The Potency of Gratitude

Johnson Wang

Gratitude is a potent, generative dynamism. It breaks through granite hearts, melts brittle souls. It undoes grievances that have ravaged and consumed us, like kudzu devouring a forest. Gratitude gives us new eyes and opens up previously unimagined possibilities. Gratitude wonderfully complicates the tired, old stories that, though connected to a certain truth, have taken over, grabbing us by the collar and chaining us to cynicism or despair or rage. I’m not selling snake oil here. I know gratitude doesn’t cure everything wrong in the world, but I’m convinced it is absolutely part of what we must return to if we ever want to regain our humanity.

I’ve thought about why gratitude doesn’t come natural for me. There’s the normal culprits: I’m not slow enough in my soul to really see people or I’m selfish and self-absorbed. A less obvious reason, however, is how expressions of gratitude make me feel vulnerable. I don’t want to come across as a sap or I don’t want to make someone else uncomfortable or maybe I’m afraid that something that feels so tender to me won’t be understood or received as such. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t exactly live in a gentle world. But I want to be a man with the strength and courage to live with gratitude.

So yes, we need to learn to say thank you. A gentle word of gratitude to the server refilling our coffee, to the person who holds the door open at the grocery store, to the postwoman as she pulls past our mailbox. A genuine thanks to the mother who birthed us and the dad who worked a double shift to get us through college and the friend who’s stayed close all these years. Thank you to the person we like and maybe especially to the person we don’t like much at all.

And then, after we’ve begun to flex our gratitude muscles, we go deeper. Look a person in the eye, really look, and say thank you to them for something specific. Don’t look away; hold their gaze (this one’s important). “I’ve seen how you’ve stuck with this soul-killing job to put food on the table, and I want you to know how grateful I am for your tenacity” or “I saw you pull out the trash for Ms. Jenkins last week, and I’m grateful for how you love our neighbors” or “I know that you were disappointed in how that conversation turned out, thank you for just showing up and that you keep showing up” or “I saw the way you held your tongue when that knucklehead started blathering like a know-it-all; thank you for being gentle when you could have cut him at the knees.”

Gratitude is a gift we give into the world, and in time (and often, at first, in subtle ways) it changes things. Even more – and I’ve seen this in myself – gratitude, over time, changes us.

Dear John ~ 21 November 2016

Dear John,

Well, you should have all the far-flung children home now, and I know you’re taking the week off. I bet you guys will see a pile of movies and eat more than a pile of food. I think one of the signs of mature friendship is taking genuine joy in your friend’s joy. I’m grinning ear to ear thinking of the swell in your chest when you woke this morning (at 4:30 or so, I imagine?) and remembered what these next few days bring. I bet even ol’ Jack had an extra spring in his step when he trotted out into the frosty cold this morning to do his business.

I always love this turn. Thanksgiving: the week of thanks. Last night, I met with a few folks who do dinner and swap stories on Sunday evenings. We usually open with the evening hours, but this week we took a cue from one of the refrains from the Psalms (“God’s steadfast love endures forever”) and prayed our own words of gratitude. Sometimes, you try this sort of thing and it feels forced. Sometimes you try it, and there’s a little there but it dies out quickly, which is fine. Last night, however, the gratitude kept coming and kept coming. I actually didn’t have much to say myself, but I soaked up all the thanks around me.

Gratitude releases something in us, I believe. It’s an important discipline. When our heart is fearful or cold or stodgy, when we feel resistant toward others or suspicious or envious, gratitude somehow shakes some of this loose – or starts to shake some of this loose. Today, I’m thankful for the Mocha Irish Cream Cake with Irish Cream frosting Miska made for my birthday. I’m thankful for two boys who kept checking in with me about my birthday, wanting to make sure I was enjoying myself and that I knew they loved me. I’m thankful for this perennial with blazing red-orange leaves that sits right outside the window where I write; yesterday the wind was whipping these fiery leaves back and forth and for a split moment, I was alarmed because I thought there were flames in front of our house. I’m thankful for Rick Bass’ Winter that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m thankful for this massive pile of wood from our downed Ash in the front yard and for how I’m going to feel like a gen-u-ine Lumberjack splitting these logs. I’m thankful I have you for a friend. I’m thankful for a handful of other friends, men and women who are dear to me and who help me stay eyes-open in this world. I’m thankful to God who gives all these good gifts and so many more.

