Of course we try to be grateful every day. But I’m pretty pleased that as a society we take a whole day off for it once a year – it’s even one of the big ones, and it’s long been my favorite holiday. A great many people in our society, including me, objectively have a whole lot to be grateful for. In America, you don’t have to be too well off to be doing far better than a great majority of people in the world; we have it pretty good by most standards.
It’s when I start to compare myself to others like that that I start to feel mixed emotions about my gratitude. How can I be grateful for my bounty when so many have so little? Isn’t that almost exactly like my view – that they are solipsistic at best – of the prayers of the faithful who thank their gods for, say, their own survival as the family in the car next to theirs gets broadsided by a semi?
Back at the beginning of Summer I wrote a post on music in Iraq. Iraq’s various peoples have exceptionally rich histories, but their present country has been a war zone for many years, and the current state of affairs itself replaced a long reign of terror by a despotic murderer. Of course most of the people there, as in most places, are moderate – but they operate in a sea of radical factions that is controlling their lives and culture and government. There is very little that is objectively positive happening in Iraq right now. But I’d be willing to bet that Iraqis find things to be grateful for – it’s who we are as humans.
Gratitude is a human universal. Even if all we can find is the fact that we have lived to see another day, we will be ever-grateful for the sun. Gratitude keeps the universe in perspective. And gratitude is, in many ways, an acknowledgement of the fundamental lack of fairness in the way the cold, amoral universe distributes its resources.
Last night I grabbed the mail on my way up and it contained two thank you cards – one from Teacher for our phenomenal excursion to see Anne-Sophie Mutter last week, and one from some dear friends recently married. As I put them on the refrigerator I replaced two other thank you cards that were already there – both were from individuals thanking us for responding to their donation requests. I know we’re supposed to pretend that thank you cards are beside the point, but I commented to Michael as I put them up that I do love receiving them.
Between humans, giving and gratitude are, by definition, shared experiences – on both sides of the equation. We are not only grateful to receive a gift, but to be able to give one too. We express our gratitude with a gesture – a word, a card, a text, and we are grateful for receiving the gesture too. In other words, a state of true gratitude is a fully reciprocal dyad. And that perfect state of gratitude is indeed a big part of this day.
But so is one-sided gratitude for our plain dumb luck, and it’s sad but important to acknowledge that such luck often comes at the expense of others. I could list a million things for which I’m truly grateful; the universe has granted me plenty. For today, as the embers smolder in Ferguson, MO and 40,000 Masai in Tanzania are about to be forcibly removed from their homeland to create a safari hunting zone for the royal family of Dubai, I’ll join that proud, ancient tribe in what is doubtless their eternal gratitude for the sun.
Thanks for reading.