Chapter OneThe Unexpected Gift
Love wholeheartedly, give thanks and praise-then you will
discover the fullness of your life.
-Brother David Steindl-Rast
* * *
Risking Our Inner Lives
Sometimes we want to break out of our own skin-to smash through
the boundaries we sense are confining our spirits so we can experience
something like ecstasy, so we can feel alive. From all around us come
reports of people feeling dead, or at least distanced from the kind of
living they sense is possible. Feeling disconnected, unrooted, unreal.
Ordinary tonics-stimulants, sex, travel-don't seem to carry enough
charge to jolt them back to life. They demand stronger medicines.
We die by seconds and live by inches. As a matter of course, we
maneuver cars through heavy traffic at speeds where survival is a matter
of good brakes and millimeters of tire tread. We take off and land in
planes (mostly safely) and undergo medical procedures of extraordinary
complexity (not quite as safely). Yet most of the time, living at the
edge of literal death is not part of our awareness. We often push our
fears down and reduce them to something manageable. The little
near-deaths somehow help us feel more alive; some even seek ever
more hazardous pursuits to counter the fear of a living death.
"New economy" types, occasionally emerging from their self-imposed
work prisons, sign up for expensive adventure trips that involve
strenuous trekking, whitewater boating, or high-altitude ascents-another
kind of addiction to velocity. At the extreme, risk-takers throw
themselves off precipices, bridges, and buildings; for them, even skydiving
has become too safe and predictable. Then there are the professional
daredevils: athletes who put their bodies on the line for fame
and gain, or journalists obsessively drawn to whatever world conflict is
That a few people are drawn to such extremes is surely part of the
human behavior curve. But why, today, do so many find the need to
amp up their already stressed lives? The answer, we think, is that they
sense their inner lives are at risk. The risks we take with our inner
lives are usually less obvious but more insidious-starting with simple
neglect. Deprived of attention, the starving spirit weakens and soon
can barely make its voice heard above the external din. Our most fundamental
needs-for loving contact, communal reassurance, sensory
stimulation, ritual, and ceremony (to name just a few)-may go unmet.
And all the stock-market scores, trophy homes, partners, and toys
disappear down a bottomless void. Unless we can feed our inner life,
our ability to perceive and savor the outward world in all its splendor
Your Gratitude Quotient
We need to develop a sense of smell to help us figure out where true
life can be found. We may not lack courage, but we sometimes lack
discrimination in our risk-taking. Not all risks are life-bearing.
Our hunger to break out and go live is a sign that we're on to something
important. We're on the edge of a great adventure of the human
spirit-if we only knew it. Somewhere inside, we know that our right
destiny is to experience joy, warmth, sweetness, communion, cathartic
sorrow, creative work, and play-not just to imagine or recall those
feelings in fleeting moments, but to feel fully alive all the time. Spring.The surest path to that ever-renewed sense of being alive is through gratitude.
A grateful heart, we've concluded, is an absolute prerequisite to a
fully human life.
Gratitude-as conviction, practice, and discipline-is an essential
nutrient, a kind of spiritual amino acid for human growth, joy, and creativity.
Take away the daily experience and expression of gratitude, and
life is quickly diminished. Like a weakened immune system, the spirit
is left vulnerable to the diseases of cynicism, anger, low-grade depression,
or at least an edgy sense of dissatisfaction. Gratitude-deprived,
we suffer a relentless loss of vitality and delight.
It's easy not to notice when gratitude goes missing. More and more
gets taken for granted. Privileges such as physical health, a child's
love, freedom of action, and a comfortable home are all seen as entitlements.
We fail to notice things. Travel becomes boring; even exotic
adventures bring a very short wave of satisfaction. Meals are consumed
mindlessly, without any ceremony of appreciation. Friends disappoint
us. Boredom becomes a constant and finally sadness settles
in, an unwanted, lingering guest. Under such conditions, there's no
chance for the greening power of spring to take hold.
