An Interlude of Gratefulness
“Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” - G.K. Chesterton
Can we just stop for a moment?
That might be a weird way to start an essay, but it is needed. For the past few hours I have been sitting here, in my fancy black chair that I stole from a dumpster, trying to write this week’s essay. I write and delete. Write and delete. I have noticed that it is now past my deadline to get this to my editor (hi, Mike! Sorry, Mike!).
What I keep writing and deleting all seems to be exuding from the stress that seems to be permanently lodged in my shoulders. I keep writing about the state of our nation; as if you need to be reminded that there is a vast collective feeling of divisiveness, fear, anger, and anxiety. I find myself, even now, wanting to delve into the epidemic of loneliness in this country, or perhaps discuss our newest looming threat of war, or sum up all of the various ways that our democracy is unraveling, or give a diatribe on how the ugliness of racism, misogyny, and general hatred of “the others” has began to seep up behind the band aids and masks that we have used to cover it up.
But you already feel it, don’t you? All of this stuff is inescapable. If you are like me, you have already spent the morning looking through the latest surreal and horrifying news. We are living in anxious times. We are unsettled. We are scared. We are pissed off. We have good reason to feel those things. No matter where you stand on the political or ideological or religious spectrum, we can all recognize that things are tense, right?
And that's why I need to stop. Just for a little bit. Just long enough to catch my breath, to remember where I am. You might benefit from the same.
The poet and mystic Rumi wrote, "for one moment quit being sad. Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you." And today I am following his advice.
There is a lot of suffering in this life. Some of you may be going through more of it right now than you ever have before. All the more reason for us to take a moment and remember just how beautiful life is as well. As Henri Matisse once said, "there are always flowers for those who want to see them."
Wherever you are as you read this, I would like you to stop. Close your eyes and take three full deep breaths. Roll your shoulders back and forth. Stretch. Let's begin
Here is a long—but still widely incomplete—list of things things I am grateful for:
I am grateful for the way the world smells after the rain; for the puddles and coolness of the air. I love that the word for that smell is called petrichor. I am grateful for my pipe and sweater and the collected works of Pablo Neruda.
I am grateful that my friend Bri, a badass martial artist knife fighter, made a pillow fort in her living room with her husband and then proceeded to live in it for a week. I am grateful for the pillow fort I will make and live in later today.
I am grateful that we are now living in an unparalleled time where we have almost instantaneous access to thousands of years of the world’s collected wisdom. Think about how wonderful and powerful and transformative that can be.
I am grateful that included in this holy treasury are ideas as diverse as explanations of physics to theories of love and ethics to erotic fan fiction about Saved by the Bell.
I am incredibly grateful for the illusion of color; how it is mixed and swirled and projected and worn and splattered in ways that convey meaning and emotion and all of our inner most unsaid parts even though it is all really just a matter of how we perceive light.
I am grateful that we are living in times that test our virtue and ethics and diligence. I am thankful to see so many rise to the occasion: who do not meet hate with hate, but stand and speak for the Truth and Justice in love.
I am grateful that our institutions and systems of power are experiencing such a disruption. Though I will confess that I am sometimes frightened by how it might end up (especially for the more vulnerable among us), I do still possess some hope that this is our chance to remember our values as a country and to maybe, actually, for the first time, learn to live by the lofty goals that America has always set for herself.
I am grateful that some of us white folk are starting to realize just how bad things have been all this time for people of color. I am grateful that some of us men can now recognize how badly we have treated women throughout history. I am grateful that all kinds of marginalized people are starting to finally be heard by the majority. (I am also embarrassed and sad by how long that took)
I am grateful for music. I love how it is eternally bound to memories: a time machine that instantly connects us to the people and places of our past. I love how it chemically alters the mood of a room. I love music because it is the strongest evidence I have found for the existence of the divine.
I am grateful that even though I do not have much money, I am still rich in abundance of everything I need. I love that I have, at times, been forced to find joy in scarcity. I am grateful that so many have found joy in generosity. I am grateful that if nothing else, I have the sun in the morning and the moon at night.
I am grateful for science. For the stars, our immense galaxy and our infinite universe. For the intricacies of our evolution. For the geologic column and carbon dating. I am grateful that we figured out what dinosaurs are and how children and adults alike feel small and giddy standing next to their ancient and gigantic bones.
I am grateful for the bravery of Galileo, Darwin, Spinoza and so many others, who sought out Truth, though it shattered their faith. I am grateful that this kind of intellectual courage still exists today.
I am grateful for the sheer mystery and miracle of our existence. Regardless of how we came here, the fact that we are here at all is so rare and fragile. I am grateful for expanding lungs, pulsing hearts, firing neurons, and that perfect mixture of chemicals that come together to produce feelings of love and sadness and joy and grief. I am grateful that though we all can be boiled down to mechanics, we still feel like something more. I am grateful for our deus ex machina.
I am grateful that we have the capacity to question our existence. To look up at the stars and our sinewy flesh and be filled with awe and wonder. I am grateful for how small I feel when I do that. I am grateful for questions, for curiosity. For the countless pilgrims and philosophers and mystics and prophets who have given up comfort and peace in order to measure just how deep and wide concepts like “Truth” and “God” really are. I am grateful that we are still seeking. That we are not satisfied to take someone else's word for it.
I am grateful for my pain and chronic illness. It was not until my body turned to pain that I realized how much it was meant for pleasure. I am grateful that it has caused me to slow down and evaluate what actually matters. I am grateful that it has widened my compassion and strengthened my patience. I am grateful that pain, as Khalil Gibran said, is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. I am grateful that I experienced my sorrow early as it has blossomed me into a more full life.
I am grateful for touch. For the chemical release that comes from it. For the connection of friendship. For the beauty of our sexuality. I am grateful for mirror neurons and empathy; that we receive pleasure and good feeling by giving it.
I am grateful that Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was so good.
I was just going to leave that as a joke, but I really am grateful for storytellers. For books, movies, television shows, and tall tales around campfires. I am grateful that they magically place us into the lives of others. They teach us empathy and help us navigate through our own rocky experiences.
I am grateful for the actual magic of words. They are just a random sequence of sounds that somehow transform your thoughts. If I say the word “tree,” a tree is drawn inside your brain. If I say the words “red tree with bright blue leaves” there it as well. That is an awful lot of power. These odd squiggly lines when arranged in a certain order can create real feeling inside of you, they can change your very identity. Good writers are wizards.
I am grateful that this magic is so common that it is usually taken for granted.
There is more. There is much much more. Once you have sprung this well it is awfully hard to stop.
But I will leave you now to your own revery of thankfulness. Just one more thing though:
I am grateful for you. We might not agree on much. We might not even know each other. But we are together right now. You, wherever and whenever you read this. Me, sitting in a fancy chair that I found next to a dumpster. It might appear that we are by ourselves, but you and I, we are right now looking at these very same words. We are in different places in time and space, but we are right now together, sharing this very same thought. I am grateful that you have joined me here.
I am grateful that we are not alone.