Wednesday, November 24, 2010

As Big As That Perfect Everything

"Say, Thank you." 

It's an instruction, a demand even. When we're children it comes from the adults in our lives, raising us to be polite. As adults it takes the form of obligations like thank you notes, leaving tips, hostess gifts, and the circle of courtesies with which we wind up our every day exchanges with strangers ("Thank you," "No, thank you.").

We all recognize it for what it is, I think, a play of manners that evokes the name of gratitude, without necessarily embodying the emotion. I'm not suggesting we drop the pretenses, humans need these kinds of social formalities. They're a large part of the knitting that holds us together, especially with the people on whom we rely without ever actually knowing them -- the cashiers, the bus drivers, the voices at the other end of the phone. These pleasantries are small acknowledgments of one another's humanity. If anything we need more of them.

But does it have anything to do with actual gratitude?

Juliet Robertson, everyone's favorite outdoor learning expert, currently has a post up entitled, Relationships Are All There Are, a thoughtful and genuine expression of gratitude for her fellow humans, which includes this quote from writer and organizational consultant Meg Wheatley:
Relationships are all there are. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.

It reminds me of something my daughter said when she was 3-years-old. I was trying to end her whining with the classic bit of parenting philosophy, "Josephine, nothing is perfect." She sat quietly for a moment, then replied, "Nothing is perfect, except everything."

In a social and political climate in which there are loud, persuasive voices touting the so-called "virtue of selfishness" and the credo of "every man for himself," it remains an unavoidable truth: we are, in fact, all in this together. It is only in those moments, however brief, that we are at peace with that fact, I think, that we can actually feel the deep emotion of connectedness that is gratitude. It's impossible for me at least to understand how thankfulness can exist without that acceptance of the vital, essential humanity of all the other people and our connectedness with them.

When we sit around our Thanksgiving tables tomorrow, taking a moment to share what it is for which we are thankful, listen to what your friends and family have to say. We may joke about being thankful for the things in their lives, but our hearts will betray our gratitude for the people and their relationships with us. We may stop ourselves tomorrow in our expressions of thankfulness by only naming those closest to us, but if we're honest, genuine gratitude only exists when we stop pretending we can go it alone, when we embrace the perfection of everything. Gratitude, to be real, must be as big as that perfect everything.

Being thankful is too often placed within the context of serving and being served, or giving and getting, but that has more to do with commerce than gratitude, which is, at bottom, about the simple contact between human beings, that moment in which we can genuinely express, It's enough that we're here together.  

This is one of the many things young children understand and unlearn as they get older. Relationships are all there are, everything is perfect, thank you.

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Anna G said...

I love this. I've been trying to think of a polite response to that kind of bullying 'say good morning', or 'say thank you' thing adults do to children. So often, the adult doesn't see the smile or the glance the child gave me in greeting or thanks, which means so much more than 'say thank you to miss anna'

Matt said...

The best moments of my day are when my 2-yr-old daughter thanks me spontaneously for something I just did. "Thank you for cooking pasta, daddy!" GOD! It melts me every time. When she gets older and begins to take everything in life for granted, I'll have to remember these moments.

Deborah said...

I appreciate your words too Tom - genuine gratitude is something I am always keenly aware of and something I love to nurture in my students where possible. I just love it when I see people act and speak from the heart!

Tonya Hache said...

I would love to be a kid in your preschool! ...or even an adult, as long as I get to participate! :))

Thanks for sharing!

<3 Rockabye Butterfly

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Happy Thanksgiving, Tom. May it be filled with sincere thanks, both from you and for you.