Some students came to their Rabbi and said, “Rebbe, we are puzzled. It says in the Talmud that we must thank God as much for the bad days as for the good. How can that be? What would our gratitude mean if we gave it equally for the good and the bad?”
The Rebbe replied, “Go to Anapol. Reb Zusya will have an answer for you.”
The Hasidim undertook the journey. Arriving in Anapol, they inquired for Reb Zusya. At last, they came to the poorest street of the city. There, crowded between two small houses, they found a tiny shack, sagging with age.
When they entered, they saw Reb Zusya sitting at a bare table, reading a volume by the light of the only small window. “Welcome, strangers!” he said. “Please pardon me for not getting up; I have hurt my leg. Would you like food? I have some bread. And there is water!”
“No. We have come only to ask you a question. Our Rebbe told us you might help us understand: Why do our sages tell us to thank God as much for the bad days as for the good?”
Reb Zusya laughed. “Me? I have no idea why the Rabbi sent you to me.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “You see, I have never had a bad day. Every day God has given to me has been filled with miracles.”
Bad days are full of miracles if you allow yourself to see the world that way. Maybe bad days are not as bad as you imagine. Maybe gratitude is not about looking for good days, but rather looking for the good in each day.
Rabbi Zusya was a Jewish teacher in the late 18th century. He lived in great poverty and yet he lived his life in gratitude, because he never wanted anything more than what he had. You don’t encounter many people in life who are genuinely happy with what they have. Most of us aspire to live with that attitude but something (society, ego, peer pressure?) compels us to run frantically on the rat’s wheel of more, more and more. It’s a contradiction, isn’t it?
Thanksgiving is a time of contractions. There may be more food than you know what to do with. You may move from hunger to bloated stomach within minutes. A meal that may take 18 hours to prepare will be eaten in 12 minutes, coincidentally the same time allocated for half time in the football game.
You may spend time with family with whom you have a bittersweet relationship. You can’t live with them but at the same time you can’t live without them. You can’t wait for them to arrive, and before long you can’t wait to watch them leave.
Am I being too cynical? Or are the Holidays like the opening lines in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all doing direct the other way.”
As the poet Rilke said, “Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, no feeling is final.” This is a great Thanksgiving reminder. The holidays are the best and worst of times. Let it all happen. No feeling is final.
Gratitude Puts Life in Perspective
Gratitude is not just about giving thanks for the good days. Gratitude is about putting the bad days in perspective. What are they bad compared to? Are they bad compared to other days you’ve had or are they bad compared to other people’s bad days? As the famous saying goes, “I once was distraught because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
There is a great skit from Monty Python about keeping things in perspective. It’s a skit with four Yorkshire men reminiscing-
- We used to live in this tiny old house, with great big holes in the roof.
- House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!
- You were lucky to have a ROOM! We used to have to live in a corridor!
- Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us. We used to live in an old water tank on a rubbish tip. We got woken up every morning by having a load of rotting fish dumped all over us! House!? Hmph.
- We were evicted from our hole in the ground; we had to go and live in a lake!
- You were lucky to have a LAKE! There were a hundred and sixty of us living in a small shoebox in the middle of the road.
- You were lucky. We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out. When we got home, out Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt!
- Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at three o’clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!
- Well we had it tough. We used to have to get up out of the shoebox at twelve o’clock at night, and LICK the road clean with our tongues. We had half a handful of freezing cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at the mill for fourpence every six years, and when we got home, our Dad would slice us in two with a bread knife.
- Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed, eat a lump of cold poison, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad would kill us, and dance about on our graves singing “Hallelujah.”
- But you try and tell the young people today that… and they won’t believe ya’.
Gratitude has no need to compare or compete. It celebrates what is. Life keeps moving. No feeling lasts forever. While circumstances can feel harsh and unending, gratitude finds new ways to express itself. Victor Frankl explained this truth-
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances . . .”
Learn From Nature
Nature is the best teacher in terms of letting it all happen, and not becoming attached to any particular season or feeling. Nature models the highest human ideals including gratitude. Nature sings a song of praise and gratitude. It is the same in your relationships. One offers praise, and another answers in gratitude, like the call of birds. The immediate response to praise is gratitude. Love flows freely. Try it today. Make a point of offering praise today, and enjoy the gratitude flowing back to you.
