On gratitude and keeping it real

I thought it was odd to talk about practising gratitude, as if it was an instrument or language, until I realised that it requires practice because it’s hard to learn. Now especially there must be millions of people in the UK whose capacity for gratitude has slackened for lack of practice, and I’m no exception. I also feel uncomfortable with gratitude along Band Aid lines, “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” I don’t want to be grateful if that means selfishness and othering, a kind of crowing or smugness. Gratitude isn’t worth practising unless it honours suffering, and stems from empathy. Unless it has a wide and generous embrace. It has to be a way to give as well as receive.

So if I’m grateful to be with someone I love dearly, both always and during a pandemic, I must be mindful of those who are alone, or betrayed, abused or diminished by a partner – and that they may not want my pity any more than my delight in my good fortune or blessing. I’m thankful for my children and grandchildren, but they’re a joy many haven’t known and joys can’t be cruel, careless or crass. And sometimes I fear I am. It’s not just about sensitivity towards others but about avoiding greed. I’m hungry for love, always have been. I crave the happiness love brings but it’s easy to forget what love demands of us. And when I’m grateful for all the friends that enrich my life, or used to, I’m aware that at times I’ve been a needy friend myself. Gratitude for friendship isn’t an excuse for victimhood that fails to offer the same support.

I’ve noticed an increasing number of people being thankful ‘to the universe’ rather than God. I think gratitude is a necessary and healing response either way. Although I’ve believed in God all my life, in the sense of living as if there is a God to illuminate how to do that best, with hope, and often with an emotional conviction that feels like love, I now walk with doubt and welcome mystery. Thanking God is a natural reflex for people like me, and yet speaking personally I probably spend more time appealing, if wordlessly, for help when things are painful or difficult than I spend on gratitude practice. I can feel sorry for myself in spite of everything that makes me fortunate, or blessed, and I remember the sadness and guilt forever while the contentment hazes over, indistinct and lack-lustre, often only loosely defined by time and place. I imagine that anyone from another planet would perceive us as a negative species with a negative impact. Through this year of Covid-19 Leslie and I have developed a habit at bedtime of recalling and wording ‘the good things’ of the day, however small, and it helps. Gratitude brings peace. You might call it positive spin, or an avoidance tactic. You might consider it an act of desperation in a dying world. But it renews the life wish. It’s a bond of gratitude that’s shared.

As humans on this planet we share so much, regardless of our differences – not least, the Earth itself and its intricate web of life. As well as deforesting relentlessly, we’ve been so busy with concrete and steel that we now out-build Nature. It’s all perverse in so many ways, and in our pressured, urban lives many of us fail to mourn what we’ve lost in the destruction: the one huge, vivid, breathing gift everyone used to share and appreciate. Sky. Branches lacing sky. The life of a tree trunk rooted below us. The music and patterns of water. Timeless rock, pulsing forest, birdsong and bird arcs and buds and berries and the eyes of a creature we didn’t expect to see as we explore its world with quietly absorbed respect and tenderness. The beauty and the power and the frailty. I believe they can save us, because they reorder our values as they remind us how small and ephemeral we are, how connected and how peaceful we can be if we let the natural world restore and inspire us. We just have to turn off our phones and clear inner space where we can meet. And anyone who doubts the truth of this hasn’t tried it. To be immersed in nature is to experience gratitude. And once you’ve tuned in, you feel it anytime.

This morning, during a suburban walk to check on Mum, I was grateful for the extraordinary colour of berries I haven’t identified, for a Red Kite overhead, for moss on stone and the fanned skeleton of a winter tree. Colours, shapes, textures and contrasts. Being grateful for all this is a very rational response given our mutual dependence as living beings. But it means nothing if it isn’t accompanied by a duty of care. It’s up to humans to mitigate the damage, end the ecocide and begin to live together very differently, treading lightly on this Earth, gratefully and lovingly. We need more gratitude as an expression of deep love and shared responsibility. That’s very often what we mean by the spirituality many of us claim, the spirituality at the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. Gail Bradbrook speaks of the way loss, and fear of loss, intensify love of living things, and at a time when it’s natural to feel anger and despair, thankfulness can feel like hope. At the very least it can bring light and definition to a moment, and make us feel alive. It doesn’t make us Pollyannas without gravitas or recognition of the world’s pain; it doesn’t preclude sadness or grief. But we owe it – to God, Nature, the universe or the great mystery, to each other and to ourselves. I do know the human-made/political world has never in my sixty four years seemed more of a hellhole. And Christmas in the UK will be a painful reminder of those we miss. But I am grateful that I love them so much, grateful for their love, and grateful to NHS staff still striving to keep loved ones alive. Without disappointment and sadness perhaps we’d forget to be grateful at all. And yes, perhaps my depression calls it up from the depths as a survival strategy as well as a truth to embrace. As a relatively recent Quaker I welcome silence more than I used to, and although I’ll never stop yearning and grieving, and holding in the Light those in greatest need, I find that silence can swell and glow with wordless gratitude. Peace, trees, water, love and gratitude – surely they can only make us better humans, inspired to make a better world.

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