I didn’t know I was grateful
I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all over
(From The Unraveling Strangeness by Bruce Weigl,© 2003)
Thanksgiving week, perhaps this country’s most enduring holiday. Weary travelers willingly stand in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable cabins, or pack the trunks of their cars with suitcases to drive for hours along busy highways, all in honor of the Thanksgiving, a time of family, of remembering, and of gratitude.
Gratitude. In a world besieged by global warming, poverty, the Ebola crisis in West Africa, terrorist attacks on innocent people, it’s hard to think about gratitude. It’s all too easy to feel anger, frustration, or fear, emotions that can seep much too readily under our skins, and we have to consciously re-direct our attention to those things in life that keep us going, provide solace or moments of joy. “ Count your blessings,” my mother said to me when, as a teenager, I complained about all that was wrong, like the clothes I had to wear, the boy who didn’t return my affections, the mandatory weekend chores that came before time with my friends. The last thing I wanted to hear from my parent was some worn out folk wisdom.
But there’s something to that old folk wisdom. Gratitude. “If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,” German philosopher Meister Eckhart wrote. Since his words, something called “happiness research” has evolved, documenting the importance of gratitude. The scientific nature of gratitude, its causes and consequences for human health and well-being are the subjects of research by Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and his team at the University of California at Davis. Here are some of their findings:
- People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have a greater capacity to be empathetic toward others.
- Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality and optimism. . .
- Individuals who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and felt more optimistic about their lives.
- Those who kept gratitude lists were more likely to progress toward important personal goals.
- In a group of adults with neuromuscular disease, a gratitude intervention resulted in greater energy, positive moods, more optimism, and better sleep quality. (For the full summary, go to: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/)
Gratitude. Bruce Weigl’s poem served as the prompt for this morning’s session at Scripps Cancer Center. Cancer, like other life altering experiences, makes us more aware of those things that matter in our lives, the people, and the gifts of everyday that we realize we are deeply grateful for.
“Start with the line, “ “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” from Bruce Weigl’s poem, I said. They wrote only for a few minutes, but the writing was poignant and strong, full of expressions of gratitude, reminding me of poems I return to again and again.
In “Starfish,” Eleanor Lerman expresses gratitude for life and what it lets us do:
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…
…And then life lets you go home to think
About all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…
(From: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)
Marilyn Nelson, in her poem “Dusting,” expresses gratitude for a simple household chore:
My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
for this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.
(From: Magnificat, 1994)
Mary Oliver, whose descriptions of the natural world are some of poetry’s most vivid, has written more than one poem entitled “Gratitude.” In this one, she describes walking in a field flooded with water and looking up to see a hawk. She expresses her gratitude, bound in the act of noticing, by concluding:
There are days when the field water and the slender grasses
and the wild hawks
have it all over the rest of us
Whether or not they make clear sense, ride the beautiful
long spine of grammar, whether or not they rhyme…
(From: West Wind and Prose Poems, 1997)
Gratitude is, I think, about pausing to remember and to notice, which is the task of remembering what, in our lives, we are grateful for, as Sam Hamill notes in his book, Lives of a Poet: Letter to Gary Snyder (1998):
That is the real work—
reading books or bucking wood
or washing babies—
attentive lives all our days:
the real joy is gratitude.
That’s it. Our real joy: gratitude. This Thanksgiving week, take time to make your gratitude list. Why not do as my group did this morning? Begin with Weigl’s line, “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” and write about gratitude.