I like to think that being thankful carries weight, that it occupies an influential space in the world. In a series of 2003 studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, subjects kept journals reporting their levels of gratitude. Each of three studies found that people who experienced more gratitude “exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies.” That leaves me wondering, are we grateful in order to better ourselves, or is that the byproduct, and the whole point of gratitude is to send goodness outward, back to the source? It’s not payment for goods delivered in hope of getting more, but a sentiment, a weightless emotion, a thank you. Whatever it is, it goes out and not in.
I’ve got more to be thankful for than I know what to do with, down to every breath. Who or what do I thank? Maybe this is why we came up with deities in the first place, not to explain the world or build religions, but to give us a place to put our appreciation.
I disagree with Craig a little; I do think deities are there to explain the world; I think explaining the world is a big necessity. But I completely agree that deities are there so we have a central repository for appreciating the world.
Not that the world always deserves appreciation, the world is pretty brutal what with sickness and death and cosmic meaninglessness. But oh my Lord (see? deity), how stunningly beautiful it is. I keep track of epiphanies. One was the first time I realized the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy seen edge-on from its own outskirts. Oh. My. God (see? deity again), Another was in Assateague, out in the marshes in a dense fog with the sun lighting it up so it was opalescent; and the way the fog was filled with light, it was also filled with invisible blackbirds singing so the sound seemed to come from all directions. I felt like I was suspended in glowing singing air.
And I haven’t even begun on the epiphanies that are other people. Same dichotomy: other people are exquisitely awful. But watching a friend incandescent with rage, sentences following sentences in perfect rhythm, her thick brown hair curving over her shoulder, backlit by sunlight, so furious she’s laughing — how does it get better than that?
One night years ago, my little nephew was sitting with his sister and me in front of the fire. We’d put a tablecloth on the floor and were having a picnic dinner of steamed shrimp, I don’t remember what else, but the room was getting darker and the fire brighter. He said, “Does it get better than this?” meaning it as a real question. “No,” I said, “it doesn’t.”
I think people this year are my main source of gratitude. Like Ann says, people can be awful, and we’ve seen plenty of that out in the big world. But in my own small life, I saw so many instances of the wonderfulness of people.
A lot of it was people being wonderful to me. I would like to say that I’ve always known how wonderful my mom was, but after this year I feel like I know this at a cellular level, that I’m carrying her care with me everywhere. My little family, too–my husband, my kids–I can feel them with me now in a way that I haven’t before. I’m not used to being the one who needs help, but I found friends at every turn who were there for me. New friends, old friends, people who I didn’t even know would be friends.
I felt funny as I just wrote things like “with me” and “there for me”–those are the kinds of expressions that I have tried to cut out of my writing, because they seem so amorphous. But this time as I wrote, I thought more about the “there”, there. There is presence. And presence itself feels very similar to gratitude–solid, deep, aware.
And I think I now notice more that presence of others. On a BART ride last month, I watched as a young woman came to the aid of another, a stranger, who was in the middle of a breakdown. At first I tried to figure out what was making her upset. Then I realized I was looking at the wrong thing. There was this woman sitting next to her, listening. Nodding. Saying a few words that I couldn’t hear, but it didn’t matter, because it wasn’t for me. She was present. And I was grateful to be there, in her presence. As I am grateful in all of yours.
A few years ago, I said I was grateful for modern medicine. My stepmom had just had surgery to extract the cancer-riddled parts of her abdomen. She recovered and has been in remission ever since. But she could never quite shake the question that probably every cancer survivor asks: why me? A few months ago, she received an answer of sorts. A genetic test revealed that she carries BRCA1, a mutation that dramatically increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. So last week she had her breasts removed. The whole surgery took less than four hours and she spent only one night in the hospital. Today she is cooking a turkey and hosting Thanksgiving. That might not seem all that extraordinary, but if you stop to think about what might have happened twenty or thirty years ago, it seems like an effing marvel.
As a journalist, I often fixate on the negative, the myriad ways in which the medicine of today fails us. So I just want to take a moment to be unabashedly grateful for our ability to save lives. We can do better, sure, but let’s not forget that we’re doing a pretty great job already.
This is supposed to be a post about gratitude, but I can’t talk about my gratitude without also talking about my fear. What happens to the people who can’t afford or access this marvel?
Image by soomness via Flickr/Creative Commons license