If you live in the United States, you may be called upon this week (likely on Thursday) to tell what you are thankful for. Put on the spot, you may take a quick survey of your inner landscape, looking deep within to find the things you’re most thankful for. Allow me to recommend that instead of looking inward to find your deep gratitude, you look outward onto a world that you didn’t make, but that you can receive.
A posture of receptivity, a willingness to acknowledge and celebrate the “givenness of things,” is at the heart of gratitude. I love what Tish Harrison Warren had to say in a recent rumination on thankfulness.
This posture of receptiveness — living as the thankful beneficiary of gifts — is the path of joy because it reminds us that we do not have to be the makers and sustainers of our life. Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.
To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not — and indeed cannot — hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands. Like the story of the Israelites receiving manna from God in the desert, we receive what we need as sheer mercy, but it cannot be hoarded, clung to or clutched. Instead, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.
“Gratitude is how we embrace beauty without clutching it so tightly that we strangle it.” Yes and amen.
We take off work on Thanksgiving in order to feast and rest in the goodness of the life we’ve been given. I would add that this same posture of gratitude and receptiveness is also important on the days we don’t take off work. We’re called to put forth effort, but our effort doesn’t cancel out the givenness of things. In Only the Lover Sings (a very short book that you should read if you want to understand more about creativity), Josef Pieper says something very similar to what Tish Harrison Warren says above. I’ve added some italics to help sort out Pieper’s double negatives.
One of the fundamental human experiences is the realization that the truly great and uplifting things in life come perhaps not without our own efforts but nevertheless not through those efforts. Rather, we will obtain them only if we can accept them as free gifts.
That has certainly been my experience with creative work. Of course writing requires effort (I’m making an effort right this minute), but when it comes to the best stuff, that effort feels like the last-mile delivery of something that didn’t originate with my effort—something that can only be received, not ginned up.
Last week I was talking with Jill Phillips, the singer-songwriter, for a Habit Podcast episode that will be released next week. In her song, “Love Is a Long Game,” Jill sings that love “always gets the last word,” and, furthermore, “the last word is good.”
The last word is good. But also, as Jill and I discussed, almost the very first word was “good.” Even as God was speaking the world into existence, he paused to say, “It is good…it is good…it is very good.”
So here we live, between that first good word and the last good word, and in gratitude we agree with God that he has done good, and we make space to receive God’s goodness. In our work, in our friendships, in our hospitality, in our cooking, in our child-rearing and in every other area of endeavor, we are called to give voice to that goodness and make it visible where it isn’t always easy to see.
Now seems as good a time as any to quote Mary Oliver…
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Friends, as you join the feast this week, know that feasting is serious business. To return to Pieper, truly to celebrate a feast requires “that the reality of our life and our world be first whole-heartedly accepted… Any feast, not only the lofty and infrequent feast, draws its life from an attitude of acceptance, of approval, yes, of love.”
I’m thankful for you. Happy Thanksgiving.