We want to expand your idea about what gratitude means. We're
guessing that your gut response to the words "gratitude" or "being grateful"
is slightly impatient or even dismissive. "Grateful" is what you feel
when someone gives you a present, right? Or does you a favor? At least,
it's how your parents said you should feel, and they trained you to say
"thank you"-even for that ghastly sweater you got from an unpleasant
aunt when you were seven. Later, expressing gratitude carried the
weight of obligation. You were suddenly in someone's debt. You owed.
This idea of gratitude carries the burden of having to pay back.
At best, gratitude can sound like an incredibly simple, harmless
notion. "Live with a grateful heart? Sure, why not? Couldn't hurt. I'll
do it! Check that off the list." But you might as well simply decide to
live mindfully, upon first hearing of that fundamental principle of Buddhist
thought. Mindfulness is being completely aware each and every
present moment. Such life-changing, soul-shifting practices tend to
be intellectually simple to grasp but elusive to master in everyday life.
Incorporating them into our being takes not only the will to do so but
time and effort.
So the practice of gratitude, as we conceive it, has a lot in common
with living mindfully-in a heightened state of awareness-and our
approach to it borrows from many spiritual traditions. In fact, all the
great religious traditions emphasize wakefulness, gratitude, and compassion.
A deeper conception of gratitude encompasses a stance toward
life and a discipline in which it is forged, tested, and strengthened. In
this stance, we choose to be open to what life offers us: to seek out all
that makes us fully alive and present to experience, to acquire discernment
about what works toward that fullness of life in the long run. Ram
Dass says that whatever happens in your life is your curriculum-the
vehicle for your learning. In practicing gratitude, we choose to view life
fundamentally as a source of joy, the world as loving and giving of what
we need, rather than the reverse. Or, as the poet Wendell Berry wrote,
"Be joyful even though you have considered all the facts."
Why does appreciation for the gift of life come more easily to some
than to others, regardless of objective cause? This is one of life's great
mysteries. Some who have been through horrendous circumstances
are able to appreciate and enjoy life, while others blessed with abundant
resources respond to life mainly with resentment, anxiety, or
anger. The capacity for gratitude seems to have little or no relation to
wealth or circumstances, or even to whether or not we were raised in
a loving home. M. Scott Peck, in his book In Search of Stones, even
speculates that some people carry a gene for gratitude that others lack.
We would agree that everyone seems to have some mysterious,
built-in setting on the gratitude spectrum. To be congenitally inclined
toward gratefulness is a great gift in itself, as Peck observes. Some
might call it a gift from God; others would consider it a result of brain
chemistry. It doesn't really matter, though. What matters is that everyone
can benefit by nurturing this gift, to whatever extent we're endowed
with it. And if you think your gratitude quotient is low, then deliberately
cultivating a grateful heart can make that much more difference in your
life. Whatever we're least good at, we need to practice most.
Opening to Wonder
Alan set down this memory when he began thinking about occasions
in his life when he was surprised by an unexpected gift:
A sunny afternoon in Paris a few years ago I took the Metro to Montmartre
and walked up the steps to Sacre Coeur, when all of a sudden
the world was ablaze with glory and the light of it was around me and
in me and shining through everything. Where did this joy come
from, with its gift of presence and rightness? What triggered it? Was
it the kid with the ice cream-great gobs of it dripping down her
seraphic face? Was it the couple entwined on the grass who had eyes
only for each other? Was it the sunlight playing on the leaves of the
trees, delighting the eye with every shade of green imaginable? I
don't know and I could drive myself crazy trying to work it out. All I
do know is that it had something to do with amazement at the sheer
gift of life.
It seemed to me then that joy is a bit like reading a story that
never comes to an end. You get caught up in it-even lost in it. The
joy of it is that it is all gift. I also had tears welling up. I discovered
the strangeness of a joy because tears can be mixed up in it. You
never know when life is going to surprise you and stun you with a joy
that makes your eyes wet with tears.
