I love all the little courtesies that lubricate daily life: please and thank you, after you and excuse me — all of them. In fact, my currently emerging curmudgeonly side manifests mostly in the form of regular laments at the decline of ordinary manners.
I love to give thanks for help, to express gratitude and appreciation for those who have extended lovingkindness in my direction, or who have made notable contributions to the healing of the world.
It is my habit to give thanks — to say a blessing — when I eat, when I light the Sabbath candles, and at other times when my tradition calls for this form of mindfulness practice. This habit is by now so ingrained that I have to be careful it doesn’t slip into automatic unmindfulness. Still, I see the wisdom in pausing before we eat, for example, to acknowledge the food’s connection to all of life, as well as the miracle of having enough to eat in a world where so many are hungry.
Another form of thanksgiving has often been urged on me, but I struggle to embrace it fully. It is gratitude for the pains and obstacles that have been set in my path. The airtight reasoning behind this form of gratitude is that we cannot grow without something to push against. Often, we can learn more by making mistakes than by performing with ease. Learning in both instances is optional, of course: from suffering, some people learn empathy, others learn how to inflict pain. But both lessons are there for the taking, and the choice of acceptance or refusal is ours.
My resistance to this form of gratitude is expressed in self-pity: I had it so hard, I try so diligently, yet I can’t seem to get lucky, why does life seem to be so much easier for others? Who deserves thanks for that? When I was a child, the preferred antidote to any sign of self-pity was to contemplate the greater suffering of others. In its most prosaic form, this meant that I had to finish the unwanted food on my plate because “children in Russia are starving.” It is easy to feel your pains are insignificant if they are compared with the ordeals of those in prisons and camps, with the deprivations of those who have nothing. But what I learned from all this is that regarding my pain as trivial didn’t make it pinch any less.
The only antidote that has ever stuck with me is the one I still seem reluctant to take: embrace the pain as a teacher. If I think of my young life as a form of training for the tasks I have taken on as an adult, I feel much better than if I think of it as a series of punishments for crimes unknown.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov is best-known for his embrace of joy as a path to holiness. “Mitzvah gedola l’hiyot b’simcha tamid (“It’s a great mitzvah/duty to be constantly happy”) is one of his most-quoted teachings. Yet in his own life, Rebbe Nachman suffered torments of anguish, heroic bouts of despression and despair. I believe it was these experiences that led him to conclude that our suffering opens a door to connection and meaning. “Ein lev shalem k’lev shavur,” he also said: “There is no pure (or whole) heart like a broken heart.” It is the brokenness, they say, that lets in the light.
So this Thanksgiving, the blessing I want to give and get is gratitude for what is hard in life, gratitude that fuels the ability to learn from pain, rather than being defeated by it. In this spirit, I send thanks to every thorn in the side, from George W. Bush on down. May we learn from this pain what is required to heal it!
One day I was teaching a weekend college course on business start-up. The elevator was broken, so I had to lug my dolley of 4 boxes, by hand, up three flights of stairs. I was outside, and it was a little hot and sunny, but not unbearably unpleasant. I began to complain and grumble about how the school should have the elevators working and so on and so forth. I was angry that I had to go through all of this trouble to get to the top of the stairs.
Then, just as I reached to the top of the stairs, a young man, a quadriplegic, in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, operating his chair with just the slight movements of his bent-to-the-side neck, saw me and with a big, beautiful smile said to me, “Nice day, isn’t it.” I was stunned with embarrassment. Here I was moaning and groaning with all of my faculties and in perfect health, and here is a young man paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair telling me how pleasant a day it was. From that life-changing moment to this day, I have never complained about any physical labor again. “Only by the grace of God there go I.”