The Washington Post
A universe of things to be thankful for
When I was a boy, my large family passed a spoon around the table during our Thanksgiving feast. Each in turn, we held the utensil like a microphone and declared what we were thankful for.
Today, I have these 800 words, more or less, as my spoon, and I’m thankful to all who do me the honor of reading. Especially those regulars who endure the duds, the errors and the points of disagreement to participate with me in this communication of writer and reader.
I remain thankful for the things I mentioned half a century ago. A home to live in. Food to eat. Mom and Dad, long gone from the holiday table but frequent visitors to my thoughts and dreams. Raising my own kids has opened my eyes to how utterly unprepared parents are; each child is unprecedented. We don’t shape them so much as we discover them, and try to do as little damage as possible in the process. I would have been more forgiving had I realized how often I would end up seeking forgiveness.
Robert Emmons is a leader in the emerging science of gratitude. Research done by Emmons and others confirms what many of us already sensed: that gratitude makes us feel more peaceful, less overwhelmed by stress. The act of writing down blessings in a daily journal is linked to lower blood pressure, better sleep and fewer symptoms of psychological distress.
Though I am a journalist, I’ve never been a journaler. Rather than write out my gratitude, I endeavor to make it my first focus of each day, sitting on the edge of the bed, clearing the cobwebs just after the alarm. I’m back for another day, I tell myself.
Gratitude is a muscle. It strengthens us with use.
“Every morning began with infinite promise,” Robert D. Richardson wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken. Anything that has ever been possible to human beings is possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning. On a day no different from the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet.”
I am thankful for such days, each one a chance to do better. Although I am no William Shakespeare, I share the world with Shakespeare, with Toni Morrison, with a glorious novelist new to me named Anne Griffin. It’s a world supplied with precisely the right amounts of gravity and atmosphere, enough water and sunlight but not too much of either. Scientists have gazed thousands of lightyears in search of another such place, and still, this is the only one for sure, a beautiful lifeboat in an oceanic emptiness. I’m grateful to all who are working to preserve it.
One recent morning as I opened my bleary eyes, I thought how lucky I am to have them. These exquisite organs through which energy moving in tiny waves — billionths of a meter from wave peak to wave peak — registers as a rainbow of light. Perceiving infinitesimal differences in wavelengths, the eye sorts the entire visible spectrum and renders every shade of every sunset, every mountain peak and sea-kissed beach, every leaping ballerina, every scrambling quarterback and the welcome in every loved one’s face.
I listened to my wife’s breathing and felt thankful for ears. These improbable contraptions — tiny chambers of flesh membrane, tiny bones and tubes of liquid — somehow transmit longer waves of energy to form all the blessings of sound, from Beethoven to Gladys Knight, from a baby’s laughter to the thunder and patter of a rainstorm.
Two eyes and two ears: four miracles in the first 10 seconds of my day. Yet consider the wisdom of Helen Keller, who lost both sight and hearing only to absorb from her teacher that “the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen nor even touched, but just felt in the heart.”
Keller’s life teaches that gratitude is a muscle. It strengthens us with use. Emmons has found that grateful people ripen even in hardship. They are energized by adversity. They grow deeper through loss.
Ultimately, gratitude is somehow linked with hope and hope is the prerequisite of action. One must be grateful for the Earth before one can save it. One must be thankful for beauty before one can spread it. Science shows that pleasure is fleeting, so an ungrateful person can have all the wealth ever dreamed of, and bask in it for an hour, yet feel empty again tomorrow.
By contrast, gratitude can make a legacy from almost nothing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, impoverished, imprisoned and ultimately martyred by the Nazis, left riches to the world. “In ordinary life,” he observed, “we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”