One of the most common pieces of advice I see in those “10 ways to change your life” or “5 practices of happy people” or “17 guaranteed ways to looks as bright and shining as the airbrushed person in this stock photo”articles is to keep a gratitude list. As I’ve said elsewhere, practicing thankfulness is the first thing my mom always suggests when I find myself in a challenging mental space.
What does it mean to live in gratitude? Is it simply saying “thank you” when good and/or beautiful things happen or appear? Is it about being grateful in specifics or in general? And what are the implications of thanking God for good things? What about when gifts seem to be withheld, or when bad things come? Who is responsible?
A couple weeks ago, my sister posted a picture to facebook that showed her plant named Roselyn, a gift from a fellow student. Her caption read: “I’ve had Roselyn for about a year and half now, and this the first time she’s ever blossomed. I didn’t know she was supposed to! For once I think she may not be struggling for her life.” In the picture, the dark burgundy leafy stalks sheltered a small bloom, pink and tentative and still opening up. My dad left a comment underneath: “See. We all bloom eventually.” My sister had not written the words “thank you” or “gratitude” anywhere in her post, but something of thankfulness was evident in her surprise and delight and in my dad’s choice to see a universal truth speaking through a specific moment.
But what if Roselyn had never bloomed? Or what if a bud had appeared but never opened? What if we don’t all bloom eventually? What if my sister’s plant had died?
I am reminded of the kadish prayer, recited at a Jewish funeral, which praises God for the goodness of God and the world God has made.
Perhaps we are called not so much to be grateful for things that seem good and beautiful but for life when it is real and true. For those times when the blinders of our fear, busyness, self-absorption, pessimism, optimism, dishonest perfectionism, all these fall away for a moment and we are confronted with the rawness of life, in all its terror and miracle. So we give thanks when we laugh until we can’t breathe, and we give thanks when we shake and heave with sobbing. We give thanks when a newborn wails its way into being, when a loved one breathes their last, tender words, when we hold a delicate flower and when we ride out a devastating storm. Our stance of gratitude is based not on how well things are going but on how alive we are in this wild world. And we give thanks to the One who is the true center of this aliveness. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he told us. Gratitude is the choice to live attentive to God’s aliveness in us.