If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is “thank you,” that would suffice – Meister Eckhart
With apologies to Meister Eckhart, whose life was exemplary and whose quote I have used on many occasions, gratitude is not enough.
Don’t misunderstand – gratitude is important. The practice of gratitude reminds us to focus our attention on what’s right in our lives rather than on what’s wrong. What we dwell on we manifest, so it behooves us to dwell on the good in our lives.
Gratitude keeps us humble. When we give thanks we acknowledge that much of what we enjoy did not come solely by our own efforts. We are where we are because of the family that gave us a start, the ancestors who gave us a foundation, and the community that gave us a structure in which to live and work. We are where we are because of the grace of the gods. Things could be very different and for many people they are.
Gratitude reminds us that since we receive much from others we have an obligation to give. Sometimes this means paying back and sometimes it means paying forward. In doing so, we build a virtuous circle of giving and gratitude, each of us doing a kindness that isn’t in our immediate self-interest but over the long term provides us all with far more benefits than we could ever generate on our own.
Gratitude is important and necessary and helpful. A big part of my daily spiritual practice is giving thanks. But gratitude by itself is not enough.
Gratitude in isolation can lead us to believe that because we have a good life we don’t need to make any changes. It’s good to have enough and to have the wisdom to recognize it. But that’s not an end in and of itself. Having enough, doing what you have to do, frees you to do what you’re called to do and to do it the best you can. What is your art? What is your ministry? What is your service? What is your priesthood? What Great Work is making you uncomfortable by its absence or incompletion?
Gratitude in isolation can focus too much of our attention on ourselves and we can forget that not everyone has it so good. Our thankfulness that we have enough is no substitute for making sure everyone has enough. We accomplish this through giving and teaching, but also through working to change systems that oppress and exploit the poor and the vulnerable. Gratitude must be balanced by a commitment to justice.
It is good we have a holiday – a holy day – dedicated to gratitude. Give thanks to your gods and goddesses, to your ancestors, to your family and to your community. Give thanks for all you enjoy, and remember that things could be very different.
But then recommit yourself to excellence in your calling and to building a just world here and now.