When I was at university studying theology, New Testament Greek was a compulsory module. It’s a strange period for Greek — not Classical and not modern. A transitional language that was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean basin and Middle East for about 400 years, eventually segeuing into mediaeval Greek, it’s main use now is simply for Intertestamental and New Testament studies. If I could still recall it, it would make me sound very odd to speak it in Greece, but the word that persists for me is efcharistó (ευχαριστώ). It’s the same word as Eucharist, another term for the Christian Communion service, and means ‘thanks’.
Some lines never leave us and this phrase from the Eucharistic prayer (when the bread and wine is blessed) have resonated with me across years:
who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks …
Being betrayed isn’t something we would normally associate with giving thanks. Whatever our faith, or none, this juxtaposition of something terrible with gratitude is intriguing and illuminating. There is something deeply authentic about it. Ordinary daily life is so much more often both/and and not either/or. We rarely have long periods where absolutely everything is wonderful — it’s more likely that we are lamenting the environment one moment and rejoicing over a new life the next; weeping over the loss of a loved one on the same day as receiving some act of kindness from a friend.
Writers are those who speak truth to power, raise their voices in alarm, in the cause of justice, in memory of the oppressed and fallen or witness to changes that our current myth desperately needs to make. But in the midst of that we are also those who can shine a light on the extraordinariness of ordinary human and non-human resilience, grace and generosity. We are also those who can carry a beacon for hope and write stories and poems that might become part of the transformative myths the world is so hungry for.
because gratitude and grief are twin poles of life
Life is full of terror and beauty. In the midst of a pandemic, I could sit outside in April sunshine and watch a garden blossoming and a hedgehog skitter along the path. The day that we received news that my father-in-laws illness was terminal and had a very short prognosis was the same day I received an all-clear after three months of anxiety over a health scare. If we are alive then loss and joy go hand in hand. In the words of William Blake:
The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.
And the deeper the joy, the more we have to lose, but surely this is better than having nothing to lose because we are tiptoeing through life carefully avoiding love and risk and everything that makes life sing? Giving thanks then is not about forcing ourselves through a glib list of ‘things I should be grateful for’ as a way of jollying ourselves along no matter what is happening. Rather, it’s about a deep recognition that grief and gratitude, joy and sorrow, abundance and loss are simply processes and emotions that we inhabit in the course of a rich and open life. As ever, the inimical Mary Oliver captures this in her poem ‘When Death Comes’:
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
because the hallelujahs are all the more urgent in the face of darkness
All of us, but perhaps especially the writers and creators with a sense of urgency, should not want to end up simply having visited this world. And writers and artists who contribute to the story that goes on after them can leave behind, among the marks they make on the universe, an enriched store of gratitude. The etymology of the word has roots in ‘good will’ as well as thanks and the proto-Indo-European root of the word, gwere, relates to singing praises.
Writers play a role in recording the lamentations of their times but also have role in singing the hallelujahs of life, including the hallelujahs that resist the darkness and refuse cynicism. Grief — yes, but not despair. This is from one of the essays in Oliver Sacks final collection, Gratitude, written when he discovered he had little time left to live, aged 81:
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
because it’s powerful
We often think of gratitude as something we do for someone else — having the manners to say ‘thank you’ is not a gloss on life — it often speaks to the ethics and values we inhabit. Nonetheless, the benefits of being thankful are not just outward, as Seneca noted in Letters from a Stoic:
I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act.
Whenever despondency threatens to overwhelm me and I summon sufficient forethought to intercept it with gratitude, I see how true this is. Feeling some sense of thanks, even or perhaps especially on those days when the mobile phone provider has cut off my phone after sending an email saying they would do no such thing and the car we bought only eight months ago has given up it’s mechanical ghost and close friends are going through awful suffering and the news is full of atrocities … transforms my perspective. It’s not about dismissing the gravity of the darkness that genuinely exists, rather it gives me another way to approach that darkness, one that is more supple and more in love with the improbable miracle of being here at all.