And you know, today, I want to say how thankful I am to the folks who read our words. It’s strange sometimes putting these letters out here in the open. We write these letters to one another, but we also offer them in this place because we hope others might find them helpful or encouraging. All of us who write need folks who actually read what we offer and think it’s worth something. We need folks to buy the books and share us with their friends, folks who give us a thumbs up every now and then and tell us to keep at it. I’m thankful for those folks, and I know you are too.

So we’ll watch some of the Macy’s Parade Thursday morning, and I’ll remember my Grandma Oden and how I’d watch it with her and then when I lived far away, how I’d call her to make sure she had it on. Then we’ll suit up for the famous Collier Turkey Bowl football game, with neighbors. Then we’ll gorge ourselves on ham and stuffing and honey apple cake (no turkey for us) and say our thanks. We’ll watch a little more football, eat a little more food, say a little more thanks. It’ll be grand.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Wink and Say ‘Thank You’

Frosted-Tree-Tops

There are moments when you experience a deep settledness, a generous contentment, with your life. You find yourself at ease or you realize that the laughter’s flowing free or maybe you recognize how, with almost no effort on your part, your joy exudes an uncanny resilience. And what I find most delightful with these generous flashes is how I can never tell you exactly why they’ve arrived, what wind blows them in – or even what wind will eventually push them on. I did not manufacture this grace, and so I know it’s foolhardy to cling tight. It’s my happy lot to just enjoy the gift, to wink and say thank you.

I’ve experienced this ineffable joy a time or two over the past couple weeks. Our life is good, but we’ve had no fewer troubles than normal. If anything, our world has added a few stress factors that would typically leave me sucking wind. And yet, here and there, I’ve been overcome by a profound gratitude, an awareness (even if only for a few hours) that I am alive in this good and magnificent world with people I love, doing work that, though small and ordinary, matters to me and maybe to a few others as well.

For so many good gifts, I want to say my thanks. There are sorrows in this world, but there is also much goodness, much beauty, much possibility. As often as the gifts come, I want my thanks to come just as fast. “Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.” Like thunder follows lighting, yes indeed.

In this week when we turn our heart to gratitude, I want to join the chorus. I also want to thank those of you who read my words. Perhaps it sounds cheeky for a writer to say thank you for reading, but what else would we say? And particularly if we really mean it? So, thanks to those of you who land here regularly, those who drop a line every once in a while. It matters.

The Good Shepherd

good-shepherd-2

Over the past year, Miska has given our bedroom a complete makeover. First, Miska pulled out the paintbrushes, and when she told me she covered our walls with a shade called Silver Fox, I smiled. I imagined the voice of Barry White: Silver Fox, Oh yeah… Next we said goodbye to heavy furniture, replaced with small, simple pieces. We cleaned out bags of clothes, magazines, books and the trinkets you collect over 18 years and find stashed in the corners of drawers awaiting such a day as this.

My favorite touch, however, was when Miska gave both of us a new bedside table. I only wanted three things on mine: a lamp for reading, prayer beads a friend made for me and a small icon of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” and the image shows Jesus carrying this weak creature with gentleness and strength. I’m drawn to the firmness in Jesus’ eyes, as if Jesus’ says, This is my sheep, just try to come and take ’em. Scripture tells us that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, that the Shepherd knows all his sheep and will never forget them. The Shepherd, Scripture says, will even leave the 99 of his flock to roam into the wild night and find that one sheep that has lost her way.

Sometimes this world, though chock full of beauty and goodness, can be a disturbing, perplexing place. What will come of us? What should we do? Will we know the right decisions to make? Will the woman next to me and the two boys snoozing a few feet away be alright, and will they live well – can I protect them? What will come of us? Will we have years ahead to love and enjoy one another, or will it all crash down, as it does for so many? Will all those friends and strangers who face ruin and despair be okay? What are we to do with all of the uncertainty? What are we to do with this one life we’re given? Why does our life sometimes feel so tenuous?

Perhaps as evening ebbs, I feel the futility of trying to grip the hours, of trying to grip my life. Perhaps I feel more vulnerable here, embracing the loneliness appropriate to moons and midnights. Perhaps this is why I wanted the Good Shepherd close, watching over me and those I love in our sleep. I cannot stay awake, but the Shepherd does. I cannot hold the world on my shoulders, but the Shepherd does.

So each night now, before I put down the book and click off the light, I look into the eyes of the Good Shepherd, and I say Thank you.

Grief and Gratitude

It is a strange thing to see your mother in a wooden box, lying there so gently, as if you could simply lean over and whisper into her ear to wake. For her funeral, my mom wore the dress she had originally purchased for Miska’s and my wedding. My mom released her son into the world. And now we have released my mom into God’s care.

