To Be Thankful Requires Humility

COVER PHOTO/ART DIRECTION BY KIRSTEN SORTON; TATTOO BY DAVIDE

To be thankful for anything much at all requires humility, I believe. I have little enough of it; in fact, I have a dichotomy common to alcoholics, and that is a combination of both arrogance and self-loathing. Hardly conducive to genuine humility. Another subject almost certainly.

There is never enough more. It is an almost constant desire in the human spirit.

It was not until late in life when I heard a definition of Nirvana, the Eastern concept of serenity, bliss, or simply peace. This definition — and I’ve forgotten where I read it — was prefaced with a quote from (I’m almost sure, but by no means certain) the Buddha/Siddhartha Gautama (in his later version of himself), the ultimate master of this business; that quote: “A man could be born a blind leper in a ring of fire and know only Nirvana.” The definition that followed was to the effect that “Nirvana is a state of wanting nothing, rejecting nothing.” This, to the western mind at any rate, is quite a trick.

Gratitude — or perhaps my most dramatic introduction to the concept, along with its genuine, unsuspected utility to a material-oriented mind — came in an embarrassing (I’m tempted to say humiliating, but what I really mean is “humbling”) way.

I was temporarily homeless; not for long, but long enough. I had wet clothing from having passed out on a lawn with a sprinkler timer. Drenched, I was freezing and miserable in, I think, November. Shivering, I lay under someone’s stairway in Hillcrest. Pneumonia was a looming possibility, if not hypothermia. At just past dawn, the sky a kind of dirt, salt, and ash, a man descended the above staircase with an armload of clothes. All dry. All my size. Exactly. If I did not weep, I seem to remember doing so. I thanked the man. Then I did something atypical for me at the time: I prayed.

It is far from my intention to preach, to convert anyone, or influence the agnostic; all I can honestly tell you is that from that moment on, having expressed real gratitude (and that’s what it was), my life began to improve, by increments but undeniably. It was as if I had uttered a heartfelt invocation to a power greater than my considerable ability to misuse my free will. A god or God — as I’ve come to spell it.

This is to say nothing of my ability to completely space on gratitude, usually by indulging in self-pity and despair, each of which is the opposite of gratitude. All that comes to mind here is a quote from C.S. Lewis (yes, the Narnia author), who in quite another book pointed out that “There are only two types of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ ” This latter allowance of the Deity (if you don’t mind the word) is Hell of a self-engineered type — and I don’t believe there are many other types. Well, maybe. Even quite possibly, but I am no theologian.

As for Thanksgiving and saying a more elaborate grace over the turkey, and the rest of it, it is not necessarily my idea of gratitude. It qualifies, but I once heard a man say to a whining youth, with regard to the youth’s bad luck and poverty and what might be done about it: “Start with gratitude for what you do have; the smallest things. Your life, your breath, your socks — even if you have holes in them — you have socks. It’s a place to start; a way to open the door a crack to principles larger than yourself, and that’s all you need: the door open a crack.” At the risk of sounding like a religious maniac (you have no way of knowing how funny that is), I have found this door-crack principle to be very real.

I have heard much of “gratitude lists” and the like, and they don’t sound like bad ideas, not at all; but it seems to me that one can open that crack in the door with an observation of one’s own breathing. Then maybe a raising of the face to the sunlight — or the eyes to the stars.

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