The Good World
Last weekend I spoke to a lovely gathering of people in Hudson, NY, on themes of gratitude, sorrow, humility, and reunion. One thing I remember saying is that, much as it may be that our civilization sorely lacks humility and gratitude, these are not virtues to aspire to, nor are they goals to attain.
I hesitate sometimes to speak of gratitude or humility at all, so often does it provoke a spiritualized ambition to become a humble or grateful person. Beneath that ambition lies a pool of shame.
As children most of us were told to be grateful, reprimanded for our ingratitude, and frequently made to say, “Thank you.” But to say “thank you” without feeling grateful is practice in insincerity.
Today, we hear critiques of the hubris, arrogance, greed, entitlement, and ingratitude of Western culture and the individuals within it. These qualities seem to be the ruin of the world. Taking the critique to heart, we strive to change, to become grateful and humble. We might emulate indigenous or devoutly religious people, giving thanks at every opportunity.
When I’ve tried this, though, I’ve noticed a tinge of insincerity in my thanksgiving. Another goal was operating in the background: a goal of being acceptable, of being virtuous, of doing it right, of getting off the hook of the criticism, of repudiating who I was as a member of the culture of entitlement. None of these have anything to do with gratitude.
True gratitude is not an accomplishment. You can’t get credit for it. It is the result of something else. What could it be?
Here is a hint. Gratitude is the result of knowing a certain thing is true. What is it? What is the knowledge that gives birth to gratitude?
It is a dual knowledge. First, that the world is a good world. Second, that all of it—the world and the people and places we love, and our own lives and breath as well—is a gift.
I will not at this time catalog the traumas, systems, habits, and ideologies that have cut people off from this knowledge. I will mention, though, that we deepen the cut-off when we punish and reject ourselves for being ungrateful.
Fortunately, we are easily reunited with the knowledge of the gift of a good world. One way is to receive a gift that makes the truth plain. It could be a gift from a person, or it could be what we call fortune. In its purest form it comes with awe. Are you familiar with that feeling of awe-struck gratitude and full-body relaxation, soon followed by upwelling joy, the comes in the presence of a big synchronicity or stroke of fortune? A tint of that feeling colors any experience of gift, even witnessing a gift. All of us know authentic generosity when we see it. We know it. We recognize it. We feel it. It brings a feeling of homecoming. We are in the presence of the truth of the world.
Some might say, “Charles, it is only from a place of privilege that you are able to say, ‘It is a good world.’ For many outside your bubble of privilege and affluence, the world is not so good.” It seems a reasonable objection, except: Where do you think I learned this truth (of a good world)? It wasn’t from studying billionaires or the residents of Beverly Hills. It was from those who saw it so clearly that not even the shrouds of pain and poverty could obscure it. It was from a man who gave away his last crust of bread. It was from a homeless woman in India taking care of her baby in the street, full of joy. It was from my mother in the throes of pancreatic cancer. Through stories and personal experiences, I have encountered many such people who were close to the true knowledge that the good world is a gift. That by the way is the meaning of the religious phrase, seldom heard today, God’s good earth.
That the world is a gift does not excuse us from creative labor. I was going to say that we have to make something of the world we are given, sow the seeds, build the houses, make the beds; that we have at least to pick the fruits of the trees. They do not fall into our mouths of their own accord. True enough in word, but not quite true in spirit. “We have to” misses something. Rather, I will say: the world is good because it gives us all we need to create from it and with it. And, abiding in gratitude for that gift, we naturally desire to give in turn. We naturally desire to add our own creativity to creation, to make the world even more good, more alive, and more beautiful. This is the true meaning of the religious phrase, to glorify God.
Herein lies the link between gratitude and generosity. The second invariably follows the first. When I understand that what is mine was actually given to me—that is, when I realize it is not really mine—then it has much less hold on me. I am free. And when I know that the world is good, I am not afraid.
Generosity, then, is contagious. It births gratitude in those who are its receivers, who become generous in turn.
Human life in modern times has been a dive into the miasma of me and mine, choking on the muck, clawing our way back to sanity. Yet now the modern age might end. We have at least an opportunity to transition out of it, through the virtuous cycle of gratitude and generosity. Can you imagine how society would transform if we were in touch with the sacred truth that births gratitude?
I will not end this essay with an exhortation to go out there and be generous. If you were expecting that, please reread :) Rather, I will end with a suggestion and a blessing.
Please stop trying to be grateful. If you feel ungrateful and entitled, if you gripe and complain, take that as signal of a cutoff from what is true, and do something to remind yourself of the good gift of the world. Here is my simple suggestion: Go outside and find a handful of good earth, bring it to your nose and take a full breath of it. Just take it in. Release any idea of learning a lesson from it, receiving a teaching, or making meaning. Just take it in, the smell of the good earth.
May the truth of the world’s goodness touch you today. May you again know the full-body awe of the gift, the gift, the gift of creation.
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