Questions of Gratitude

I’m not grateful. This worries me. Isn’t it somehow wrong that I stumble on what should be an easy path to virtue and happiness? Yet after summers of endless wildfires, after years of a world shut down from Covid, after the near-successful overthrow of our country’s democracy, after so much more that’s not any much better, gratitude feels as privileged and necessary as bread, as trivial and essential as water. Maybe after times like these, gratitude is just carpe diem: seize the day. This day, my husband has taken our daughter to an outdoor playdate. Should I cook a week’s worth of barley mushroom soup, or balance the checkbook, or slide like an octopus down a rocky crevice to solitude and wonder about gratitude in this world, in my life? This day, my desk is cluttered with brown Moleskine pocket notebooks, a trilobite fossil, a purring ginger cat named George, this pen of blue flowing ink, this open page where I scribble and cross out and ask what there is to be grateful for. 

What is gratitude? I open my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to find gratitude defined as thankfulness. Webster’s 3rd New International says gratitude is the “warm and friendly feeling toward a benefactor prompting one to repay a favor.” Webster’s 1928 dictionary describes “a feeling and generous heart, and a proper sense of duty.” In Hebrew, my tribe’s mother tongue, gratitude is hikarat hatov, which some translate as “recognizing the good.” Is gratitude as easy as this? 

I wasn’t grateful in first grade either. I was envious. Other kids sat in a circle and read books with pages that had words and words and words. I sat in a circle with a Dick and Jane reader balanced on my plaid skirt and looked at pages with one or two words and lots of pictures. A picture of a boy’s face meant Dick was talking. A picture of a girl’s face meant Jane was talking. Dick and Jane were boring, and the kids in my circle were dumb. When our harried teacher gathered our groups together and sat us on the floor, she pointed to letters on the blackboard and recited the alphabet. This did not concern me. I looked away. I didn’t want to read, but I did want to be with those better kids, in their better circle, reading their better books. Or maybe I was just envious of those kids regardless of the books they read, because everyone said they were the smart kids and the teacher liked them and so did the mothers who waited in the halls at the end of the school day. At some point it occurred to me that the teacher pointing to letters and the kids reciting the alphabet had something to do with who was placed in which reading circle. I set a goal, probably my first, although I was too young to know what a goal was. But I knew envy. Envy is what happens when you have nothing to be grateful for, and your life is as blank as a Dick and Jane reader. I don’t remember writing my letters or singing the alphabet song, but I must have done that, because I remember the day, decades ago, when my teacher moved me off my squat wooden chair, out of the dumb kids circle, and over to the better readers circle. 

Now I’m a writer. I’m grateful for the persistence, curiosity, and respect for learning reading gives me. We call these virtues and for good reason. But would I have written my book, sent it to over twenty-five publishers and contests, and spent years marketing it had it not been for that feeling of envy over not yet having a published book? Hasn’t anger helped me quit exploitative jobs? And hasn’t selfishness inspired me to raise my rates so what I earned matched the grant funding I raised for community organizations? What other vices should I be grateful for?

 

Here’s one: the chef at Fresh Flours, a north Seattle coffee shop, combines almond meal, rum, and custard to create the perfect Basque cake. I’m a type 2 diabetic. I’m grateful it’s not always on the menu.

 

Gratitude can be learned from bittersweet experiences, sometimes not even your own. Stanley Kunitz wrote that when looking back across a lifetime, age fosters “your gratitude for the gift of life.” My friend Mimi was a woman of compassion, generosity, and kindness who desired yet failed to become a writer, a life partner, a mother. From her I learned the necessity of creating a family and a body of work that will live on after my physical body fails. My former colleague Charlie was a self-described rock star. He praised upwards in the office hierarchy; he screamed, pounded desks, and left threatening voicemail messages downwards. From him I learned it’s better to create from joy rather than meager fame and fragile status. The older I become, the more grateful I am for knowledge as unwanted and necessary as the nightly dose of cod liver oil that strengthens the heart.

 

I’m also grateful for more agreeable learning, such as roasting a chicken with white wine, shallots, and summer plums.

 

Last October at the West Woodland playground. Alder leaves glowed golden on ground that seemed ablaze with light. The world was hot, too hot. Climate change colored the sky blue when it should have been gray with rain. There was no rain for salmon, no salmon for killer whales. A shower of shriveled brown bigleaf maple leaves fell on a baby, bundled in hat and romper, who slept on a blanket atop brittle grass. The father, who wore a yellow and black plaid flannel shirt, stopped reading, rolled the baby over, and stretched out alongside the child, one a comfort and the other a shelter from the near winter wind. The world is not as it should be, but the world is here, and I’m grateful to be in it.

Because I might not have been here if luck had gone differently. Because my late mother’s correspondence included a letter from a Massachusetts attorney about Kremenets, a city in Ukraine where Nazis murdered some 15,000 Jews. Being Jewish meant nothing to my mother. She would have pizza delivered to our house while my father was observing the Yom Kippur fast. The name “Kremenets” meant nothing to me. My father’s family came from Lithuania, but my sister tells me our maternal grandmother came from Ukraine. I wonder why my mother had correspondence with someone determined that Kremenets and its murdered families not be forgotten. I wonder if Kremenets’ history is my history. 

Did some ancestor’s decision to leave Kremenets before the Shoah make my life possible? Was there a border guard doing his job well (or not too well) who gave passage before disaster arrived? To what strangers should I feel grateful? The gratitude for gifts given is wrapped in the humbling realization that the gift need never have been given at all.

And how many lives have I saved? I raised millions of dollars when I was a grant writer for homeless shelters, food banks, legal services, youth programs, community gardens, to name a few. Is gratitude like infinity stretching forward and back, past and present and future, all at once? 

