Beyond Grateful

Gratitude is overrated! Pop spirituality spouts trite phrases like “Gratitude is the Attitude!” Pious platitudes like, “No matter how bad you’ve got it somebody has it worse.” turn my stomach.  Even wise Biblical injunctions like, “In all things give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1Thes 5:18) can’t bear the weight we often place on them.

Item: Yesterday!

Sitting in my chair savoring a first cup of coffee I anticipated the day… a walk to the creek with Jeb the Dog, solitude to pray, time to do the last laundry leftover from our trip to Florida, an early afternoon walk along the Mississippi with my nephew. Though I did not know it at the time, the day also provided a late afternoon movie, a rare dinner of New York strip steak from the grill and baked potato with plenty of butter.

I’ve been retired for a year and a half — Sundays don’t carry the same poignancy they once did. Yesterday I recognized that I’ve settled into a “new normal.” A certain complacency seems to have taken hold such that days seem to fade into a predictable and presumed routine. Could it be a sense of passive entitlement has seeped in?  Am I to be grateful for this?

Yesterday I caught myself! Where’s the gratitude? Morning coffee generally includes an iPad survey of world news. There were plenty of reminders that others are much worse off than me… earthquake survivors in Nepal, dramatic rescue of Nigerian girls being held by Boko Haram. Trite phrases and pious platitudes prove insufficient to shake my complacency and self-satisfaction.  I catch myself more apathetic than apologetic.

Gratitude proves insufficient to the task at hand. Recognizing how good I’ve got it did not lift my stupor. What’s happened to my sense of wonder, my savoring of weekend mornings? Yes, gratitude is an essential ingredient but alone is insufficient protection from becoming tepid, lax, complacent, settled in predictability.

Yesterday I rediscovered that the necessary precondition for gratitude — perhaps all of life — is sheer awe, unbridled amazement, the sort of utter incredulity that Denise Levertov captures in her poetry:

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.

Can I say it, and not seem to taunt

all who live in torment? Believe it, yet

remain aware of the world’s anguish?

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly

out of desert dust, laden

with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Item: a yellow tulip
opens; at its center
a star of greenish indigo,
a subtle wash of ink
at the base of each of
six large petals.
The black stamens
are dotted with white.
At the core, the ovary,
applegreen fullness
tapering to proffer—sheltered
in the wide cup of primary
yellow—its triune stigma, clove
of green and gold.

That’s one, at nightfall of a day which brought

a dozen treasures, exotic surprises, landscapes,

music, words, acts of friendship, all of them wrapped

in mysterious silk, each unique.

How is it possible?

The yellow tulip in the room’s warmth opens.


Levertov’s poem, A Yellow Tulip may be found in her collection, Sands of the Well. A New Directions Book, New York, 1994, p 123.

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