And, of course, then I forget again because despite how stunningly amazing life is, despite how wondrous it is just to exist, I get wrapped up in the logistics of getting through work and house renovations or sucked into the fear of the news and rather than dwelling with the awe. So I have to pause again for gratitude … and the stars shine brighter and the moon is larger because I’ve taken a breath, slowed down and drunk it all in.
because giving thanks is a way to carry a flame of hope
Hope is not the same as wishing. Wishing focusses on what is missing, what is wrong. It’s the measure of discontent and the gap between imagined perfection and the messy, flawed dailyness of life. Hope, on the other hand,
Hope recognises that we and are our writing and life itself is enough, as I wrote in an earlier blog on this subject:
The gift and beauty of having and being ‘enough’ is that we focus on the small bounties and pleasures of life. We focus on the extraordinary in ordinary daily events and objects. And we focus on people who enrich our existence. We’re not too busy or too over-wrought to notice. Instead, we celebrate and feel gratitude, which is enormously liberating for the flow of the creative life.
Hope is a way of asserting our humanity, undermining limited perspectives and transforming the story we live in. Hope is the determination to live from abundance and generosity whatever is going on around us. Hope is the mindset of going on creating even when the world around is cynical or closed. When we focus on the things we can do for the good, however small those things might seem, we tip the balance away from fear and towards hope. And this shifts our perspective towards gratitude.
because it’s how we savour life
Over the course of this year I’ve written a lot about slowing down, paying attention to life, being present to ourselves and the moment and simply savouring those small, everyday pleasures that are the texture of hope and gratitude. And this even includes savouring the bittersweet elements of the people, places and experiences we grieve.
Over the last few months since my father-in-law died me and my husband have had several conversations in tears yet also laughing as we shared memories. The stories and the laughter connect us with him as much as the tears; both are vital. It’s also made us realise, as so often happens after a death, that we are still here and that we have a promise to keep to life; a promise to relish it.
In the spirit of that promise, a poem on savouring life from Billy Collins:
As if to Demonstrate an Eclipse
I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.
I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,
and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow
so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.
Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,
singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.
Give thanks because gratitude and grief are twin poles of life, because the hallelujahs are all the more urgent in the face of darkness. Give thanks because it’s powerful, because giving thanks is a way to carry a flame of hope, because it’s how we savour life.
Giving thanks because it changes the story. And this is what writers are in the business of doing.
Julie Lamin says
A very beautiful and thought-provoking blog, Jan.
With gratitude, Julie Lamin
Thank you Julie
Mark Charlton says
Some profoundly helpful thoughts in this blog, mirroring my experiences of these last few months. Especially the though that ‘gratitude and grief are twin poles of life’. Intersting that new testament Greek was compulsory – perhaps so too should have been Aristotle, whose virtue theory and interpretation of ‘eudaimonia’ I did not take to as student (who does at that age?) and yet now is the dominant philosophy of my life.
Really interesting point, Mark — I was studying theology so I did have to do Plato, but Aristotle came later for me too. The whole area of eudaimonia is fascinating — that well being is seen as fundamental to political and ethical discourse makes our pale concepts of a ‘welfare state’ look very shaky, especially when we think of how having eudaimon entials a life of purpose, meaning and agency. It’s a concept of fulfillment with so much depth — one that allows that a happy life will also be one with grief becasue how can it be anything other if we actually love and care? Doesn’t always make it easier at the time but it offers us a perspective for the long view of gratitude.
Teffy Wrightson says
“In love with the improbable miracle of being here at all”
That is stunning, literally, like a lightning flash.
Completely agree, Teffy — it’s so simple, so clearly true yet the phrasing brings it home in such a fresh and powerful way.
Marina Sanchez says
Gorgeous and centering blog, heartfelt thanks Jan! I loved both poems and all the content, especially these elegant and graceful lines:
‘It’s not about dismissing the gravity of the darkness that genuinely exists, rather it gives me another way to approach that darkness, one that is more supple and more in love with the improbable miracle of being here at all.’
And thanks too for sharing about efcharistó (ευχαριστώ), I love Greek and had no idea, your revelation was a light bulb moment for me
Your blogs are a real treasure in these challenging times, Jan, thank you
Thank you Marina — love it when something helps one of those small epiphanies to shake loose 🙂