Thanks: Before and After

At first Karen’s project looked like just a large slab of wood, painted sky blue. Then as it got passed around the circle of students, you could make out sentences in découpage: affirmations of promise and possibility, and exclamations of gratitude.

We had seen more unusual end-of-class displays in years past. A simple  bowl of dirt intimated the want of seeds. Once, a stew was cooked up and fed to us, in which each ingredient stood for the qualities of each person in the group. (I was the bay leaf.) One fellow brought in decorated oyster shells glued onto a full-length mirror. When asked what it symbolized, since most art is metaphor, he said he didn’t know, that it was just what he had been moved to do.

So some positive words on a wooden plank didn’t demand any deeper significance to have fulfilled the assignment, which was to create, in any medium, a piece representative of the student’s experience of inner discovery and growth during our time together.

Then Karen explained that the sky-blue board was siding. It was the only trace she could turn up, after Hurricane Ike, of her home near Galveston, Texas.

She was grateful, she said, for the support of friends and family, and for the place she was staying in, miles inland, while she gathered her strength and resources and emotional equilibrium to start over. She showed us that anyone can be grateful for anything, and she modeled gratitude, in advance, for whatever comes next.

A subtle, often overlooked aspect of gratitude is its up-front value. We tend to reserve it for salutary outcomes. We wait to thank, cautious that our thanks not erupt too early, before all the results are in. As children we may hear to count our blessings, but we forget — or the counting is done in comparison to somebody else, who seems to have less or more, and it takes on an air of pity or envy.

When employed vigorously and literally carelessly, gratitude carpets our future with all manner of available good.

This Thanksgiving, may we be encouraged not just to give thanks, or more of them than usual, but to be creatively thankful. Dag Hammarskjöld, a grateful and deeply peaceful man, wrote in his journals, “For all that has been — Thanks. For all that shall be — Yes.” His gratitude was both reactive and proactive.

Everything that has happened, for apparent good or not, has led us to who we are today. We may not be where we want to be, but we are not where we were. Everything stretching before us, from the highly likely to the utterly unimaginable, will meet us at the level of our emotional expectancy: if we feel thankful now, we can enjoy the justification for feeling so as we arrive in tomorrow’s there and then. Some call this “laying down karma,” others “walking by faith, not by sight.” Adopting this outlook, our highs will be higher, while our lows will be higher also. We will savor what is solid, lovely, and of good report, and the others in our lives and the world’s life who are either showing love or asking for it. And if ever left by circumstance with only a piece of wood on which to paste our hopes, in the willing place within it will appear to us as the seed of four new walls and a roof.

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