Gratitude has not come easy for many of us over the past two years. Pandemics, protests, wars. The general circumstances of our world seem incongruous with feelings of thanks.
Even the things we might feel thankful for are often based on avoidance of negative outcomes: thankful I did not get deathly ill, thankful I have not been subject to the inequity suffered by others, thankful I do not need to be worried about artillery shells falling on my house.
Then the adult education group at my church read “Grateful: The Subversive Power of Giving Thanks” by Diana Butler Bass.
It is not a regular habit for me to read books like this one. I generally stick to literature classics, epic fantasies or a compilation of whatever some school board is attempting to ban. Self-help books always feel too agenda driven and too shallow, embellished revelatory moments awash in a sea of catchphrases.
I would never have picked this up if it had not been for the effort of our education group guide. I consider myself a grateful person. I thank people regularly. The server who fills my water glass, the lady who lets me wheel by in my cart at the grocery store, the guy who chases me down to return a glove I dropped.
I also recognize the blessings in my life and allowing myself to be filled by the joy they bring me. That comes naturally to me, though I understand how it can be a struggle at times. Certainly, it is something that Butler Bass highlights as a core skill to be cultivated.
But as it turns out, I have missed a lot, too. And I could be doing more.
I never thought much about what gratitude meant. It is something much bigger and more complex than a simple emotion. As Butler Bass explains, it involves a wide range of emotional responses from relief, appreciation and release to surprise, wonder or awe, and gladness and joy.
It can also be dangerous. Gratitude dictated by duty or obligation can create barriers between people. At its worst, it can be wielded as a weapon to lord over others and evoke patronage, power and quid pro quo transactions.
Heartfelt gratitude can be difficult to express and even more difficult to receive.
Gratitude in its greatest forms creates community. It challenges us to recognize the gifts in our lives — no matter how bleak the circumstances — and share them with others.
As I read about each lesson on gratitude, it seemed that pop-culture references kept reinforcing them. From the last dinner table scene in “Don’t Look Up” (written by Denver’s own David Sirota!) to Helen Hunt reading Jack Nicholson an epic thank you letter in “As Good as it Gets.”
But it hit home when I rewatched “Schindler’s List.” From the dark, distorted definition of gratitude espoused by Amon Goeth, the concentration camp commandant, to Oskar Schindler despondent that he “didn’t do enough” after receiving a golden ring from the 1,100 people he saved, the movie covers the entire gamut of gratitude.
It ends with the real-life men and women he saved placing stone markers at Schindler’s grave.
Gratitude can transcend life and death.
That gratitude and gifts to be grateful for, great or small, can be found in all circumstances and shared with others is the most important lesson I learned. It is also the timeliest.
I may not be able to cure COVID or stop missiles from raining down on Ukrainian civilians, but I can make small acts of giving and receiving everyday. I can make a conscious effort to live a life of gratitude and extend the same courtesy to those around me.
I cannot change the world, but I can change my world. With just a little gratitude.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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