Friday, November 27, 2009

More on Gratitude

This week, we welcomed yet another child into our family. Christopher's safe arrival was an occasion for joy, thanksgiving, and secret relief that all went well. For human beings are notoriously fragile, especially newborns, and each year they not only survive, but actually grow and flourish, is thus a kind of miracle.

Yet behind healthy, happy children stand adults who have devoted themselves to the cause. They have worked hard and unselfishly to provide the necessities of life for their children. They have set aside their own private hopes and dreams, sometimes for decades, in order to nurture the next generation. Their commitment is all-encompassing, and their courage profound.

Thank heavens, I thought, that my grandchildren have parents like these! Yet as I gazed down at beautiful little Christopher, asleep in the crook of his exhausted mother's arm, I found myself having to accept an additional truth, one that flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about what constitutes good parenting. When God tells us to honor our fathers and our mothers, he is asking us to acknowledge the monumental sacrifice that any parent--good, adequate, or barely sufficient--must make in order that a child might grow. According to his commandment, it does not matter whether we at the same time receive those blessings that psychology insists are mandatory for human flourishing: affirmation, encouragement, unconditional love. It is enough, God says in this difficult commandment, that someone takes on the burden of providing for our physical needs--that someone cares enough to get us through. Our obligation in return is gratitude in the form of everlasting respect for those who bring us into the world and who (however ineptly, and with whatever lack of skill or tact) enable us to survive and grow.

Though this insight made me uncomfortable (I was nearly forty before I could forgive my own hardworking, committed parents for all the "necessities" I was convinced they'd failed to provide), it was also a relief to have the obligation of gratitude spelled out in such simple and straightforward terms. Parents do not have to "earn" their children's gratitude; babies arrive in the world with this debt on their shoulders. And it is likewise in our relationship with God, our heavenly Father, who not only knits us together in our mother's womb, but breathes into us the very breath of life, and whose creation provides for us the means of growth and flourishing. Our thanksgiving, worship and praise are rooted in this most basic truth: without God, we would not exist. Every other good thing that comes our way is simply added blessing.

Gratitude is thus a necessary aspect of our spiritual identity. When we fail to grasp this reality, our vision becomes narrow and skewed, for all we can see is what we want and do not have. Instead of joy that God has promised us, we feel resentment and bitterness. The goal of the contemplative life, however, is true seeing, which begins with continual thanksgiving. The childlike lightheartedness and joy of holy people is a reflection of this unshakable gratitude.

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