Gratitude

Even after all this time, The sun never says to the earth, "You owe me."
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights the whole sky.
  — Hafiz of Persia

In the mid 1980s my wife, two young daughters and I lived in a poor urban neighborhood on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador.  While running water and electricity were erratic, trash pickup took place everyday save Sunday.  As was customary each day for all of us in the neighborhood, that spring morning I placed our small container of garbage on the sidewalk just outside the front door.  Just as I was turning to go back inside, I could see an elderly indigenous woman approaching with a scruffy, malnourished dog a step or two behind her.  She was dressed traditionally in many layers of skirts, a colorful (if very worn) top and brown bowler hat.  Before I could say ‘good morning’ to her she nodded, reached for the garbage pail and began to search through it.   

I froze for a second, trying to find the right words: “Señora, please stop!  We have food inside.”  “Do you need money?”  I was quite sure she was Quechua speaking, but Spanish was the best I could do.  Before a single word made its way to my lips she had found part of a chicken carcass (skin, grizzle and a tiny bit of meat still attached) and put it in the plastic bag tied to her belt.   I still had no words.  For her part, she looked up at me with a small smile to counterbalance her sad eyes and quietly said, “Le agradezco, Señor.” (Thank you, sir) and moved on to the next household.  I never saw her again, but I know for certain more light filled that spring morning than I could have ever imagined.

Why would she ever thank me?  Given that she surely had almost nothing to her name, conventional thought would say that she had every right to be callous and bitter.  How did she find it in herself to express words of gratitude?!  How do any of us?

It appears that gratitude is neither proportionate to nor does it have much to do with abundance (or scarcity).  We only need to look to people we’ve known from different cultures and economic classes who have an eternal disposition towards gratefulness.  They are happier and more balanced than most - much more so than those for whom gratitude is an infrequent visitor.  The former bring more light into the world; the latter (entitled, easily offended people) obscure the light.  Gratitude isn’t just a temporary positive emotion that surfaces after the rain held off for the wedding; the MRI showed nothing of concern; the hurricane went out to sea; tiny traces of food were found on a few chicken bones.  It’s a mindset, a conscious decision to practice gratitude until gratefulness becomes part of who we are; to look for what’s right, not just what’s wrong; to have a sense of wonder and see the beauty in and around us.

Studies have shown that gratitude impacts on our physical and emotional health.  In an article for WebMD by Elizabeth Heubeck entitled Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude - If you want to get healthier, give thanks, the author’s research showed that, for example: 

  • "Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations," (University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons)
  •  "Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress," (Emmons)

For thousands of years philosophers and religious leaders across many cultural and denominational traditions have been acclaiming the individual and collective benefits of gratitude. Over 700 years ago the Dominican Friar and mystic, Meister Eckhart said it simply and straightforwardly: “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”   

A contemporary American author spoke of it with more detail:  “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity….It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”   (Melody Beattie)

What are we grateful for today?  Einstein said that, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."   Somehow, the poor indigenous woman who came by that morning could still see the miracle.  She helped me to do the same.

Robert Short, Director of Mission and Pastoral Care, Youville Assisted Living