It is such a strange thing to lay a hand on your mother’s casket, to speak a blessing over her life. Emotions and memories rush forward at such a moment, but the sturdiest thing I felt was gratitude. Gratitude for her tears and her tenacity, for her commitment to my dad, for the ways she sought out those who had been left out or wounded or silenced. One morning before her funeral, I ran my old jogging route, and I stopped in front of the house that was my childhood home. For several minutes, I walked back and forth in front of the old house, fearing the neighbors would think me a loon. I remembered all the years, all the tenderness. I remembered a few arguments, tense moments. I remembered laughter and meals around the table. I remembered love. Through tears, the words that spilled out over and again were only this: ‘thank you.’

A friend recently passed Kahil Gibran’s words to me: When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. And this is true. Sometimes you also weep because of regrets or things that will never be. But somehow it is true that if you trace those things back far enough they do somehow work their way to delight, to hopes, to joys you knew or joys that lingered as you searched for more. In the strange twist, grief and gratitude seem to walk together.

As I say goodbye, for now, the only words I have are this: Mom, I love you, and I thank you. 

A Deep Gratitude

I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.

Powerful Thanks

Gratitude must be one of the most subversive powers on this crusty, old planet of ours. Not a feigned indebtedness or a back-handed form of social or relational manipulation. Just a plain, simple: Hey, I want you to know that I saw what you did – or I see who you are. I see that you’re trying your best. I’m thankful.

What would happen if President Obama strolled over to the GOP on the Hill and (removed from the cameras and without any follow-up request) said, Fellas, this is a fat, hairy mess we’ve got ourselves into, and tomorrow I’m sure I’m going to do something else you hate, God knows you make me want to put my fist through the wall most every morning. But for today, I want to tell you that I know you’re grinding yourself into the ground here. I know you love our country. Thanks. Or what if McConnell sneaked over to the Oval Office (maybe with a bottle of his local Kentucky Bourbon wrapped in a red bow and tucked under his arm) and said, Pres, you know that most days I think you’re a loon, but that’s not the whole story. I see you’re going grey and burning the candle at both ends while the whole world watches. I know you’re doing what you believe in. I know you love America. Thanks.

Yes, yes, I’m dreaming. But wouldn’t it be something?

Several days ago, I told Miska that if our boys ever figured out what they could get out of me if they consistently approached me with gentleness and gratitude rather than demands or arguments, we’d be ruined. They’d take us right to the poorhouse. I’m a softie, and simple gratitude – a hey, dad, thanks for working so hard and loving us so much – would make me putty in their hands.

We have a week now to simply give thanks. Tell people they mean something to you, that you see them. Offer God a simple thank you. Look your lover in the eye and say, If another gift never comes, you are enough.

I don’t know exactly what this gratitude will yield, but it will do something. I know it will.

 

Like Thunder Follows Lightning

gratitude.rockwellThere are few things more subversive in this world than someone who sees grace in every corner, who chuckles easy and loves easy and has both whimsy and mirth mixed in with even their honest assessments of the way things truly are. These glad-hearted people have discovered that thankfulness is not merely a discipline but the only sane way to live in a world offering so much gritty beauty, so much possibility for love, so many joys.

These unlikely provocateurs have not caved to rose-tinted glasses or withdrawn from bitter reality. They simply know that sorrow does not finally own the day. They do not ignore the pain. Quite the opposite, their heart has grown so large that the life they know possesses the courage to see all that is wrong and yet has strength enough to gather the afflictions into itself, allowing love to tend to the wounds. They know that joy, not misery, holds the ace. And they are so very, very thankful.

“Grace and gratitude belong together like heaven and earth,” say Barth. “Grace evokes gratitude like the voice of an echo. Gratitude follows grace as thunder follows lightning.”

Give Us Your Joy

If someone has loved you well or helped you remember the things we must remember, if someone’s voice has pulled you through the fog or if their words have landed true, if someone has shown courage – or kindled your courage, if someone has stuck around or concocted beauty or reminded you to laugh, if someone has joined you in your wake, cursing your isolation or your demons, if someone has taught you when to listen generously and when to walk past fools, if someone has been a lover or a friend — tell them.

And tell them often. We all need to hear the goodness that’s in us. Don’t hold back; don’t cache your words or the innocence and hope they carry. Don’t be timid with your enthusiasm. We need all the light we can get in this world – don’t you dare veil any of yours. Heave whatever you have upon our shoulders, and let us feel the weight of your joy.

image: bartimaeus