August 10, 2015

A Personal Take on Gratitude

On Sunday, I went to an English-language, Anglican church in Rio de Janeiro, where I am visiting my wife’s family. It was a relatively small congregation - about 50 people - and the Brazilian priest spoke English, only occasionally stumbling over words.

In his sermon he quoted a rabbi, whose name and exact words I cannot recall, but the gist of it was this: even good things are bad for us if we do not give thanks for them. Food to eat, shelter, friends, even these things can corrode our soul if we are not thankful.

This message struck a chord in me, perhaps because I am on vacation in Brazil and have many things to be grateful for. I have more than I need. For this reason, perhaps, it is especially important for me to remember that what I have is a gift. Remembering this from time to time helps me to hold a little less tightly to what I have. If everything is a gift then it’s a little easier to give it away.

As my wife pointed out to me, there is a danger in telling other people to be grateful for what they have. It doesn’t acknowledge the parts of their lives that are difficult, the ways in which they’ve worked hard, the obstacles they’ve overcome, the disadvantages they’ve been born with, the suffering, seen and unseen, that they endure. No one wants to be told to be grateful for what they’ve had when they’re struggling to make ends meet, for example, or when they’re fighting cancer, especially not by a privileged, healthy person like me.

Still, my personal take on giving thanks for everything I’ve been given is that I’m reminded each time that I don’t necessarily deserve everything I have. I have earned very little of it. This is true for all of us—our circumstances, our families, many aspects of our lives are not chosen or earned. We simply received them when we were born, whether we wanted them or not, for better or worse.

Remembering this gives me a little more empathy for other people who do not have the privileges I have. It keeps me from acting out of fear of losing what I have, and, I hope, leads me to to be more generous toward those who have hard lives or work two jobs to feed their families or were born into poverty.

I believe that gratitude can be good for all of us, but I won’t presume to tell you to be grateful for what you have. I will simply tell you that, for me, it’s a tactic for keeping things in perspective. It’s a way to remember that everything I have is a gift.

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