workers and to the voluntary groups that have made this pandemic period so more bearable. Or ‘Thanks’ dedicated to a higher eternal force, for securing before us a steady benevolent path that we can keep to through pain, through setbacks, any loss or isolation.
Such expressions of ‘gratitude’ can pull us away from the world of opinions and judgements, and ultimately away from harmful cravings that cripple our power to transform ourselves and our relationships. Elizabeth of the Trinity is explicit in the basis of her thanksgiving: ‘I have found my heaven on earth, because my heaven is you, my God, and you are in my soul ‘, she writes.
Perhaps critical to our appreciation and to what some have described as the ‘healing power of gratitude’, is its close link with values such as simplicity and tenderness – Bronte’s ‘warming’ of the heart. It is this witness to a deeper and gentle self-knowledge and positive affirmation that can shape our future outlook. When we grow in thanks we are re-connecting with ourselves. It is a means of holding up our own intrinsic worth, the distinct path and integrity of our lives. We embrace a tenderness that is rare, but vital. We are saying ‘yes’ to our deep inner sensitivities and to the direction that we are heading, although we may not know entirely what that direction is to be.
This is not about being smug or beaming self-satisfaction, but more acknowledging that we might have gone through a moment or experience indescribable in word or action, but simply joyous to our delicate heart. That takes us out of the world of worry and of materialism and places us neatly into a world of wonder.
It remains a huge challenge to offer any sort of 'thanks’ at times of sadness and despair, when we feel the ‘absence’ more than the ‘presence’. Gratitude raises so many questions. Who to? What for? When? Why? Yet, it is precisely because it raises these questions about our own nature that we should consider its value on a more regular basis. It can help us to keep an active and a healthy mind, a positive attitude by bringing up these ‘Ultimate Questions’ from time to time and not hiding from them. We need to think big so as to seek to uncover ‘the good’ around us and within us. The coronavirus pandemic have left many more questions on our lips about how we shape the future. Maybe we can over time re-assess the significance of gratitude on our collective and our individual spiritual health.
‘Thanks’ for where one finds oneself in life can take various forms – our recreational time brings us new understandings, children often help us see things differently again, the natural environment likewise has a powerful capacity to re-shape our appreciation, as can new openings in our personal and our public life such as job opportunities, further study or reading, and rekindled friendships or hobbies. ‘Thanks giving’ perhaps sits most comfortably with the ‘purity of heart’ of which Jesus referred to in the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5:8), a tool for us to be free of regrets around the past, unhealthy desires in the present or any fear of the future. Gratitude accepts that our lives are in motion. It helps to link the various undulating stages of our journey to the present day.
Often we are constrained by roles and responsibilities, anxieties and insecurities tie us into looking at the worst of things not the best. 'Gratitude' allows our sometimes over-tight grip, or our hold on the world to relax a little and provide a genuine balance. In short it can help steer us a little nearer to a soothing ‘trust’. The words of Psalm 116 begin to resonate with us again: ‘…you have loosened my bonds, I shall offer you a thanksgiving offering'.
Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: ‘“If the only prayer we ever say in our lives is “Thank You”, that will be enough.” We might not be the ‘praying type’ or the ‘thankful type’, but if we are bold enough to put down our technological devices and to hit the ‘pause button’ from time to time, to consider the way gratitude can ease again the wheels of our wider spiritual, mental and physical routines and shine some new perspective on all that is in front of us, then we might make the very best of this ‘heartwarming’ divine emotion.