My sense of gratitude seems to have grown with time. I feel grateful about as often as I need to pee, which these days is a matter of minutes more than hours. Age probably has as much to do with the one as the other. At seventy I’m able to see most of the ways that what I used to take for granted could have been otherwise. I’ve watched the crapshoot long enough to know all the various combinations on the dice. As their similar spellings might suggest, an awareness of the gratuitous goes hand in hand with gratitude, a sense that anything good in your life, even something that might seem deserved, is pretty much a gift. Better people than you have gone without it.
Age also means that I’ve lost enough friends and relations to death to know that waking up to another day, next to someone I love and in reasonably good health, is a condition worth acknowledging. I’m not dead yet, thank God. And I’m not alone.
I’m also not gainfully employed, which in past years could feel rather lonely and a bit like death. I still work six days a week, mentally at my desk and physically outdoors, but I haven’t driven to a job in years. I haven’t plunged into that nexus of contingencies, that quagmire of caprice, that so many people experience as “work.” This continues to be a source of gratitude for me.
The same can be said for seeing a child grow to become an adult whose company I enjoy and whose judgment I respect. Every year that our daughter adds to her life adds another load of gratitude to mine. My wife and I miss having her at home and are glad whenever she can visit, but we don’t live like cohabitating strangers in her absence. We have a companionable life—“such a cute old couple,” as our daughter wickedly likes to say—and I’ve seen enough unhappy marriages not to take our good fortune for granted.
Not that my wife and I have lived a charmed life, though compared to some of our contemporaries, we’ve been spared much. We’ve certainly known difficulties along the way, brushes with death, disease, and unmerited disgrace, so some of the gratitude I feel has to do with a sense of deliverance.
It’s only lately, as I’ve become more grateful, that I’ve given much thought to what gratitude is. I can’t say I’ve grasped the whole of it. At the least I would say that gratitude is an appreciation that reaches beyond myself and even beyond those gifts for which I’m grateful. An infant probably has only the fuzziest sense of distinction between himself and the one who feeds him, between his cry and the milk that comes in response. Gratitude begins with the awareness that this other person exists. The child is glad of that fact and, if the nourisher is kind, continues to be glad long after his switch to solid food. Perhaps gratitude is a better antonym for egotism than altruism or humility. Not even art is better at taking us out of ourselves.
As a person who expresses much of his gratitude with prayer, I sometimes wonder what gratitude feels like for a nonbeliever or for a believer whose concept of God precludes the giving and acceptance of thanks. Who’s the “other party,” the giver, for that person? In the case of a human giver, we needn’t ask. In heartfelt acknowledgment of the medical care that has extended her life, the grateful atheist leaves her body to science as an offering of thanks. But what if her life has been long and sweet with no medical intervention? Can one feel grateful in the absence of another’s good intent, “as though there were a God even though there isn’t”? I’m inclined to believe that gratitude itself is gratis, falling like the rain and the sunlight on theist and atheist alike and perhaps on every sentient creature. I’m not the first person to infer gratitude from the chirping of the birds at the dawning of a new day.
If my gratitude has grown with age, so has a need to question it. As soon as one begins to feel virtuous in his gratitude, it becomes something else. Gratitude can easily devolve to little more than self-congratulation at one’s (presumably merited) good fortune. If you’re not careful, “I’m so grateful” can start to sound like “I’m so great.”
In that regard I’m reminded of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisee’s prayer of thanksgiving is a catalog of self-congratulation: “I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” My newer translation, which has the Pharisee “standing by himself” as he prays in the temple, removes the nuance of the King James Version, in which the Pharisee “prayed thus with himself”; the older phrasing falls one step short of suggesting that he prays to himself. His so-called prayer is masturbatory; his ostensible gratitude reverts to the infantile narcissism from which genuine gratitude would have delivered him.
One doesn’t have to be outrageously self-righteous for his gratitude to become suspect; he need only feel that his gratitude suffices to make him good. In that case, he resembles the person who believes that being “well-informed” amounts to being politically engaged. If there’s a God, the divine response to “Thank you” may not be “You’re welcome” so much as “You’re equipped.” So what will you do with your equipment?
For religious people like me, gratitude can also contain an element of superstition, the illusory guarantee that if you’re sufficiently grateful you’ll continue getting the good stuff you’re grateful for, or at least will avoid getting the bad. As long as you say “Thank you” often and emphatically enough you will never need to cry “Help.” Gratitude is thus reduced to a magic charm. The superstitious mindset is not unlike the scientific in this respect: As long as you follow the correct formula you ought to get the desired result. The system leaves no room for grace.
There’s a paradox to gratitude, one easier to intuit than describe. On the one hand, it’s an irreproachable emotion, as fit for heaven as for earth. I don’t expect to ever again feel angry or sad should death convey me to “a better place,” but I do expect to be grateful. I think of gratitude as an essential piece of my continuity from one world to the next. Wherever I should find myself in eternity or time, my gratitude has as much right to exist as I do. It wants no excuse.
On the other hand, it excuses nothing. Being “ever so grateful” doesn’t exonerate a person for being ever so selfish or smug, much less for depriving others of their chances to be thankful. Humility suits a prayer of thanksgiving perhaps only a little less than it does the confession of a sin.
