As so much in our country and world is torn and ugly (e.g. Middle East, Congo, Sudan, Ukraine, North Korea, Iran, American politics, fundamentalist religious and nationalist extremism, Ferguson, prejudice, suspicion, hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, mental illness, societal polarization, etc.), Thanksgiving comes to Americans this week and we ask ourselves – 'For what are we grateful?'
At our synagogue’s Nursery School Thanksgiving celebration earlier this week, I asked two questions of our children, their parents and grandparents: “Do you wake up each morning feeling mostly ‘grumpy’ or mostly happy?” It's much easier to be grateful if we are happy as opposed to being grumpy.
Two-thirds said they awake happy, refreshed and raring to go, and the other third said ‘grumpy,’ many (I suspect) with the caveat that it takes them a bit longer to wake up and get into the flow of the day – then, maybe, they feel happy – but maybe not!
I am one who awakens happy, especially after I’ve had my double espresso – my little ‘resurrection’ each morning. Though I awake happy most days, I’m not naïve. I am particularly conscious of the world’s troubles, and in my role as a rabbi and pastor, every day people seek me out for counsel, comfort, support, and love. I do the best I can in response, and offer whatever support and comfort I am able. Many, of course, continue to suffer (some for good reason) and they are joined by many in our community and around the world who live in difficult circumstances. When feeling this way, it is difficult to feel gratitude for anything.
Indeed, most of us are confronted with life-challenges large and small. My question of our Nursery School children, parents and grandparents revealed that, at least, in this group gratitude comes naturally to most even when we feel that we’ve been dealt a bad hand. Little children inspire that kind of joy, love and gratitude.
How we approach the world determines not just whether we are grateful for our many gifts, but also whether we exhibit the virtue of humility, and whether we are generous people or tight-fisted including what we give of ourselves and resources to others. In this way, the virtues of gratitude, humility and generosity are inter-related. If these virtues are highly developed, people discover deeper meaning and happiness in their lives.
What follows are thoughts on the virtue of gratitude as drawn from Jewish tradition and world literature. You might consider sharing these quotations around the Thanksgiving table this year as you share with each other, as my family does annually, what we feel gratitude for in our lives.
Happy Thanksgiving to all!
“How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great.”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 20th century philosopher, theologian, activist
“I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.”
“If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘Thank you,’ that will suffice.”
-Meister Echkart, 13th century German theologian and philosopher
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
-William Arthur Ward, 20th century pastor and teacher
“Gratitude, not understanding, is the secret to joy and equanimity.”
-Anne Lamott, writer
“Ingratitude to a human being is ingratitude to God.”
-Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid, 10th century Spanish sage
“When you arise in the morning give thanks for the morning light, for your life and strength. Give thanks for your food and the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”
-Native American Prayer – Tecumseh Tribe
“I offer thanks to You, Sovereign Source and Sustainer of life, Who returns to me my soul each morning faithfully and with gracious love.”
“Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.”
-Jean Toomer, 20th century American poet and novelist
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
– Marcus Tillius Cicero, 1st Century BCE Roman Philosopher
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.”
-Melodie Beattie, contemporary author
“We don’t express gratitude in order to repay debts or balance ledgers but rather to strengthen relationships (learned from Sara Algoe)….feelings of gratitude make us want to praise the other person publicly, to bring him or her honor.”
-Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership, NYU
“What have you done for me lately is the ingrate’s question.”
-Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, lecturer and author
“If you have done a big kindness for your neighbor, let it be in your eyes a small matter. If your friend did you a small favor, let it be in your eyes a big favor.”
-Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 41:11, 9th century CE, Babylonia
“A person must be grateful to a place [e.g. synagogue, school, college, hospital, etc.] where he derived some benefit.”
-B’reishit Rabbah 79:6, 5th Century CE, Palestine
“If you cannot be grateful for what you have received, then be thankful for what you have been spared.”
“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief, but gratitude.”
-Thorton Wilder, 20th century playwrite and novelist