On the last days of my 38th year, I have one prevailing emotion. Gratitude. Deep overflowing gratitude that often brings me to my knees at how much I have received in my long and short life. I also lay down at night exhausted or stressed out, grief stricken or back-aching, cranky or withdrawn, or some combination of any or all of these. Underneath all of it though, I am grateful for all of it. Grateful for the screaming and yelling of two wild boys, grateful for the flooded basement, grateful for the last piece of bread that burned when I just wanted some toast and the broken car that I wasn’t planning on fixing, grateful for the goddamn bee sting on my fricking neck. I try to be grateful for the rainy days as much as the sunny days, the freezing-my-ass off days as much as the hot and humid days. I even try to be grateful for the only weak and instant coffee available when I didn’t have time to make espresso at home.
Gratitude is a practice that to a great degree would be enough to carry us through to our dying day. See, human beings are always living “on the take.” We are the species on this planet that consumes the absolute most in order to have our lives. We almost consistently don’t replace what we consume to the earth. Even our death practices keep our precious bodies from replenishing the earth’s resources. How much of our lives have we truly made for ourselves? We are not autonomous, self-made beings. We are dependent and vulnerable… and also incredibly destructive.
There are different kinds of gratitude, it seems. The easy gratitude is to be grateful for the things that benefit ourselves. Then there is the gratitude for that which benefits others, our people or our family. There is gratitude for that which causes us pain, but we tell ourselves that there is something to learn or that the pain has some redemption in it. But what about the things that don’t benefit us at all? Or what about the things that bring about our own demise, destruction, or dissolution? If only we could be grateful for those as well… even when we feel the utter rending of all that we hold dear, the brokenheartedness, the anguish, and the grief. This is the hard work, to find gratitude for the meaningless without attempting to make it more palatable or manageable by applying some lesson to it.
Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to this in his poem, The Man Watching:
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.