Two Thoughts on Gratitude
1. One of the best parts of bringing a book to completion – it temporarily assuaged the fear of ‘will anyone bother to read it’ – was the chance to send copies to a couple of professors a couple of decades in the past. Two professors who managed to tolerate my flaws, lazy on the editing, tardy, too stuck in my own head (and depression) to write meaningfully about the world outside it.
Somehow in the waves of hurriedly written first drafts and poorly researched ideas they managed to find the positive. I remember one particular morning when the cloud seemed so heavy I struggled to pull myself out of bed. There was a knock on the door of my dorm room. My professor had decided if Muhammad couldn’t come to the mountain, she would bring the mountain. In the form of my entire class standing outside the door. I don’t remember the words but she ended with, ‘and we’ll be at the cafeteria having coffee and waiting for you to join us.’ An event both humorous and effective.
My other professor welcomed me into a class that I’d failed to register for in time. Didn’t know much about my ability but welcomed me to participate rather than just be an auditor in the back of the room. Which was a stroke of luck since I ended up learning more about the craft of poetry than I had in the previous years.
I had no illusions and wondered briefly if there were a stack of books by former students sitting in an office corner like refrigerator art. Until getting letters back with responses to the poems.
Long story short (or less long), gratitude has such an important role both for the sender and the recipient. There’s no expectation when you send it out, yet there’s a healing process in sending it, if only from the realization that we haven’t been alone.
I remember a football coach who started his career in my hometown and made it to the NFL eventually, who made a name for himself by leaving tickets for Elvis at the box office window of every home game. While there’s no expectation it still registered high in importance for him to leave the tickets. And yes, Dr. Barbour and Professor Miller there will always be a copy with your name on it.
2. ‘Listen /with the night falling we are saying thank you’
There is a kind of gratitude that has little to do with receiving some good fortune, that is more of a way in which we conduct ourselves than in relation to some event. Even in the approaching darkness, if we’re practiced in gratitude, the mindset can carry us through. This is not something so trite as ‘it could always be worse.’ Rather, a realization that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
‘after funerals we are saying thank you / after the news of the dead /whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you’
Which can come to seem crazy to a person looking at us from the outside. ‘Why,’ someone might ask, ‘would you be grateful for that misfortune, or for that person who did you harm?’ However, living in a tit for tat world only acts as an accelerant for whatever combustible waste is lying around in our mental attic. Laughter may get increased with more laughter but certainly hate gets amplified with more of the same. Responding in kind often fails to lift anything.
‘with the cities growing over us /we are saying thank you faster and faster’
And I doubt Merwin intended for us to ignore harm being done, or to passively accept it, just not to get bogged down in treating everyone as an abstract idea or as a threat. Try being human. Which is coming to look insane in a world judged by clicks and likes and frowning red emoticons.
‘we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is’
Yet this is perhaps the two pictures of faith. Viewed from the outside it looks like a clueless reaction to events that do not deserve a kind word. It’s incomprehensible to smile in the face of a collapsing world. Viewed from the inside it’s a profound experience of grace, one in which we keep walking forward courageously because that may be the only way to walk forward.
The entire poem, by WS Merwin, © 1988, is here: