It’s a familiar echo at the first world table when a child refuses food. They are often told to be grateful for what they have because there are children in other parts of the world who are starving. It’s an easy tag to combine gratitude with guilt and so many of us grow, focusing on being grateful for what we have in light of others who have less. Thus, gratitude stands, tinged with sadness and longing, even if that longing is not our own. Then, moving on to forget what is available and with the greed of a child whose stomach is larger than their eyes, desire and longing takes hold. The very fuel of mankind’s propensity for adventure and invention. Indeed, didn’t Epicurus warn us in his quote:
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
When is it that the immature mind sets aside the need for selfish gain? There is no age, no stage of development that gratitude becomes part of our vocabulary. Instead, it arrives in our hearts at different times, different ages and for different reasons. One could argue that it is in comparison with others less fortunate that a situation of satisfaction or plenty is realised and gratitude is felt.
A popular YouTube clip comes to mind, where parents film their child receiving a chopping board as a Christmas present, before they give the child what he actually wants. The child struggles to see why he has received, to all intents and purposes, a block of wood and yet, he is thankful for the present. He offers gratitude to his parents and his humility in his acceptance of the gift is moving even though it is not what he desires. This powerful message is that children are able to be grateful for thought, for love, for attention, as we all should be, regardless of whether our deepest desires are being met.
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” [A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh]
So what are the boundaries, the rules of gratitude? Is it simply being able to acknowledge the good intention of others regardless of result? Is it just the appreciation of something in our life. Somewhere, there’s a quote about not showing gratitude being like receiving a present and not unwrapping it. What should we be grateful for? It’s not uncommon for those with chronic disease or disability to talk of being grateful in the face of what others might perceive to be great misfortune. Those who have lost their sight may be grateful they still have their hearing.
Being grateful for birdsong in the morning, for the sun rising and setting, in fact, for any aspect of our environment brings to us, not only the neurological stimulation of happy chemicals in the brain but also reinforces a sense of positivity in outlook, reducing stress and increasing the ability for enjoyment in life. Generating gratitude on waking and again on sleeping has been proved to increase an individual’s sense of belonging. Such security is essential to the emotional and mental well being of any human. Personally, it’s Marcel Proust’s quotation which stays with me every day.
“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
The idea of having a soul which as a garden is tended by charming gardener provides adequate metaphor for an illumination of beauty within a sense of self. In turn, it is exciting and humbling to think that you maintain be someone else’s ‘charming gardener’.
“Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.”
[C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters]
This attitude where gratitude belongs in the past indicates that gratitude has a place in retrospect. But is it only by looking backwards we can be thankful and appreciative for what we have had or have experienced? C.S. Lewis was certainly bound by many religious rules and ideals, and it is magical that he perceives the present in terms of love, but the question of whether gratitude can only exist in the past takes away the place of immediate appreciation. After all, when a present or a kindness is received, it is necessary to wait for time to pass in order to be grateful for it? Let us hope not, lest we seem ignorant towards each other.
Finally, in this season of present-giving let’s remember not just to be grateful for gifts, but let’s be grateful for life, in all its forms. Let’s be grateful for death, which enables the space for renewal and rebirth and let’s be mindful always, of what Friedrich Nietzsche said about the topic, which is
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
Text: © JL Nash, 2014