I have heat. I have light. I am connected to the interwebs. The refrigerator is astonishingly clean. And for all these things I am grateful. Last week we had no light, no heat, and the internet — far from being my window on the universe — had shrunk to a tiny shutter I occasionally peeped through on my phone.
In the moment, deprivation is a potent tool for discerning the difference between needs and wants. As I dressed in the dark and cold each morning, I was grateful to have clean and warm clothes to wear, even if I went to teach class in an outfit that was a bit more casual than my wont. (Next time my hurricane preparations will include not only finding the hand pump for the basement, but ironing a couple of pairs of pants for work!)
But memory fades quickly, even when the circumstances have been far more difficult than our brief return to the pre-electric age. Stranded on drifting ice for months after his expedition’s boat had been crushed, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton wrote in his journal that, if he were rescued, he would never again complain of being too hot. After a harrowing trip through a hurricane in an open boat, Shackleton found himself overheated — and complaining about it — as he hiked over an island mountain pass in search of help.
I thought of Shackleton this afternoon when I reached into the (newly cleaned out) fridge and was momentarily annoyed that we had no milk. Until it hit me that I now had light by which to see that!
St. Ignatius of Loyola felt that ingratitude was at the root of sin, making us insensible to the gifts, graces and benefits we have received from God’s hands, and consequently less careful about how we used them. Recognizing how easy it is to take gifts for granted, even gifts we were grateful for originally, Ignatius recommended spending a few minutes each day giving thanks to God for the graces and blessings of that day. This daily exercise gives us a chance to renew our sense of gratitude and sharpens our awareness of the ways that God is at work in us and in everything around us.
Recently, I gave a public lecture as part of an award I had received. It’s traditional to end a scientific talk with a slide that acknowledges the people and funding agencies that made the work possible. As I made that slide up, I began to think about other ways to exercise my “gratitude muscles.”
I ended up making a second slide that listed everyone, living and dead, I could think of who had supported my work as a scholar. My parents. Collaborators, colleagues, readers, students, friends, spiritual directors, editors, teachers, siblings.
The list grew in length (and shrank in font size so that it would all fit). My favorite part of the talk was looking out at the audience, which included many of the people thanked on the slide and watching their faces light up as they found their names.
As we edge into the frenetic holiday season, where gifts can threaten to become items to be checked off on a list, I’m committing to practicing random acts of gratitude. To pick up a pen and write to a former teacher and tell him what his class meant to me, to call my dad and tell him how grateful I have been for teaching me to how to paint a room, to write an email to a hotel to say how kind a kitchen employee had been.
I know that no matter how attentive I am, I can never fully recognize all that I have to be grateful for, and that (to paraphrase an old Eucharistic preface) although God has no need of our praise, our desire to thank Him is itself His gift; our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to His greatness, but makes us grow in holiness. Yet another gift to be thankful for.