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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

I Thank, Therefore I Am

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 29, 2009


           The poet John Greenleaf Whittier once asked his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson what he prayed for at Thanksgiving. “When I first open my eyes upon the morning meadows and look out upon the beautiful world,” replied Emerson, “I thank God that I am alive-- and that I live so near Boston.”

 

           We know, I think, from whence Emerson spoke. “Life is a gift for which we are grateful.” Indeed, it is that Great Gift from which all else does flow. But often, too, we are thankful for those little particulars of our lives-- our own little pages in the Great Book of Life, written in the details of our beings: Who we are; Where we are; With whom we are; Whom we love; Who it is that loves us; Whom we have there, at our sides—spouses, lovers, friends, parents, children, kinfolk--  to hold us close, and brush the hair from our eyes, and whisper in our ears that this life is worth living.

 

           Gratitude for being itself was one of the first religious responses to human existence. Our ancestors, ancient and not-so-ancient, lived close to the earth; their existence was marginal, at best. They were glad just to be alive. Because they knew, day in, day out, the fragility of their lives, our ancestors felt so close to their gods, to the powers of life and death inherent in the universe.

 

           In our technological and “advanced” age, we are more removed from such primal closeness. By and large, we don’t grow the food we eat; we don’t even build our own houses or make our own clothing (most of us don’t, anyway). Instead, we work; we earn money; we buy things. We define ourselves, to a large degree, by the money we make and the things we’ve bought. So, gratitude often seems a more detached response for us.

 

           Ayn Rand, the influential (and completely miserable) patron saint of American corporate culture, once said of Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form, its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production.”

 

           I think Rand echoes Bart Simpson’s Thanksgiving prayer, around his family’s table there in Springfield. Bart bows his head and says: “Dear God, we paid for all this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”

 

           According to this attitude (and it is the- attitude that dominates our culture, it seems to me), it is as though we have done it all ourselves. Where is our appreciation for the bounty of nature, without which we human ones would be nothing, and could produce nothing? Where is our sense that there are forces greater than us at work here, from which all our good fortune flows? It’s an attitude that forgets that, as Richard Gilbert writes, we are all merely “guests of existence”. Our time here is borrowed; we did not create it. “Life is not a given, but a gift.” We give thanks not by wallowing in all of our getting and accumulating and asking and praying for more and more stuff, but by giving something back to life. “We are not born free,” wrote Emerson, “we are born with a mortgage. This mortgage is a debt-- a debt we owe to the past and to the future... The ritual of receiving and giving is an act of Thanksgiving.” If we truly are to commune with the essence of Thanksgiving, then we need to find ways that we can give something back to the Earth which has nourished and sustained us, and find some way that we can repay (pennies on the dollar, perhaps) something of this great debt we owe to life.

 

           Which is not to say that life always feels like such a great gift.

 

           Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like such a great bargain. Sometimes (maybe oftentimes) life is dreary, and cussed, and bleak.

 

           Sometimes, it feels like I  ain’t been nothin’ but tired,

           and I’m  gonna keep on workin’ ‘till the day I expire…

 

           As my colleague Fred Small at First Parish in Cambridge has written:

 

           “As I grew older… I discovered that besides Levis and Ray-Bans and rock ’n’ roll, life brings suffering: pain, disappointment, loss. We lose jobs. We lose relationships. We lose our health. We lose our grandparents and our parents and sometimes we lose our children.

 

           Everything breaks. Everything we love dies.”

 

           “Every wondrous sight will vanish,” wrote the Sufi poet Rumi, “every sweet word will fade.” All life is suffering, the Buddha taught. “There are dreams that cannot be. There are storms we cannot weather.”

 

           The only way, then, to experience the blessedness of life, is first to know its pain and its despair. In the days following 9/11, Mary Wellemeyer wrote:

 

            “Sometimes, before we can be grateful, it is necessary to cry.  Sometimes, before we can be grateful, it is necessary to curse.  Sometimes, before we can be grateful, it is necessary to move beyond our fears somehow.  Sometimes, this takes a long time. Sometimes, we get so lost in the crying, the cursing, the fears, that we lose our way back to the present, and gratitude never comes. “

 

           And, she concludes:

 

            “For truly, I tell you, gratitude is a gift, something that floats into the heart like a cloud or a butterfly.  It can’t be forced to appear, any more than holiday happiness can be willed into being.  The sadness, the anger, and the fear that lie on us like stones cannot be lifted by willing them away.  To get to gratitude, to get to joy, we must go into that uncertain realm of [our anger and fear and pain], stirring things up and hoping – having faith-- that we are not stepping into a bottomless pit.”