Perhaps so. The primatologist Frans de Waal argues that gratitude is a “time-line emotion” that requires pleasant past experiences and the existence of memory, and is observed in adult chimpanzees, but not juveniles. Gratitude in a chimp troop, says de Waal, creates and sustains lifetime friendships and alliances between chimpanzees who have groomed each other, shared food, or in other ways helped each other. Gratitude, revenge, and forgiveness are related, observable emotions in the ebb and flow of chimpanzee society. If so, then gratitude is more than an individual’s emotion. Gratitude is an evolution-honed, communal survival strategy that is part of primate and therefore human nature.

Are chimps as ungrateful as people can sometimes be? That gift of a grape, that scratch on the back, that stock tip, that lift to work comes with strings attached. I don’t dispute the pleasure of giving and receiving, but gratitude can leave us indebted to or even feeling kindly toward people we might rather self-righteously dislike. People like Rex, who lived next door, who called the police when we left our car parked for 48 hours on our side of the driveway, who never met a backyard tree he couldn’t cut down or a patch of grass he couldn’t pave over, who had a four-wheel Ford pickup truck, a 1960’s-era Jaguar, and a Honda Accord family car in the same driveway, who kept a small arsenal of guns including one he had used to shoot out his beloved dog’s brains when it was time to put her down because it was his responsibility and not some damn veterinarian’s, who took a high-powered flashlight to our house when I knocked on his door, late at night, to say my husband wasn’t home and I was alone with the baby and had just heard a strange sound somewhere, and who went with me through every room, every closet, every stairwell, every porch, every side door, every nook, every cranny, and left only when we both knew the baby and I were safe. Dear Rex. Gratitude may be a pothole-strewn road, but it ran straight to my neighbor’s door. 

 

In winter, I am grateful for black capped chickadees gleaning red berries from my yard’s barren branches.

 

In the morning, I turn eastward, look past Rex’s house toward the Cascade Mountains, and recite prayers of gratitude. In Judaism, prayer is supposed to be communal. You need ten people to make it work. But I’m here, on my own, so I stand near the peace lilies and pillow-strewn sofa and give my thanks for sleep lifted from the eyes and slumber from the eyelids, for land stretched across the water, for being a child of freedom. Small miracles of daily life, usually the ones we forget to notice. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, interpretively translated as “let us cede power,” is read on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and lists the ways death comes: who at his time and who before, who by fire, who by water, who by famine, who by thirst, who, who, who. Fate is fate. Isn’t it? But the prayer’s transformative line says repentance, prayer, and righteous acts will soften the decree. Fate is fate. Isn’t it? The only power we have comes from how we have lived our fate. In fear or in fury? In reflection, repentance, compassion? Maybe the existentialists are right. Maybe loneliness is at the heart of existence. Well then, we’re all alone together. That’s something to be grateful for.

 

Here’s another: I am grateful for Morning Thunder tea with a dab of honey, vanilla coconut collagen powder for aching joints, and a sprinkle of cinnamon that warms a cold morning before dawn.

 

And yet, gratitude proves we’re not alone. Psychological research shows that gratitude is a way of living in the world, an orientation of seeing and believing in the positive in oneself, in others, in one’s community, in the wider world, whether it be the sweetness of a blueberry muffin a colleague brought to your desk, the sunlight pouring through an artist’s stained-glass window, or the trees planted by a stranger so that carbon reductions will occur decades from now. People who score high in measures of gratitude tend to be more open, agreeable, and conscientious, and less prone to depression, substance abuse, or the lingering malaise of post-traumatic stress disorder. If life is a wound that never fully heals, then grateful people have learned to trust in bandage and balm. 

 

In summer, I am grateful for the glittering ruby throat of an Anna’s hummingbird hovering amid the rhododendron blossoms.

 

There are philosophers and armchair grouches who would say my gratitude for hummingbirds and chickadees, for roast chickens and fancy (but infrequent) European pastry isn’t gratitude but appreciation. It’s human social interaction that creates gratitude. All the rest is a personal, transitory happiness over random events in the external world. I disagree. Whether bird in flight or gift of bread, why take anything for granted? And what’s gratitude if not noticing how easily anything can change? In Judaism, the Shehechiyanu isn’t a prayer of gratitude as much as it is attention when doing something for the first time. Like all Jewish prayers, it begins with praise of God (larger forces are always at play) and continues with thanks for having supported us, protected us, and brought us to this day. That’s it. No ecstasy. No relief. No promise of plenty. No promise of anything. You’re here. (And you needn’t be.) Regardless of what happened in the past, or will happen in the future, there is this moment.

And in this moment on this day, what is there to be grateful for? I am grateful for a grey fleece sweater on a winter morning. I am grateful for sunlight piercing through the kitchen’s south window. I am grateful for morning light and evening light and everyday light that gleamed while I hiked Lake 22’s trails of waterfalls and old growth forest, Spray Park’s wildflower meadows, Sol Duc’s deep wilderness, and thousands of miles along hundreds of other trails. I am grateful (now) for the environmental communications jobs I didn’t get because each rejection forced me to write about nature and our world through my words, not the words of others. I am grateful for the book I wrote, and the publications I’ve had, the notebooks yet to be filled, the stories yet to be written, and perhaps published. Oliver Sacks, in his posthumously published book, Gratitude, likens the Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest, to a time “when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” I have many years ahead, and I need every day of every year to write, to raise my daughter, to explore that “good and worthwhile life” Sacks writes about. I am grateful that on this winter afternoon, and before my husband and daughter return home, I take this moment to join the healthy with the sweet and enjoy a pudding of chia seeds, goat kefir, cinnamon, and ginger oozing between toasted almonds, coconut slivers, and mulberries.

 

 

 

Image: by C & W Photography, licensed under CC 2.0.

Adrienne Ross Scanlan
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