The 1863 proclamation which created the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States – a time when many stop and consider gratitude – opened with this thought: “The year that is drawing to its close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.” This acknowledgement of blessings from nature stands out to me because it was made during one of the darkest hours in American history as the Civil War ended lives, divided families, and destroyed acreage with no clear end in sight. Was this a ploy to bolster optimism during a man-made catastrophe? Maybe it offered a specific way of understanding gratitude as recognizing the good outcomes in life over which man exerts little control.
An article by scholar Jeremy David Engels got me thinking more about how gratitude can function in everyday life. While researching his book The Art of Gratitude, he discovered that in many traditions the notion of gratitude is linked with the idea of obligation – as in owing a “debt of gratitude.” Some practitioners of this go so far as to recommend that people record a ledger to remember the gestures that must be repaid. Gratitude, in this conception, is like a calculation. Your office mate brings lunch one day so you take note in order to reciprocate. You send a gift to a family member and then expect some sort of similar acknowledgement.
Engels argues that this transactional approach to gratitude, which stresses indebtedness, can become dangerous because “relationships cannot be calculated with numbers on a page” and might cause us to “miss out on what is most important.” What is most important? Engels proposes a different perspective on gratitude that emphasizes interconnectedness. For example, if he says he is grateful for clean air that acknowledgement also recognizes the fact that all creatures need air to breathe and it connects living beings in the common pursuit of a basic necessity for life. Additionally, he points out that threats to something like clean air or water cannot be solved independently but must be tackled collectively. We all need one another to survive and this understanding can create opportunities to practice a community-oriented gratitude. “Focus on what is necessary,” he writes and, “work together with others to make it possible for all to live well.”
I would like to add a third perspective on gratitude explicated from the Thanksgiving proclamation. Being thankful can also be a vehicle for noticing the bounties of life, the moments that are fortuitous, the ways in which an individual or community has been blessed. Highlighting the positive outcomes, especially those over which we have little control, can help us to remain grounded. When we bask in the hubris of our human ingenuity, gratitude reminds us that there are forces greater than our own at work in our lives and our universe. Source energy, God, Nature, Lady Luck: however one conceives of the presence of spirit, they all signify that there are events which occur that we cannot attribute to our own striving. When those occurrences bend toward the positive, we can notice them through gratitude; when they offer struggle, we can use them as points of growth.
In a meditation group that I lead, one participant recently noted that she finds gratitude to be difficult. This got me thinking about why one might grapple with being thankful. Conceiving of gratitude as a ledger, could become stressful. If one believes that gratitude must be constantly repaid, it could be overwhelming. Viewing gratitude through a lens of connectivity could also be daunting. Western culture tends to be rather individualistic so admitting the need for community could make gratitude seem complex or fearsome. Using gratitude as a mode of recognizing the good in life, could also be troubling. It means giving up the myth of human control and relinquishing the notion that meritocracy, or hard work, always leads to success. Sometimes beneficial outcomes are more serendipitous, and not entirely related to human skill or talent. But this runs counter to much of what we are taught about hard work and human capability.
Perhaps the Stoic philosopher Epictetus left us with one of the most practical visions of gratitude in his handbook for living. A modern translation offers this interpretation of his words: “If you take a broad view of what befalls each person and appreciate the usefulness of things that happen, it is natural to give thanks to the Ultimate for everything that happens in the world.” While it sounds logical, taking such a broad view is not easy. But, Epictetus assure us, it will have rewards. He says straightforwardly, “Practice having a grateful attitude and you will be happy.”
I am grateful for the lovely trees I photographed on a walk while visiting South Carolina. They made me feel connected to the environment, and the visual complexity of their array of shapes and angled branches brought me joy. I felt honored to consider the many years of history they must have witnessed from their vantage points. It was humbling to realize that I had nothing to do with their creation and, yet, they enhanced my experience of the walk greatly. I can give back to them only by recognizing them here, fondly remembering, and offering thanks to Nature for their existence.