On Gratitude

by Michael Sean Winters

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Growing up, I had fleeting experiences of gratitude, all of them self-referential and tied to a strange, I think quintessentially American, or at least modern, understanding of blessings as something in the plural and something that was the result of human effort. I felt gratitude when I made it through “Schmucke Dich” in the one and only organ recital I ever gave, a not particularly complicated piece, but one in which all the notes are so exposed, and so perfectly knit together that not only a wrong note, but a missed one, would have been hideously obvious. I was grateful when my friend Gale and her teammates won the state soccer championship. I was grateful for my grandmother’s long life when she died.

It was in college that I first realized gratitude was something deeper than a fleeting emotion. My best friend David was in AA and if you are familiar with AA, you know that cultivating gratitude is the recovering alcoholic’s antidote to the kinds of stresses which previously drove him to drink. From the outside, it still seemed to function in a utilitarian way. Until David got AIDS. It was the late 1980s and there was yet no treatment, so contracting AIDS was a death sentence. David was the most vibrant person I had ever met, and watching him waste away was brutally painful. And, brutally graced. He continued to make his gratitude list each day, no matter the indignities his condition brought upon him. Still, my mind and heart were breaking. Towards the end of his life, I had a previously scheduled trip to California and he encouraged me to take it. On Sunday, I went to Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, a church I had heard mocked as “St. Maytag,” and which I was disposed not to like, having never been a fan of poured concrete. But, the space is warmer than I had anticipated, its soaring space in perfect proportion so that it does not make one feel small, and at communion, we sang the contemporary hymn “I am the Bread of Life.” I had never heard it or sung it before. It reduced me to tears. There, at the altar, I realized that though I was a continent away from my dying friend and though his illness seemed to challenge everything I wanted to believe about God being good and just, in fact, in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, my friend’s suffering was not diminished but elevated. It would be wrong to say that the experience allowed me to “make sense” of David’s illness, still less of his death a few weeks later. But, singing the last verse – “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who have come into the world” – and there is something about singing such words that invests them with power they lack when spoken, I realized as never before that this great mystery of the Eucharist was the only thing that allowed my friend’s suffering to acquire dignity, and not just dignity, but eternal significance. I felt grateful then. I still feel grateful. The most awful suffering, and the abysmal loneliness of death, both have meaning, which is what we want.

This week, two items came to my attention that are the kinds of thing that used to make me angry but now just make me sad. The first was a book review of Katha Pollitt’s new book defending abortion rights, “Pro.” The review was written by Connie Schultz and published in this weekend’s Washington Post. Schultz begins thus:

Katha Pollitt may not appreciate my starting this review with her description of her own experience of motherhood, but this is my attempt to broaden her audience beyond the predictable cast for her small, powerful book. “People think of pregnant women as weak and vulnerable, but when I was pregnant with my daughter I felt as if I could put my hand in fire and it would only glow,” she writes in “Pro.” “I never felt alone: There were two of us, right there. I didn’t think of my child as an embryo or fetus. . . . I thought of her first as a funny little sea creature of indeterminate sex, and later, yes, as a baby, even though she was only a baby in my thoughts.”

To state what should be obvious, Pollitt, like most other women who support abortion rights, celebrates motherhood as a choice. 

“Only a baby in my thoughts”? Did the baby kick? Do thoughts kick? Is a motherhood nothing more than “a choice”? When does “a choice” become “a person”? When we decide? Can the order be reversed, that is, can we decide that someone is undesirable, turn them from a person into a choice and then eliminate them? This last question is not mere churlishness because Pollitt and Schultz call attention to the 1962 case of Sherri Chessen Finkbine who publicly went to Sweden to procure an abortion when she found out her child would have a birth defect.  Then, Schultz adds: “In that same decade, a rubella epidemic that caused thousands of babies to be born with disabilities forced Americans ‘to listen to respectable white women unapologetically demanding the right to end their pregnancies,’ Pollitt writes.” In this brave new world of empowered, courageous women claiming control over their bodies, I wonder if Pollitt or Schultz would have the courage to celebrate Finkbine and others in front of an audience of people with disabilities. This worldview is the worldview of consumer choice, not motherhood. The problem is not that it is wrong, although it is wrong, but that it is so impoverished, so lacking in any appreciation for the giftedness of human life, the unpredictability of fellow souls, the drama and the love and, yes, the suffering (for love always entails suffering) of human relationships. It makes me sad.

The second item was an article in the Atlantic sent to me by a new friend. It included this quote from a Bertrand Russell essay:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

The word “scaffolding” here brought not to mind the trusses that support a new work of architecture, but that different scaffold on which criminals, real or inconvenient, were beheaded or hanged. Behind Russell's brave denunciation of the religious sense is the not-so brave, and all too horrific, conclusion that because we humans are so small, so insignificant, we can aspire to be our own gods. It is the first sin, in modern drag, the desire to be like the gods because we are unhappy with our lot as humans. Why must we yield to “unyielding despair”? I do not feel I must do any such thing, not least because this sad rumination was brought to me by a new friend, someone who last Thanksgiving I did not now existed but to whom I was introduced and soon achieved that kind of cor ad cor loquitum friendship that tends to characterize Christian fellowship. I wonder what Mr. Bertrand Russell made of his experiences of meeting new friends. Was he grateful as I am? Or was each new instance of that particular delight in meeting a new friend an additional source of “unyielding despair” for him? And, did he continue to find new joy in his long-standing friendships, as I am blessed to find, again and again. The worldview of Russell and his intellectual heirs is not just wrong but sad, so sad.

This morning, I am also in mind of two lines of poetry by Joseph Brodsky, of happy memory, that ring more true than Ms. Pollitt’s and Mr. Russell’s modern manifestoes:

Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx, 

only gratitude will be gushing from it.

Modernity demands that we pray with our eyes open, to borrow a phrase from Walter Lippmann. Brodsky was right to include the word “yet.” Nor does modernity require us to repeat the sin of Adam and Eve and eat the forbidden fruit of pride: Brodsky was as modern as Russell. But, a life without gratitude is a sad life, an empty life, in which children become choices, in which despair invites a pose not an embrace, and in which true friendship is impossible. I am glad I do not inhabit such a world. I am confident no one really inhabits that world entirely. It is the “culture of death.” Give me the “culture of life” and the “joy of the Gospel” any day – and every day – over that crimped understanding of our own experience. The deepest sources of gratitude spring from the foot of the Cross and from the empty tomb. Drink deeply on that hillside in Jerusalem and never thirst. Gratitude is not a fleeting emotion, but a statement of faith, a stance born of faith and demanded by faith and blessed by faith. It is gratitude that allows us to bury old friends and welcome new ones, to receive life as a gift to be treasured, a commitment to the real, live human beings whom we encounter. Gratitude is the recognition, made with our eyes open, that God is good to us, so good, and that, clinging to Him, we can be truly good to one another. Gratitude destroys the myth of human monotony and awakens us to the genuine newness of creation and the genuine newness of the New Creation. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.  



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