Giving Thanks for the Good, the Bad and the Surprising

A group of students came to their Rebbe.

“Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days, as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean, if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?”

The Rebbe replied, “Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you.”

The students undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.

When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. “Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”

“No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rebbe told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?”

Reb Zusya laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Rebbe sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”

What does it mean to live as if I am surrounded by miracles, even though the kids are fighting, the mortgage is overdue, there seems no end to global conflict and my back hurts? Who should I be grateful to, and for what?

Gratitude seems to be getting lost in our consumer culture, and I point to two reasons for this.

We are losing the sense of where anything comes from.
We confuse gratitude with plenitude.

1. Where does life come from?
Thanksgiving has traditionally been a time to give thanks to a Creator God for the harvest. Giving thanks for the harvest was hugely meaningful at a time when a lean harvest would mean winter diets of turnips and cabbage soup; dried beans if you were lucky. For some it would mean starvation, or dependence on charity just to survive.

We’ve lost the original sense of thanksgiving because we don’t have that challenge. We just truck over and tuck in, fly down and fry up. We buy bananas from the local store, oblivious to their 20 hour flight from New Zealand. We fly in whatever takes our fancy from anywhere in the world, no matter what the season. It doesn’t even cost more. Why should we be grateful for our food, when it all seems so easy? As Bart Simpson prayed before one meal- “Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing,”

Of course we are paying for it big time. The journey of the banana from New Zealand leaves a trail of ecological disaster behind it; a reminder of our lack of gratitude, a massive carbon footprint that stamps “thanks for nothing” all over the sky.
If we really understood where our food came from, and its seasonal sojourn, we would never eat a thing without enormous gratitude for the web of nature/ human collaboration that brought it to us; the lives of the earth that prepared it for us, and the future life of the planet that depends on our choices.

In his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson quotes the physicist Richard Feynman who once said that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be this: “All things are made of atoms.” Bryson explains that a billion of the atoms in your body probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from the Buddha and Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan. Nevertheless, for now, trillions of these atoms have somehow assembled themselves into you.

Life only exists in relationship. The more aware you are of the web of relationships that make Life possible, the more gratitude you experience.

So that’s the who! You are giving thanks to the God who goes by many names; Life, Creative Process, Gaia, Interrelatedness, Ground of Being or whatever other name has meaning for you. It’s greater than you; but utterly dependent on you and your choices at the same time.

The first point is to regain our gratitude by regaining a true sense of harvest, its evolution as the interconnected web of life, which is abundant and always enough.

We Confuse Gratitude with Pleasure

Our culture has done a fine job of convincing us that we are special, that we can buy happiness and that more is always better. The problem is that life is very rarely like that for most of us. Life is tough, and the older we get the more realize how little we know about so much. We bought happiness, and happiness went sour quickly. More proved just to be just that; more trouble, more anxiety, more choices, more craving. Just more!

Life is what it is.

Denise Leverto captured well a sense of gratitude for the paradox that is life.

“Praise wet snow falling early. Praise the shadow my neighbor’s chimney casts on the tile roof
even this gray November day that should, they say, have been golden. Praise the invisible sun burning beyond the white cold sky, giving us light and the chimney’s shadow.

Praise god or gods, the unknown, that which imagines us, which stays our hand, our murderous hand,
and gives us still, in the shadow of death, our daily life, and the dream still of goodwill, peace on earth. Praise flow and change, night and the pulse of day.”

Whoever said life was supposed to be easy? Elie Wiesel understood how hard life is, and came out of the death camp with a renewed sense of gratitude- “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.”
It’s not just because of the relief of survival. It’s the realization that darkness cannot overwhelm inner light, which rests in the knowledge that nothing lasts forever.

All that is required is to say “yes” to Now, say “I don’t know” to Mystery and say “thankyou” to Life.

Be grateful for the surprise that is life. Molly Fumia put it this way:

“To be joyful in the universe is a brave and reckless act. The courage for joy springs not from the certainty of human experience, but the surprise. Our astonishment at being loved, our bold willingness to love in return–these wonders promise the possibility of joyfulness, no matter how often and how harshly love seems to be lost. Therefore, despite the world’s sorrows, we give thanks for our loves, for our joys and for the continued courage to be happily surprised. “

So, gratitude is the acceptance that life is playing out as it needs to for now, but not as it will play out for all time. The times of ease will eventually get complicated. The chaos will smooth out in time. Gratitude is attached to neither feeling; it simply ebbs and flows.

Once you discover gratitude for your utter dependence on relationships for survival, you flow naturally into an ethic of gratitude. An ethic of gratitude demands that you nurture the same world that nurtures you in return. Create the kind of environment that you want to be immersed in, and therefore be the change you wish to see in the world.

Long ago the Jewish philosopher Maimonedes described a hierarchy of giving. In terms of the best outcome for both giver and receiver, reluctant donors were at the bottom of the pyramid, and at the top were those who helped the poor to self sufficiency. In terms of the giver alone, the highest gift was the anonymous gift. One of the most religious acts, he said, was to give without any expectation. It was the ultimate act of gratitude, being able to say, “What YHWH has given me, I will give away.”

This Thanksgiving, consider where your life, your food, your family and your web of relationships have come from and give thanks for the miracle of evolution. Give thanks and pay your gratitude forward in surprising acts of reckless generosity that leave a trail of love and goodwill in your wake.

May love, like unexpected budding of flowers in the winter, fill your heart with beauty. Every day is just as unexpected as an iris in March. Your work in this life is to carve the stone of this very moment with the chisel of your love, your reason, your passion and your struggle, and there to realize the blossom that has been hidden inside all the while. Don’t confuse peace with stillness, or love with sentiment. Enjoy the peace of heart that is unrest, a longing for deeper things. Dare to be surprised by life and give thanks.

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