When I was a kid growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in northeast Philly, my parents forced me to go to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings for several years (I don’t even recall how many years it was – I only recall the feelings of boredom and gross injustice of having to spend my Sunday mornings there).
I have a memory of a teacher I had there recounting a story to us about an individual that, despite incredible hardships, remained faithful and thankful to God for whatever blessings he still had remaining. He lost his sight, but was still grateful he could hear. He lost an arm, but was still grateful to God for the use of his other arm.
To my young ears, this sounded utterly ridiculous. I challenged the teacher and said something like, “What if he lost BOTH of his arms – what then?”
And she replied, “Then he would be grateful for still having his legs.”
“Oh, come on!” I thought. “OK, what if he then lost his legs??!!” I retorted.
“Then he would be grateful for still having the use of his upper body.”
“What if he had his head chopped off???”
I don’t remember her exact reply to that one, but it went on like this for several rounds, with her insisting that the plagued fellow always remained thankful to God for what he had rather than dwell on his dramatic misfortunes.
I dismissed the whole premise as nonsense – who would have that kind of response in real life?
This memory popped into my head this morning, as I was working out on the Santa Monica Stairs and contemplating the many things I have to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.
And it occurred to me that thanksgiving really ought to be incorporated into every day – even those days we don’t have off from work for a national holiday. Because the truth is that being blessed and feeling blessed are two different things. I am of the belief that we human beings are not even capable of recognizing, or even comprehending, all of the good fortune in our lives. And there is a practicality to this. If we sincerely tried to grasp, acknowledge, and appreciate all of the blessings in our lives, we would end up doing nothing else.
Think about the human body alone, particularly if yours is at least semi-functional and you are relatively healthy. There are so many varieties of disease and physical pain in the human experience, it would be impossible to be grateful at any given moment in time for all of the ones we are currently not experiencing! The human body is amazing. Have you thanked, for instance, your skeletal, digestive, muscular, lymphatic, endocrine, nervous, cardiovascular, reproductive, and/or urinary systems today for the work they are, and have been, doing? I had not thanked any of them until just now, and then only very cursorily!
There is simply too much to be thankful for – it is astounding to contemplate. What about the roads you walked, cycled, or drove on today, and the efforts of the people who paved them? What about your ability to enjoy tasting the food you will eat today – or even having food to eat today at all when so many others in the world do not? What about the people in your life? Can you even remember all of them and all of the ways in which they have made your life richer and more satisfying? (Why not acknowledge one of them now for something – who, after all, does not like a sincere acknowledgment?). What about Mother Nature, and the bounty she provides not only in terms of food and resources needed for survival, but for her sheer magnificence and beauty? What about the physical comforts you are enjoying, due to your good fortune of living in the time and place you are, reaping the benefits of technology and other scientific accomplishments including medicines and vaccines? The ability to refrigerate or freeze your food so you can store it for longer periods of time? The plumbing in whatever facilities you live in, work in, or otherwise have access to? The endless wealth of great things to read, and public libraries in which to access them (not to mention the Internet)? What about the teachers who have taught you skills you use every day, or who have awakened your own curiosity and passion or inspired you in some way? What about the SUN???!!! What about painful experiences, through which you have gained wisdom that has helped you to grow, become more compassionate, or even helped you become a happier person in the long run? What about ART, in any of its myriad forms? Is your life better with music in it? What about laughter, and humor? Is your life easier to endure and more pleasurable for these uniquely human capacities?
And then there is gratitude itself. The ability to recognize the blessings in our life (to whatever degree we can), appreciate them, and feel genuinely fortunate for them is a huge gift. Because feeling blessed makes us happier, and more likely to want to spread some of that joy outward into the world. And feeling blessed has little to do with our objective life circumstances. It’s a state of mind. My Sunday school teacher made a good point. It just took a long time for me to get it.