by Barbara Merritt, Minister Emerita, First Unitarian Church Of Worcester, Massachusetts
In India recently someone asked my spiritual teacher a question: “What is the worst karma a person can undergo here on earth? What is the greatest difficulty? The harshest circumstances?”
What an interesting question! How would you answer it? A few responses that came to my mind include financial poverty, to be born in a war-torn country, mental illness, debilitating physical illness, domestic abuse…my Lord, the list seems endless.
I was astonished by my teacher’s reply. He answered (and I paraphrase), “The worst karma is to be ungrateful. If you suffer from ingratitude then it won’t matter what blessings and goodness are in your life, you won’t be capable of receiving it. In contrast, if you are grateful, then even in the most challenging of circumstances, you will be able to recognize the many gifts that you are receiving.”
When I heard this, I immediately recognized the truth in his observation, but it was not altogether good news to me. For you see, many of us (if not most human beings) suffer from this particular variety of bad karma. Rather than possessing a grateful heart that is able to focus on all the advantages we have enjoyed, all the good company that we have been given, all the many blessings that we receive on a daily basis, we (or should I say I) occasionally, even frequently, get lost and quite forgetful.
I focus on what isn’t on the banquet table. Looking over a lifetime, there are some of us who think we have an inalienable right to criticize, to complain, to accuse and to feel victimized.
It’s not that good fortune and great friends and tremendous blessings don’t find their way to our door. They do! But the relationship we usually have with such things is to take them for granted. Good health, a warm house, nice clothes, nutritious food, meaningful work, volunteer opportunities, beautiful music from the choir, an occasional nourishing novel or TV show or film—these become white noise. Mere background, not necessarily noticed, appreciated, or fully acknowledged. We scream at their absence, but hardly ever notice their presence. And if someone says we ought to be grateful for what is good in our lives, we might become annoyed, resentful or impatient.
No one can argue you into becoming grateful. The journey to gratitude is not about making lists or noticing how much you have compared to others, or forcing you to acknowledge how dependent you are on the co-operation of a lively universe.
How we arrive at gratitude is something of a mystery, and I suspect that there are many roads (and detours). How you get to gratitude might take you on quite a different path than the one your neighbor travels. I believe that some models of gratitude are dead ends, especially those based on the calculation method. In this mindset, your assumption is that at the auspicious moment, gratitude will descend on you like fairy dust. At the extreme end of the calculation method you imagine that people who enjoy the privilege of being grateful are those who 1) win the lottery; 2) receive the Noble Prize or a McArthur Grant or an Olympic Gold Medal; 3) are billionaires; 4) are people whose loved ones never die or suffer from ill health; and 5) have cars, appliances, computers, and hearts that do not break. In such idealized fantasies, those lucky enough to be grateful are rare indeed.
A congregation member taught me a joke that he heard from Garrison Keillor. My poor husband has had to hear me tell it about 73 times. It concerns a grandmother who was walking with her five-year-old grandson on the beach, when suddenly a rogue wave comes up and grabs that child and carries him out to sea. She looks up to the sky, shakes her fist and says, “God, this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot take an innocent child.” And just as those words come out of her mouth, another rogue wave comes and deposits the child smiling back at her feet. She picks up the child in her arms, looks up to the sky and says, “This child had a hat!”
A variant on the calculation model, which is much more effective (but not without problems), is to put life on a balance. You acknowledge that life is a combination of good and evil, blessings and curses, advantages and disadvantages, peaceful moments and times of great agitation and anxiety. You ride the waves. And when you go into a tough time of hardship and deprivation, you simply have to wait it out. Happiness is an achievement of timing. Where I can’t so easily follow is to keep my balance and stay grateful when the ride gets especially rough. Some things go wrong and are never right again. Tragedies can break your heart for a whole lifetime. Some sorrows are inconsolable. Some failures and defects are permanent. The road to having a grateful heart has to travel a more difficult terrain. As Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, eloquently expressed it: “gratitude emerges from the kingdom of night.” Gratitude is not, in this model, the result of good fortune, happiness or great success. Instead gratitude is a response to life itself. It emerges precisely at the moment when we settle at the farthest limits of the sea—in places and circumstances where we believe that we are unreachable, unsaveable and irredeemable. No one ever put it more clearly than the author of Psalm 139: “Thou are acquainted with all my ways…. Where can I flee from your presence? If I make my bed in hell, thou art there…even the night shall provide light. The darkness and the light are both alike to Thee.”
The psalmist is making a rather bold statement. Grace can find you anywhere and everywhere. Even with your best and most determined efforts, you cannot exile yourself from the range and reach of love. The power of goodness is so enormous that eventually you will be pulled in.
Gratitude is not about the things you do or do not receive. It is about a relationship. We are here on earth, at least partially, to practice empathy, to honor honest work and to ceaselessly embody that central Universalist principle, the dignity and worth of all human beings. This practice of radical equality is measured by the respect with which you treat others, and by the kindness in your heart. And then comes the leap. When you become the giver of kindness you are more likely to become aware of the kindness flowing towards you. You learn gratitude not only for the kindness of those around you, but also for the source of kindness described by the psalmist. Some of us call this source of all life and goodness and love by the name of God. Some of us call the sense of the whole of life a mysterious reality that cannot be named. But there ought not to be disagreement about the response to our current imperfect circumstances. In the words of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein:
I don’t believe any of us can enjoy living in this world unless we can accept its imperfection. We must know and admit that we are imperfect, that all other mortals are imperfect, and go on in our own imperfect way, making mistakes and riding out the rough and bewildering, exciting and beautiful storm of life until the day we die.
In the midst of imperfection we can pray to be given a grateful heart. Grateful for the gift of life. Grateful for the opportunities of this day to come closer to what is real and sustaining. Grateful that no matter how far we wander, or how many times we stumble, grace will find us and we will be blessed.
Each month we dive deeply into a spiritual theme.