 

           “Gratitude emerges from the kingdom of night,” Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel once wrote. True, deep gratitude is not the result of good fortune, or personal happiness, or worldly success. It is, rather, our fundamental response to life itself. It can be the primary way in which we define ourselves as human beings.

 

           We cannot control the universe. We cannot control which particular load of pain and sorrow we will be dealt in this life. We can only control what our response in the face of life will be.

 

           “Suffering reminds us to be grateful,” a wise man has said.

 

           As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, when we have (say) a toothache, we think of how happy we will be when the toothache finally ends. Then, when the toothache goes away, we are happy—for a little while. Then, the same complaints against life arise, and we go back to the way things were. “We must remember our non-toothache,” says Thich Nhat Hahn—remember, and be grateful.

 

           So often, we’re like the grandmother in the story that Garrison Keillor tells. She’s walking on the beach with her 5-year old grandson, when suddenly a huge waves comes by and carries the boy out to sea. “No,” the grandmother screams. “This is not right! This is unbearable! You can’t just take my grandson away from me.”

 

           Then, another huge wave comes along, and deposits the child, right there at her feet. And the grandmother picks up the child, cradles him in her arms, looks up to heaven, and says: “Where’s his hat?”

 

           Which sort of reminds me of the time, many years ago now, when we were vacationing in the White Mountains, with our friends Joe and Hilda. We stayed at this nice little motel, very homey and quaint, and were having a very nice breakfast one morning. The food was great, the company was good, and the portions were enormous.

 

           There was a young woman at the next table (a rather heavy-set young woman, if the truth be told), who ordered the same breakfast we had: the House Special, which had everything last thing you could imagine—two or three eggs, bacon and sausage, pancakes and French toast, homefries, fruit—you name it. But the moment that young woman at the next table was served, she looked over her breakfast, and immediately asked, “No toast?”

 

           Life doesn’t meet our specifications sometimes, and we concentrate on what’s missing, rather than what’s there. That’s often the attitude we have. The neuro-psychologist Rick Hanson reminds us that the human brain is like Velcro when it comes to negative experiences, but it’s like Teflon for positive ones. All the negative stuff carves itself deep into our psyches, but the positive stuff often slips off like water off a duck’s back.

 

           What is the solution, then? Hanson suggest that we “train our brains” to hold onto positive emotions and take in the good. Feeling gratitude for the particulars of our lives, then, can change how we view ourselves, how we define our lives. It can changes our sense of self, and deepen our sense of these lives we’re living.

 

           We thank, and therefore we are so much more than we could be otherwise. Or, as another person has put it: “What we let our minds rest upon, we become.”

 

           When we let our minds rest upon the sense of the giftedness of life—when we cultivate that “attitude of gratitude” of which so many have written, then we open ourselves up to a life uncommon—a life bursting forth with possibility and adventure and even joy. Not a life without pain. Not a life without disappointments. Not a life without challenges and struggles and real tragedies and heartache.

 

           But a life worth living because it reflects back the divine love and mercy which the Creator of Life holds for each one of us. The practice of gratitude opens our minds to the practice of paying attention—to a deep and profound mindfulness about life. The practice of gratitude also opens our hearts to the practice of compassion—a deep and profound returning of blessing for blessing.

 

           Gratitude—mindfulness—compassion are intimately entwined with one other. One will naturally lead to the other, and back again. Gratitude—mindfulness—compassion are the holy trinity of a full and abundant life, of a life worth living.

 

           Even in the midst of suffering, moments of divine grace abound. As Fred Small reminds us, “Gratitude does not mean tolerating the intolerable. It means noticing the beautiful, small, sacred things that sustain us [even] through [the] hard[est] times.”

 

           In the unspeakable cruelty of Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl tells us, frozen, exhausted, starving prisoners would rush outside every evening, just to marvel silently at the beauty of the sunset. One day, one of them finally whispered to the others, “How beautiful the world could be.”

 

           Gratitude reminds us of the beauty that lies in wait at the heart of life.

 

           It reminds us to awaken all of our senses to behold that beauty.

 

           And it stirs within us wellsprings of compassion, which can empower us to do what we can to bring that beauty to birth within this kingdom of our days.

 

 


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