Just for a few moments on that September afternoon, joy
became my raison d'être. I knew why I was here. I learned something
about adoration-the amazement at being our true selves in
the presence of life as gift. Joy makes adoration, compassion, and
community possible. And while these are possible, so are we. And it
had something to do with very ordinary things like the kid with the
ice cream, the lovers in the park, and all those greens of the leaves
that luminescent afternoon on Montmartre. I learned that joy is in
the particular, and I still worry a little bit about missing what's under
The groundwork of any gratitude practice is opening to wonder,
recovering the ability to be astonished. In order to experience gratitude
as more than a trivial acceptance of what is given (perhaps owed)
to us, we must first be able to experience life's gifts as truly extraordinary
and miraculous. In this way, the springtime of gratitude entails a
revival and deepening of the imagination. Our horizons easily become
narrowed, our perceptions blunted. The soil on which our growth as
humans depends can be poisoned by patterns and strategies of denial,
cynicism, resentment, and revenge.
Humans have an inexhaustible need for something that honors
our capacity for wonder-we see this demonstrated over and over in
scientific research and scholarly inquiry; in our awe of natural phenomena
and our urge to explore space; in our admiration for humans
who perform miraculous feats of creativity, virtuosity, or athleticism.
We all need to get out of our skins, to journey outside the confines of
our own little world. However, that need can also get us into trouble. If
it's not fed something nourishing then it will attach itself to activities
that can do harm, such as taking unreasonable risks and doing foolish
or destructive things.
Risk taking exerts such a powerful attraction because it is related
to freedom-the awesome freedom to break boundaries and go
beyond our limits. That's why some of us tempt fate by risking all that
we have and are. Like the dormant seed in the ground, we want to
respond to the warm sun and the soft rain, break out of our shell and
see the light of day.
Practicing gratitude both feeds our need for wonder and frames
ways we can get out of ourselves (off the treadmill of me, me, me) and
risk appropriately and courageously. We can then dare to love. We can
risk openness to others and the world. We can be less attached to
material things. We can see how absurd our mentality of scarcity is in
the light of our relative wealth. In short, we can stop playing dead and
become fully alive. Specific practices that help open us to wonder
include slowing down, paying attention, giving up some control, and
being alive to the unexpected.
To experience wonder, you have to notice what's going on around you,
and most of the time our lives are going by in a blur. We need to cultivate
a new attitude towards time if we are to open ourselves again to
wonder and heart-piercing surprise. Slowing down is not an end in
itself, but a first step toward a more creative and soul-nurturing relationship
with time. Instead of being irritated or enraged by life's ordinary
inconveniences-waiting for an elevator, sitting in traffic, even
being stuck on the runway on a delayed flight-we can use them as
opportunities to open up and take notice. Unsolicited gifts often come
at these inconvenient moments.
Every day the world offers itself to be seen. Seeing things with a grateful
eye requires attentiveness and engages our imagination; imagination
is a way we take part in the world, not escape from it. We can train
ourselves to see the immensity of the commonplace, the world offering
itself to our imagination every moment. A poem, a piece of music,
a particular smell: if we pay attention, these can open up new worlds.
Such ordinary experiences not only affect the present moment but
also shape our sense of the future. In other words, they give substance
to hope. Sometimes it's as if a piece of music or a painting or a book
takes possession of us, and we feel amazed and honored to have such
guests inside us. We become the host of the undreamed and unexpected.
The genuinely new becomes possible. Springtime returns.
Going live involves deciding where to focus our attention. Human
beings, suggests the poet and translator John Ciardi, "are what we do
with our attention." Or as the mystics would say, we are what we contemplate.
If we give our best attention to things that ultimately fail to
satisfy us, we get into trouble. Going live, then, may be the act of
attending to what's really going on inside and around us. This can be
unnerving, because it sharpens our awareness of life's fragility and difficulty.
But it also awakens us to life as a gift and starts the wheels of
gratitude turning. The positive feedback that gratitude produces is
what allows us to stay live, to not shut down.
Give Up Control
"Do something every day that won't compute," says our friend George.
Part of what he means is to get yourself out of the place where you feel
comfortable and in control in order to expose yourself to someplace
where you can't predict the outcome.
Technology's pervasive power offers the illusion that everything is
fixable. Worse yet, it can render life sterile.