I’m often appalled by the fragility of my gratitude, by how quickly it can give way to grousing. Or by how quickly my usual anxiety reasserts itself after a heartfelt prayer of thanks. My gray hairs don’t disguise my periodic resemblance to a cranky child at Christmas: I unwrap one present after another, hardly pausing to savor one before tearing into the next, but grow inconsolable if the wrapping paper cuts my thumb.
I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s wife chiding him before he said grace. “Nay, hold Mr. Johnson, and do not make a farce of thanking God for a dinner which in a few minutes you will protest not eatable.” I don’t like thinking of Dr. Johnson as an ingrate, and his “dear Tetty” may have been an execrable cook, but the anecdote does offer a picture of gratitude in want of further growth. That we have the anecdote from Johnson’s own lips, who confided it well into his mournful widowerhood, suggests that he had indeed grown. He came to see what he’d lacked when his wife was still alive. Often I’m lacking it still.
Lucky for me I’m not without help. I’ve noticed that my wife and I have recently developed the habit of gently reminding each other of good events in the midst of our frustrations. Sometimes we do this with a touch of humor, often prefaced with the phrase “at least”—as in “at least the raccoon wasn’t a skunk”—but more often than not, “at least” is not sarcastic. We’ve still had a pretty good day, we have a good life, we have the money to pay the exorbitant bill. We’re not in a war zone.
I don’t recall who started doing this (probably my wife) and can’t say who does it more often, but there’s an element of mutual imitation, for which I’m also grateful. That we’re prone to imitate other people is, depending on what’s being imitated, one of the loveliest or ugliest parts of being human. One can say the same about being married or having a friend.
Lately I’ve been thinking of gratitude in relation to forgiveness. Some days forgiveness and gratitude seem to me like the paisley halves of the yin and yang symbol, each bent around the curvature of the other with a small circle of the other in its fattest part.
For one thing, gratitude seems to make it easier to forgive. When a person has an abundance of things to be grateful for, or an abundance of gratitude for the things he has, he has less time and energy to nurse a grievance. If only to hold my happiness more tightly, I can let my grudges go.
This too: Being forgiven can arouse the most heartfelt gratitude. When someone forgives me, not begrudgingly but without reservation, I feel a liberating rush of gratitude. I feel “all right.” I stand up straighter with that burden off my back.
Or should I say I’m better able to get out of bed? I have a recurring dream in which I’ve murdered someone and hidden the body. No one but me knows what I’ve done or where the body is hidden (often in the woods on our property). I don’t always know the identity of the person I’ve killed. Both the murder and the disposal of the body antedate the action of the dream, which consists mostly of my being torn between the desire to confess and the fear of being found out. How could I have done such a thing, I wonder. And what will the others in the dream think of me once my crime is known? The worst part of the nightmare is being in their presence, knowing the groundlessness of their regard for me. These dreams are sometimes so vivid that in the first moments of waking I can’t convince myself that the dream was just a dream. To come fully awake from such a dream is to be shot through with relief, an emotion never far from gratitude, and in the case of my dream, close to the sensation of forgiveness, from the cancellation of an intolerable debt.
I think that sensation goes a long way, longer even than the psychology of fanaticism, toward explaining the alacrity with which so many of the first Christians embraced a martyr’s death. More than any vision of heaven or fear of hell they were possessed by a deep and collective sense of being forgiven. The origins surely lie in their founding narrative, in the experience of the first disciples who betrayed Jesus and deserted him in his death only to recognize in the epiphany (or hallucination, if you prefer) of the Resurrection that they were forgiven, utterly released from the karmic consequences of their most regrettable mistake. Jesus had freed them from that burden forever, so they believed, he had awakened them from that bad dream, and to renounce him, even under threat of torture and death, was unthinkable.
Supposedly there’s a Zen koan that defines enlightenment as being “an ordinary man who has nothing left to do.” Am I trying too hard if I see a similarity between that Zen saying and the sense of forgiveness I’m imputing to the Christian martyrs? To have “nothing left to do” is to have nothing to atone for, apologize for, be punished for, or called to task for. To a scrupulous type like me, it seems the ultimate liberation, a gift for which one might willingly suffer and die.
To be an ordinary person with “nothing left to do” is, to the extent I can even imagine someone so extraordinary, to live in a state of constant forgiven-ness and corresponding gratitude. I don’t mean to suggest a state of blasé inaction. Having nothing left to do is not the same as doing nothing. It’s doing, and if need be dying, as a gratuitous act of thanks.
The person with nothing left to do has no one left to forgive—not the executioner, not the crowds jeering from the stands. In her gratitude, she holds nothing against anyone. She can forgive her enemies, she can forgive her friends, she can even forgive her parents. In a manner of speaking, she can forgive God, whose providence, like Dr. Johnson’s dinner, has so often struck her as unpalatable even as she gave thanks for it.
She can forgive herself, you want me to add, but I’m not sure that’s how forgiveness works, or gratitude either. Forgiving yourself has always struck me as too dull a transaction, too heavy a lift. I know because I’ve tried, both wide awake and in my dreams. It’s like buying yourself a present, nice enough but a little short on joy. I need the other party, I need the someone else. Were there no one left on Earth to read, I would probably still write, but how grateful I am for a grateful reader, someone who’s enjoyed my words and forgiven some too.