It was my ninth birthday party. My mom made me invite all the girls in my fifth grade class from the small private school I attended. There had been an influx of students that year. The close-knit circle of six girls in fourth grade had ballooned to more than fifteen and the competition for popularity was in full force. I hated it. I didn’t want a birthday party and I certainly didn’t want to thank Rebecca for her gift. It was a small, hideous, monogrammed accessory bag with fake diamond studs. It was shamelessly gaudy and, if Rebecca even cared one bit about me, she would’ve known that I didn’t wear makeup or jewelry. Ever! My mother elbowed me into presenting a fake smile and offering a polite “Thank you, Rebecca,” while inside I stuffed the voice that wanted to protest.
Why say thank you for something I’m not grateful for?
You see, the lying and faking began early on.
Fast forward to my twenties and my developing skills in radical truth telling. My friend Angela sends me a pair of earrings for my birthday. This time I choose to let the inner voice speak. I invite Angela to lunch and politely explain that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to be acquiring more stuff. I’m practicing voluntary simplicity. Therefore, though I appreciate her sentiment to honor me and celebrate my birthday, I cannot accept her gift and would like to give it back to her. I watch the blood rise to her face as she squirms in her seat.
“No problem. I get it,” she says as she shoves the jewelry box into her purse. The rest of our lunch goes by quickly and nothing else radical is spoken. Afterwards, Angela, who I thought could handle honesty, begins to gossip about how fucked up I am.
Thirty years later, I’m pondering my present status as a truth-teller. I look up the word thankful in the dictionary.
Thanks: From old English, thancas, plural of thanc, a kindly thought.
This definition gets me thinking, but I know better than to think too much when it comes to important matters. So I take my seat to get still and quiet in order to explore.
When I settle in, the first sense of what I might later decide to call gratitude is an experience of awareness. This awareness is directly focused on the breath that is breathing me. I realize that my breath is the first gift bestowed upon me. My breath was given to me by some mystery whose existence is before and beyond my capacity to even court its generosity. This unearned kindness tells me that, contrary to popular belief, I’m inherently worthy and loved. I’m not breathing because of something I did or did not do, some request I petitioned for or a promise I made. I’m breathing because the source of breath deemed that I should breathe. Period.
My tears fall as the recognition of this gift washes through me. This energy of pure appreciation fills every cell of me as I realize that the embodiment of gratitude is my lived experience of thankfulness, present before words ever formed.
In the beginning was the breath. And the breath was with God. And the breath spread to all living beings equally regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status, and became gratitude incarnate.
What if acknowledging this gift is the beginning of a more nuanced understanding of the role gratitude might play in our lives during this holiday period and the coincident political-social-environmental season of our collective human life?
Renowned priest and theologian Matthew Fox says that the cure for an ailing democracy is not more democracy but rather a revolution of the spirit. Spirit = breath…= thankfulness?
Pause for a moment right now and focus on your breath. Rest your eyes and still your body. As you bring your attention to your breath, allow yourself to become mindful of its source. What arises?
What if this is the original thanks?
“I’m grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite—only a sense of existence.”
Henry David Thoreau
Actions born from essential gratitude means there are no shoulds, no faked please-and-thank-yous. Just as inhaling and exhaling come naturally, life becomes a natural expression of giving and receiving spontaneously and unpretentiously. My thankful way of being human also reflects my knowing that you, too, are an incarnation of gratitude. Maybe some have forgotten is all.
Another word for this quality of presence and awakeness is awe. In Hebrew the word for awe is yirah, which translates as “to see.” When we see with our original eyes—or God’s eyes—we walk differently in the world. We just do. We’re not looking to get what we want. We graciously engage with the life we are given. Even when it’s hard. Which it often is.
When we live as awe, as thankfulness, we’re no longer adversely impacted by a culture that has forgotten the source of its breath and we no longer smile fake smiles or say thank you for things we never wanted in the first place.
Consider this: Instead of following prescribed contrived behaviors, slow down and rest more into your breath. Be thankfulness. Better yet, be awe-full.