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Pillars of Joy: Day 6 (Gratitude)

“Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savor it.”

This is the sixth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

A month or so ago I posted about some things that I am grateful for. I don’t remember why I wrote it or what made me think about gratitude, but I thought it was important at the time. As it turns out, gratitude is one of the most important components of living a joyful life. There are various meditation practices that specifically use the feeling of gratefulness as a focus of attention. Plenty of studies have shown that being thankful has physical and emotional health benefits.

Superficially, this is obvious. You simply feel good when you are grateful to or for someone. There is more, however; in The Book of Joy, Abrams quotes a Benedectine monk named Daniel Steindl-Rast as saying, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.” That’s an interesting reversal of what I would expect. Perhaps it’s just a pithy one-liner, but I suspect there is some actual truth to it. More likely, gratitude and happiness exist in a circular relationship to each other. It could be difficult or impossible to decide which one actually causes the other. Either way, gratitude is clearly more than a mere feeling of thankfulness–it is inextricably tied to happiness, which means that we can’t really have a discussion about joy without it.

Elsewhere, Rast explains that “joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you this moment.” That line made me stop and reread it a few times. Joy is happiness, but a specific kind of happiness that doesn’t occur in response to events, a state of being without regard to consequences. Just being thankful for opportunities creates a joyful attitude that won’t be altered by whatever comes out of your efforts. That may seem impossible to some, but I am willing to pursue it in my own life.

In that earlier post about gratitude, I acknowledged a lot of people who have meant something to me or who have given me much to appreciate. Among that list was my ex-wife because she bore my children. Perhaps that was not gracious enough. She also gave me some great gifts, introduced me to amazing books, movies, and music, and taught me some valuable lessons about life and love. There were times when she was tender and soothing, there were moments of light and laughter, there were occasions when we felt like a family. Sadly, even these memories are slightly shadowed by the negativity in our relationship, and it’s getting harder to find ones that aren’t tinged at all.

Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe the whole point is to feel and express gratitude even when there doesn’t seem to be much to be thankful for. It’s sort of the same as the forgiveness idea where we have to distinguish between the action and the actor. In this case, we have to remember that even though someone has caused us pain, that person may still also be kind and loving. Just like forgiving someone by detaching the action from the person, we can feel gratitude for an action rather than the person.

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