Nature doesn’t expect reward or gratitude. It just does what it does without effort.
E.e. Cummings and Buckminster Fuller were great friends. They had a practice of rising early and greeting the sun when they were together. (They obviously didn’t live in Michigan.)
The two of them would stand facing east at the dawn hour feeling the peace, the quiet, the solitude, the rhythms of nature… they stood for ten minutes in total silence as the eastern sky was showing first light of pinks, yellows and oranges with a touch of red. Finally, after ten minutes or so, Buckminster Fuller would raise both of his arms in full length to the heavens above, and praise the morning with: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Take the opportunity this Thanksgiving to give thanks for nature, for her sustaining life, for her example of all that you aspire to. Like nature, may your gratitude be active, stretching beyond yourself to include others, even future generations.
Anthony de Mello tells a story about the connection between gratitude and service-
After a monsoon rain, an old man went out and dug some holes in his garden.
ʺWhat are you doing?ʺ his neighbor asked.
ʺPlanting mango trees,ʺ was the reply.
ʺDo you expect to eat mangoes from those trees? ʺ
ʺNo, I won’t live long enough for that. But others will. It occurred to me the other day that all my life I have enjoyed mangoes planted by other people. This is my way of showing them my gratitude.”
This Thanksgiving, show your gratitude to those who have paved the way for your life, and also commit to passing on to future generations what you have received in abundance.
Gratitude and Mindfulness
Do you say grace before your Thanksgiving meal? The main purpose behind saying grace is mindfulness. Take a moment to recognize the multiple, interrelated sources of your meal.
Some graces are mindless, like Bart Simpson praying ““Dear God, we paid for this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” It’s cute but it’s not true. So many people, creatures and systems are involved in your meals. Thank them all.
Maybe your grace is tinged with a hint of cynicism, like the song by Peter Berryman, Uncle Dave’s Grace.
Thanksgiving day, Uncle Dave was our guest,
He reads the Progressive which makes him depressed.
We asked Uncle Dave if he’d like to say grace,
A dark desolation crept over his face.
“Thanks,” he began as he gazed at his knife,
“To poor Mr. Turkey for giving his life.
All crowded and cramped in a great metal shed,
Where life was a drag then they cut off his head”.
“Thanks,” he went on, “for the grapes in our wine,
Picked by sick women of seventy-nine.
Scrambling all morning for bunch after bunch,
While brushing the pesticides off of their lunch”.
Continuing, “I’d like to thank if you please,
Our salad bowl hacked out of tropical trees.
And for this mahogany table and chair,
Let us thank the rainforests that used to be there.
“Oh thanks for the furnace that heats up our rooms,
And thanks for the rich fossil fuel it consumes.
Corrupting the atmosphere ounce after ounce,
But we’re warm and toasty and that is what counts.
Sighed Uncle Dave, “though there’s more to be told,
The wine’s getting warm and the bird’s getting cold”.
And with that he sat down as he mumbled again,
“Thank you for everything, amen”.
We felt so guilty when he was all thru,
It seemed there was one of two things we could do.
Live without food, in the nude, in a cave,
Or next year have someone say grace besides Dave.
Gratitude isn’t cynical, and it isn’t naïve. The antidote to both cynicism and naivety is mindful gratitude. Gratitude is mindful both of the source of our lives and also the effect of our lives. Gratitude that is mindful is active and compassionate.
My favorite grace comes from the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh-
My plate, now empty, will soon be filled with precious food. In this food, I see the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence. Many beings are struggling for food today. I pray that they all may have enough to eat.
Now that’s a grace, full of awareness and gratitude for the interrelated cycles of life.
Give thanks for community and interdependence, the God between, the God who goes by many names; Life, Creative Process, Gaia, Interrelatedness, Ground of Being or whatever other name has meaning for you. It’s greater than you; but utterly dependent on you and your choices at the same time.
William Blake said, “Gratitude is heaven itself.” Make this a day of enormous gratitude. Smile often. Say thank you regularly. Give praise lavishly. Hug bearishly. Listen generously. Be playfully present. Then look back at the end of the day at the pieces of heaven you have created.
Heaven, you’re in heaven.
And your heart beats with such gratitude that you can hardly speak.
And you seem to find the happiness you seek when you’re out together dancing cheek to cheek with life.