One explored the idea that if our own life situation was better than someone else’s—say we have a job we don’t like, but someone we know doesn’t have a job—we had no right to complain about our shitty job. In fact, instead of complaining, we should thank our lucky stars, or chosen deity, and be grateful we have a job. I wrote then and still believe that the rush to gratitude leaves too much else unexplored and unmourned. Glossing over the crap in our lives doesn’t make it stink less. If we are to truly feel gratitude, we need to honor what keeps us from being grateful and let it go.
Last year’s gratitude post focused on the idea that the proper response to “Thank you” is “Thank you.” The proper response, I wrote, is “You’re welcome.” Welcoming others to what we’ve offered is a far more generous gesture to my mind. One of my greatest pleasures at the holidays is welcoming as many people as possible to share in our celebrations. Adding to the guest list, even an hour before dinner, increases my pleasure far more than my workload.
Those posts were written spontaneously. This year, I started pondering what I’d write early in the month. I wasn’t sure I had much more to say about gratitude.Whenever I’ve written about gratitude, though, I’ve felt I missed something essential, the nub of my inability to cuddle into the comfort of unbridled gratitude.
When I was a child, we would bow our heads and clasp our hands in prayer before dinner while my father recited:
Bless us, Oh Lord, and these thy gifts,
which we are about to receive, from thy bounty,
through Christ, Our Lord. Amen
I always had a problem with the prayer, other than confusion over whom we were praying to given that there were two “Lords” in there and it didn’t really feel like they were the same person.
My biggest problem was that what we were about to receive didn’t seem to just be a gift from God’s bounty. My father had worked pretty hard to earn the money to pay for the bounty and my mother, who hated to cook, had worked to turn the bounty into dinner. Frankly, my mom had earned at least part of the money, as well. Where did they fit in the pre-dinner picture?
Though the sentiment wasn’t overt, the Prayer Before Meals was clearly presented as an expression of gratitude. To my mind, while God had had a hand in creating the world, food, etc., I didn’t really see the need to thank him for something he did a long time ago and not really for my personal benefit anyway. Turns out, I was a Buddhist before I became a Buddhist.
Naturally, I researched gratitude before writing this post. I’d turned to Buddha to help my dad and me through his passing, so turning to Buddha in this dilemma was a no-brainer.
Buddha had a lot to say about gratitude. I found some of it in a teaching by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (aka Geoffrey DeGraff, abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery). Than Geoff (as he’s affectionately known—I feel affection toward him for pointing out the nub of my gratitude problem) wrote:
the Buddha always discusses gratitude as a response to kindness, and doesn’t equate it with appreciation in general. It’s a special kind of appreciation, inspiring a more demanding response.
Gratitude is due to people, particularly people who have done us a kindness that benefitted us, have done it from motives we trust, and have gone out of their way to do it. What is due to the feeling of sun warm on our skin, the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee, the lighting of a butterfly on our shoulder is appreciation.
I realize appreciation is a pallid word compared to gratitude and that the two are nearly synonymous, but there is a distinction that resonates for me.
Appreciation is defined as a recognition of the value of what we appreciate. When I run in the songbird sanctuary near my home, I am frequently overwhelmed by its beauty. I feel a peacefulness I don’t experience anywhere else. I so value the beauty and peacefulness that I leave it as I found it, hoping others appreciate it as I do.
If I followed another spiritual path, I might give thanks to God for the beauty of the sanctuary; I mean no disrespect to those who would. But I have always felt hollow thanking things for their existence, though I have never taken their existence for granted.
The songbird sanctuary was not created for me. It has no motives in existing. It did not go out of its way for my benefit. While I love its presence, I do not owe it thanks.
This Thanksgiving, I will give thanks but it will be to people rather than for things. I owe thanks to my sister for carrying the greatest share of caring for our father and her understanding of my need to care for my family. I owe thanks to my husband for his generosity and constancy. I owe thanks to my father for planning for his own and my futures. I owe thanks to my brother for continually helping to repair my home. And I will run in the prairie, thankful that I take care of my body so that I can continue to appreciate it.