On Being Grateful

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We are to be cheerful, helpful, modest and patient, and always aware of those gifts and blessings that we could not hope to deserve.

MYes mother has always loved cooking Thanksgiving dinner. She took the pride of a traditional Southern woman in being a good cook, following her mother’s recipes, and my family made a rare show of kindness by refusing to inform her that she was a pretty terrible cook, whose alchemy of cooking on the electric stove could turn a cheap cut of polyester round steak.

It took me a while to realize that she was not a bad cook but a perfectly ordinary cook who was suspended in a sort of culinary limbo where she had never ceased to be in 1957, when the Global nuclear annihilation was just around the corner and the men died at 66.4 years old and it looked like a perfectly reasonable thing combine canned cherry pie filling with pieces of Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Cool Whip and sprinkle pecans on top and call it, with a perfectly straight face, salad.

There was a half-gallon bottle of Karo syrup in the pantry, and she cookware was a can opener and a pan.

She made some great cornbread, however, and I wish she was still around to do it.

Gratitude is a form of memory. Loss teaches us to be grateful, which is why in much of the world memories of the dead come just before or at the same time as the harvest festivals. Love and loss, harvest and hunger: these are things we are meant to think about together, two parts of a whole truth. On our harvest festival, Thanksgiving, we are invited to think of gratitude – practically hectorish about it.

This recognition can be a tricky thing, because we are not wired for gratitude – we are wired for. Comparison. If you would meet a man who had never eaten an apple and give him one – a real good one – he would think it was the most wonderful thing in the world, and he would be grateful to you. And, in five minutes, he would be thinking: Why does this guy have a bigger apple than the one I have? Or: Think about all those wasted years, never knowing what an apple is! Or: Will I ever have another apple? And is there maybe a better kind of apple?

Of course, we cannot be happy with the apple. It would be too simple, and so instead we have envy, jealousy and civilization.

Comparison is how we really learn, which is why living memory is a gift. When people of my father’s generation who grew up in excruciating poverty say things like, “We didn’t know we were poor,” they are not valuable. This was the world they lived in, and there was no Instagram to follow the Kardashians. My dad had the outdoor plumbing and had a pair of shoes a year when school started – and everyone he knew too. There was nothing remarkable at the time. We can only see it after the fact, when enough time has passed.

This time shift has interesting effects. Those of us fortunate enough to know people raised during the Great Depression or the war years do well to see how easy they are not only to please, but to delight. Ask an 85-year-old man from Beaumont, Texas or Tucumcari, New Brunswick to talk about his air conditioning, and he’ll sing you a hymn. This bizarre gelatin-based festive meal from the Eisenhower era was haute cuisine to people who had spent the 1930s eating beans five times a week – or who had fought half starved for blood in the forest of Hürtgen. Their memories can, if we pay attention, shed light on our current happiness. Every old man who’s ever bored you to death with a hardship story starting with the words “In my dayWas giving you a present, and you would be smart to accept it.

Say this, at least, for the horribilis dose 2020: This will give us all ”In my dayStories to irritate our grandchildren, if we are so blessed.

Unless I am very much wrong, there is a growing feeling, combining the current fear with suspicious hope, that we are near the end of the coronavirus epidemic, that the vaccines that will be used will bring the situation under control. – but that this will not happen until the end of a long, cold and lonely winter. Perhaps there is a certain Providence in the timing: There is a reason why so many religious traditions have something like Lent, and it’s in the dark months that we choose to prepare for. Gratitude. And we need preparation: virtues don’t come easily to us – not to me, anyway. The calendar is also a teacher: we celebrate the harvest and then prepare ourselves for the increasing darkness of winter, which is not a punishment but a preparation.

I want to watch out for the silver liners thing. It has been a time of intense suffering for many people – illness, death, unemployment, loneliness, anxiety – and very little has touched me and mine, and one should not be flippant about it. I canceled a fun trip to Europe and made a lot of Zoom calls – not exactly Job’s tribulation. The outbreak barely touched my family, but I wouldn’t have chosen this, neither for myself nor for anyone else, and I want it to be over as soon as possible. But if we have to go through it, then we should take advantage of it – it doesn’t cost more.

Elie Wiesel tells a story about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, known as Kotzker Rebbe.

A disciple told the Kotzker of his misfortunes: “I come from Rizhn. There everything is simple, everything is clear. I prayed and I knew I was praying; I studied and I knew I was studying. Here in Kotzk, everything is mixed up, confused; I’m in pain, Rebbe. Terribly. I’m lost. Please help me so that I can pray and study as before. Please help me stop the pain. The Rebbe looks at his disciple in tears and asks: “And who ever told you that God is interested in your studies and your prayers? What if he preferred your tears and your sufferings?

Write in the New York Times, Jennifer Senior notes that the famous social psychologist Philip Brickman, author of a famous study on happiness, committed suicide by jumping from a building. “Happiness Won’t Save You,” proclaims the title.

Who has ever been so arrogant and so small in mind to think it would be?

We cannot be truly and fully grateful unless we are recovering from the pain. There have been many attempts to resolve this issue. In the great Eastern religions, suffering is something to be minimized and, ultimately, something to be avoided: the Buddha spoke of the four “noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to cessation. of suffering ”. and many teachers of the Hindu traditions speak of a definitive liberation from suffering. In Islam, suffering selects: it offers a test of faith separating the committed disciple from the unbeliever.

Christians have a clearly radical view: that suffering is neither an evil to be evaded nor a punishment inflicted systematically, as a sort of divine speeding ticket, but something to be entered voluntarily in order to become not divine but more fully. and more perfectly. Human. We learn to be grateful not only for the relief of suffering, but also for the suffering itself – this too is a gift. We discover ultimate gratitude when we discover the ultimate object of our gratitude. Learning that ultimate gratitude doesn’t necessarily mean wandering the wilderness in supernatural amazement, although it has worked for many great men in the past. Some of them have even looked for a place as wild as Massachusetts, disembarking there in the winter on rickety boats, like crazy. They went ashore and thanked God.

We don’t need to go that far, and besides, we have some business to settle here at home which will probably be focused on for a few more months. Gratitude may not make us saints, but it should leave us joyful, helpful, modest, and patient, and always aware of those gifts and blessings we might not hope to deserve.