I believe in gratitude, the joyful understanding that I am not a self-made man. None of us can take sole credit for who we are and what we may have accomplished. In part this is so because of biology. Since I couldn’t pick my parents or jigger the genetic deck, my life is as much a product of genetics as it is of my own efforts.
I am grateful for my biology, but only in the way a motorcyclist without a helmet might be grateful after an accident. “Wow” might be the only way to express my thankfulness for this body and this brain. Even then, “wow” gives way to wonder and I am left to marvel at the miraculous mystery that formed this particular life.
I am grateful for my upbringing, knowing that much of what I was taught was not remembered until I had my own children. And I am grateful to those who educated me, though a friend has opined that I was educated far beyond my intelligence. But where I once felt a debt to those who had been my teachers and companions, I now see their gifts. And where I once felt a need to balance the scales, I now see that love is an open hand, allowing its fruits to fall where they may.
I want giving to be a habit. In a world where accumulation is worshipped, I want to give myself away to others. Like a tree that inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen, I want to breathe in disappointment and exhale humor and hope. I want to be the like the father in the Parable of the prodigal son, able to welcome with joy those who have hurt me. I want to be like Johnny Appleseed, sowing anonymously, looking neither for notoriety nor anonymity, simply planting seeds.
I want to feel the marvel of what we have been given: the beauty of the universe, the intricacies of our biology, the way in which our minds can comprehend life in both the abstract and the concrete.
The night sky may have been humankind’s first encounter with what Heschel terms radical amazement. Without city lights to obscure it, the infinite reaches of space interrogate us, and the Psalmist can only answer with gratitude born of this humbling confrontation:
When I see your fingers
The moon and stars which you created
What is man that you should keep him in mind
Mortal man that you should care for him,
Yet you have made him little less than a God…
At the end of life, I want die with a sense of thanksgiving, not regret: Thanks for the love of my wife, the lives of my children, and the friends and relatives who have been my companions.
When I was in my teens, my father contracted a brain tumor. He was 38 when he died. Death seemed cruel then. But as I navigate my sixties, I know where I am headed, for life without death would be meaningless, since there would be no cost for our decisions. And though I don’t know how much of the road is left to travel, I do know that I will try to walk in gratitude with every step I have left.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.